Translator spotlight: An Interview with Lawrence Schimel

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I’m delighted to bring you my next post highlighting the work of translators who enable us to read and enjoy stories we would never other wise have access to, and today I’m chatting with Lawrence Schimel (@lawrenceschimel), an author writing in both Spanish and English for all ages.

His picture book No hay nada como el orginal (‘There’s Nothing Like the Original’) was selected by the International Youth Library in Munich for the White Ravens 2005 and his picture books ¿Lees un libro conmigo? (‘Will you read a book with me?) and Igual que ellos/Just Like Them were selected by IBBY for Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities in 2007 and 2013 respectively. However, when not writing his own books, Lawrence works as a Spanish-English literary translator, and it was reading his translation of The Wild Book written by Juan Villoro that started our initial conversation about translation.

Playing by the book: How and when did you become aware of different languages and the joy of moving between them?

Lawrence Schimel: I have long been a language and alphabet nerd since I was a kid: ogham, runes, secret codes, hieroglyphs, etc. And I studied both Homeric Greek and Latin in junior high and high school, doubling up to also study Spanish my last three years. (In college I took courses in Middle English and Old Norse, thanks to a love of the Icelandic sagas.)

But I don’t think I can remember a time before being aware of different languages. When I was growing up, my mother was a Spanish/English court interpreter and later bilingual special education tester. My grandmother spoke Yiddish when we kids weren’t supposed to understand something. Our family prayed in Hebrew (whether or not we understood what we were saying–a common Diaspora Jewish experience).

Playing by the book: It’s easy for many English speakers to forget that multilingualism is actually the norm around the world with 60% of the world speaking more than one language, but it’s wonderful to hear how language-rich your family life was. Already as a young child you could feel the power and joy of moving between different languages. Now, using those skills professionally, what do you find most enjoyable about being a translator and why?

Lawrence Schimel: Translating allows me to be creative but doesn’t leave me drained the way my own writing sometimes can. It is intellectually stimulating, and every project has its own unique challenges–if not also vocabulary. (I once translated 70 partworks about trains, sold in kiosks every week with a different model train, and had to learn all this locomotive terminology, in both Spanish and English, most of which I’ve since forgotten since I never have occasion to use it.)

It’s also curious what we first learn in which language. While I am fairly fluent in Spanish, and books I’ve written in Spanish have been translated into English (my mother tongue) by other people, I still default to English for numbers. And when I was in my late teens, I went to Granada, to make a pilgrimage to Federico García Lorca’s birthplace, and studied flamenco dancing for the summer. When I returned to the US, I wanted to keep dancing, and even though I was “too old” at 19, the local academy accepted me because there is such a lack of male dancers. But it turned out that they counted the “compás” in English, and I couldn’t dance, for me there was no “duende” if it wasn’t in Spanish…

And I guess that’s the translator’s trick: to not just substitute one word for another, but to make the reader feel duende in the new language…

Playing by the book: Could you describe the process you go through when translating a book? Is it basically the same process for each book or does it vary? What are the most useful tools you use?

Lawrence Schimel: It depends on whether I’ve found a book and have twisted publishers’ arms until someone has agreed to publish it, or if I’ve been asked by a publisher to complete the translation. In the latter case, I prefer not to read the book before translating it. This way, I get caught up in wanting to find out what happens next, which makes it easier for me to keep pushing myself to complete the first draft. This sometimes requires much heavier editing, in case there are things that happen later on in the book that cast earlier events in a different light. (But I always find the openings need the most revision anyway, each project is different, of course, but I settle into the author’s voice more surely after I’ve been translating for a while, and thus revise with that experience. A colleague mentioned that she starts translating in the middle (!!!) of the book, to get up and running, and only then tackles the crucial opening when she’s already in the author’s voice. But I’ve yet to try this tactic…)

Obviously, when it’s the case of a book I’ve already read, the experience is different. Although in those cases, I love it enough to want to translate it so it is like revisiting an old friend, or sharing something cool with a friend (or lots of friends/readers).

Playing by the book: So you mention there that sometimes you suggest books to publishers to translate and other times you are commissioned to provide a translation. Can you comment a little more about these two different routes to a book ending up being translated?

Cover for The Wild Book, designed by Jori van der Linde
Lawrence Schimel: Juan Villoro’s middle grade novel THE WILD BOOK is one of these happy endings, where I had pitched it to Restless Books, who wound up buying the rights, commissioning me to translate it, and publishing it as the first title in their Yonder imprint. I was first asked to do a reader’s report, and later a sample translation, for an Arts Council of England project promoting translated children’s books in the UK. The sample was sent (together with other recommended titles) to every UK children’s editor, but in the end none of them was interested, and after a year I asked if I could pitch the project to American editors, since I still loved the book.

In April, another novel I pitched is being published by the Feminist Press. LA BASTARDA by Trifonia Melibea Obono is being published as an adult novel, although it is the coming of age story of a 16 year old orphan in her search for her birth father and her discovery of her own sexuality. It is the first novel by a woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English, and tells the stories of various characters (Okomo’s gay uncle, for instance) challenging patriarchal, polygamous Fang culture. In this case, I have been representing the Spanish publisher and the author, to sell the book (I’ve also found a South African publisher who will bring out an edition later this year, we felt it was important for there to be an English-language edition published in Africa and thus reserved those rights.)

