Find some of the most commonly asked questions here.
A translation happens when the original publisher of a book sells foreign language rights to another publisher, who issues the book in a new language and market. The publisher who buys rights will choose the translator and make all decisions about how to present the book in its new form. The foreign rights deal may begin at an event like the Bologna Children’s Book Fair or Frankfurt Book Fair. Foreign rights agents may mediate, or the publishers may negotiate directly. Stakeholders can converse year-round via the Internet or meetings. Factors that drive a deal may include the fit of a text to a publisher’s list, its availability on other platforms (like TV or film) and its genre, author, illustrations, prior sales, and awards. Finally, culture matters: publishers in one market may bring different tastes than publishers elsewhere.
A translator of children’s books gets involved when a publisher who bought foreign rights to a title commissions the translation. The publisher might find the translator through recommendations, prior publications, the translator’s website, or a group like SCBWI. Some publishers ask several translators to submit samples before awarding a commission.
A translator can build a network by seeking work relevant to children’s literature—for example, with publishers who commission sample translations for book fairs, or publishers who seek reader’s reports on overseas titles. Children’s literature conferences offer opportunities to meet publishers and network. Sometimes translators develop connections and skills in graduate programs, but as with writing and illustration no educational track “knights” a translator of children’s books. The professional translator offers degrees or extensive experience in her languages and cultures combined with writing skills. A translated book must engage readers as deftly as all of the other books they read. In this sense, literary translation differs as much from spoken interpretation—as in The Interpreter—as writing books differs from talking.
A foreign rights pitch stands a better chance if the original publisher (or its rights agent) maintains a broad international network, and can provide a high-quality sample translation and promotional materials. It also helps if a government agency or other group can offer a grant to support the translation. Predictably, publishers and organizations in wealthy countries marshal more resources to market translations. This affects the representation of cultures and language groups on readers’ bookshelves.
To encourage more translations, some translators propose texts they love directly to publishers for whom they seem a fit. This brings risk as publishers can always commission other translators, but it may raise awareness of under-marketed books. Authors who hope to see their books translated can network with SCBWI’s translators and international members, to study new markets—keeping in mind that one’s publisher must seal any foreign rights deal. Finally, groups who value translation can create grants for translated children’s literature. Grants spotlight deserving titles and help translators develop their skills.
Everyone interested in translation should know about the imbalance between books written in English and books written in all other languages. A New York Times op-ed published July 7, 2015, notes that English as a global language “is turning literature into a one-way street,” with English-language books traveling widely and making authors in other languages struggle to compete, even at home. Often, fine overseas authors are not translated into English. This holds true in children’s literature. Translations count for just 3 percent of books published in the US. “So many books are translated from English, but not so many go the other way, which is a real shame, as readers are missing out on great stories,” translator Laura Watkinson tells Publishers Weekly in an August 6, 2015 article. Watkinson founded SCBWI Netherlands and has translated three of the past four winners of the Batchelder Award, conferred with the Newbery and Caldecott. SCBWI supports world literature, and many members enjoy foreign sales. For all, a question to ask alongside “How can I get translated?” is “What’s the last children’s book in translation I’ve read?”