A large part of the burden falls on translators for books that are published in English. In Spain, where I live, most editors read English (at least) if not also various other languages, and are able to choose books to translate themselves, and then match them up with publishers.

Alas, so few editors at English-language publishers can speak another language, and they rely either on external readers (often newer translators) or, most commonly, on a pitch, which includes a synopsis, sample chapters in translation, and any other selling points (awards, sales history, institutional supports for the translation and/or printing costs, etc.) that can help convince them.

I’ve also translated extracts from books (or entire picture books or poetry collections) for various Spanish and Latin American publishers and literary agents, who then use these samples to try and sell foreign rights. Sometimes, my English translation can convince an editor in Hungary, say, to buy the rights to a title, which would then be translated directly from the Spanish by a Spanish->Hungarian translator. So far, only one project has resulted in my being commissioned to translate the whole book, THE TREASURE OF BARRACUDA by Llanos Campos, which won the Premio Barco de Vapor, and was published in English by Little Pickle Press/Sourcebooks.

I love the translating part; am not so strong on the pitching. Finding time to do all the unpaid work of translating the samples on spec and doing the pitches is also difficult, in the never-ending freelancer juggle. But there are lots of great books I’d love to translate, if publishers are curious or interested!

Playing by the book: Now I’m going to pick your brains to help me find some new gems in translation: What are your favourite 5 children’s books translated from (any variety of) Spanish and why?

Lawrence Schimel: The Black Book of Colors, written by Menena Cottin, illustrated by Rosana Faría, translated by Elisa Amado, published by Groundwood Books. A book about colors entirely in black and white, teaches readers to use their senses other than sight to experience colors.

Marc Just Couldn’t Sleep, written by Gabriela Keselman, illustrated by Noemí Villamuza, published by Kane/Miller. A lovely bedtime book about a boy whose fears and excuses for not being able to go to sleep grow wilder and wilder and the lengths his loving mother will go to to make him feel reassured.

It’s Useful to Have a Duck, written and illustrated by Isol, published by Groundwood Books. Isol is the author and/or illustrator of so many wonderful books, but I love this inventive boardbook, whose flip side is It’s Useful To Have a Boy (from the rubber duck’s point of view).

Migrant: The Story of a Mexican Worker, written by José Manuel Mateo, illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro, published by Abrams. This visually-stunning book is a single illustration that opens in an accordion-fold to recount, codex-like, a boy’s story of a journey to the US with his family.

and if I might be so bold as to include…
LET’S GO SEE PAPÁ!, written by me in Spanish, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera, originally published by Venezuelan publisher Ekaré, and translated into English by Elisa Amado for Groundwood Books. This book tells the other side of the immigration story: not coming to a new country, but the people left behind, in this case a young girl whose father is abroad working and sending money home to his family.

While a lot of what I’ve translated lately have been middle grade, when I think of what else has already been published in English translation, so many of the most notable titles are picture books, and so many of them are published by Groundwood Books, which is not just bias on my part because they have translated one of my own picture books, but because they are at the forefront of translating Spanish and Latin American picture books into English and are responsible for more translations from Spanish than anyone else I can think of offhand. (There are, of course, other presses that specialize in picture books in translation, but so far these have published little from Spanish, which is what you asked about specifically.) I could easily have picked five favorites just from Groundwood, most of them translated into English by Elisa Amado.

Playing by the book: I know and love The Black Book of Colors (we briefly reviewed it 8 years ago on Playing by the Book) but the others are new to me. I see I have some book shopping to do!
What about not-yet-translated Spanish-language books which would you like to see translated into English? What’s at the top of your wishlist?

Lawrence Schimel: I would love to translate Ricardo Chávez Castañeda. I published an extract from his THE BOOK OF DENIAL, in a special YA issue of Words Without Borders guest edited by Daniel Hahn and Briony Everroad. I just love his voice. He writes so well and with such warmth about difficult topics. (I also translated an extract from his THE DYING BOOK, which tackles death, when Mexico was the Guest of Honor at the London Book Fair. But, alas, we haven’t found a publisher for it yet. So many subjects are much more taboo in the English-speaking world than in other languages/cultures–especially for children.)

Playing by the book: And just as we wrap up you mention an enormous topic – one I’d love to explore – about things which don’t translate well or rather topics which publishers don’t feel work well in different cultural settings…. I think that could be a whole blog series in itself!

A very big thank you, Lawrence, for your fascinating answers. I can’t wait to read more Spanish books translated by you.

  1. Rebecca Narracott

    This is a fascinating interview Zoe & Lawrence – thank you! It’s so interesting to read how Lawrence’s interest in languages evolved and also about the notion of duende – something I am familiar with as have also lived in Granada (my 1st book is set there and also features Federico García Lorca :-))
    Anyway, looking forward to getting my hands on the translation of The Wild Book to read to my kids, particularly having enjoyed the story in its original too.

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