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Polish translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones on the joys and challenges of bringing Oscar Seeks a Friend to the English-speaking world.
As a translator of Polish literature, I try to devote some of my time to finding English-language publishers for Polish children’s books. Poland has a wealth of fabulous children’s authors and illustrators, and a long tradition of excellent literature for young people. I grew up on a diet of translated books from all over the world, and would love to share the treasure I find in Poland with children in the English-speaking world.
I was thrilled to be asked to translate Oscar Seeks A Friend for Lantana Publishing. The commission came just as I was planning to go to the Bologna Children's Book Fair for the first time, with the emerging translator I was then mentoring, Zosia Krasodomska-Jones. It was a research trip for us; we wanted to meet with the Polish publishers exhibiting their books at the fair, and also to identify British, American and other English-language publishers who might be interested in the beautiful Polish illustrated books and middle-grade novels that Zosia and I had been exploring as part of her mentorship.
In the past few years there has been a revival of interest in translated children’s books for all age groups. There are still only a smallish number of these publishers, but their number is rising, and there are more and more enthusiastic young editors looking for good books to publish. Lantana Publishing is one of the pioneering young publishing companies that wants to bring the best illustrated books from around the world to English-language audiences. Recognising the ethnic diversity in our schools, they focus on reflecting the range of cultures that are represented in Britain. They also aim to publish the most exquisite illustrated books they can find, in which the story and pictures complement each other to form an integrated whole. As you can see from their website, their books are memorably beautiful.
At the Bologna book fair, Zosia and I felt overwhelmed by the number of exhibitors and the sheer size of the exhibition space. We had no trouble meeting with the Polish publishers grouped at the excellent stand organised by the Polish Book Institute (a state-funded organisation that exists to promote Polish literature at home and abroad). Through the Book Institute and the Polish branch of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) I had already been researching the best of Polish children’s literature and knew some of the publishers. Zosia and I had even translated some children’s books, through contact with the Polish publishers. But we didn’t know where to start with the English-language publishers – we had a few names, but no contacts strong enough for us to have arranged meetings with them before leaving home.
Rescue came in the form of other translators
Namely: the tireless Lawrence Schimel, who translates books from Spanish for children and adults, and is also a publisher and writer (of his many illustrated children’s books, I recommend The Adventure of Cecilia and the Dragon); Laura Watkinson, who translates from Dutch, and thanks to whom several Dutch authors – notably Tonke Dragt, author of the middle-grade novel A Letter for the King – have been successfully published in English; and Greet Pauwelijn, who translates from Polish into Dutch, and lives in the UK, where she owns and runs Book Island, publishing translated illustrated children’s books (including my translation of Mr Miniscule and the Whale). The three of them very generously shared their knowledge with us, explaining how best to pitch illustrated books, giving us names, and then talking to individual editors on our behalf, paving the way for us to go and meet them. This advice was invaluable – they acted as mentors for both me and Zosia.
It’s very often thanks to translators that foreign literature makes its way across borders.
There are several initiatives led by translators that are helping to bring great books from around the world into the British and American markets, including Worldkidlit, a website founded by Lawrence Schimel, Marcia Lynx Qualey and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (both of whom translate from Arabic, and Ruth translates from German and Russian too). This year, with support from the Arts Council and several other organisations (including Book Trust and the British Council) writer and translator Daniel Hahn – the driving force behind several of the most productive initiatives in the literary translation world – took a group of ten young editors on a scouting trip to the Bologna Children's Book Fair to meet with publishers from around the globe.
My new knowledge taught me that what I needed to do was to create a portfolio of illustrated books that might interest English-language publishers. I realised that the illustrations lead the way – unsurprisingly, most editors base their decisions on the pictures in the first place, and then on the text. These books provide works of art, as well as stories, and in the best case the two go hand-in-hand, with text, pictures and graphic design creating a perfect whole. So now my approach is to ask the Polish publishers for pdfs of the books I find the most attractive, and then add translations to these files in comment boxes. Gradually I’ve been compiling my favourites, and soon they’ll be ready to show to potential publishers in a complete form.
Lantana had bought the rights to publish Oscar Seeks A Friend in English on the basis of its delightful collage illustrations and a draft translation provided by the Polish publisher. Being commissioned to do a fresh translation gave me the ideal excuse to meet the author and illustrator, Paweł Pawlak. I’d been an admirer of his work for years, and had translated one of his books for its Polish publisher. Last summer I went to the house in a suburb of Wrocław where Paweł lives with his wife Ewa Kozyra, who is also a children’s illustrator and author. They showed me their incredible studio, where they plan and create their detailed books, which combine artistic talent, imagination, craftsmanship, storytelling skills and extreme dedication to excellence. Every single element is created with the same meticulous attention. Here are two of the photographs Paweł has provided to show some of his work on the book (and his feline assistant).
In the studio I saw the work he and Ewa have been doing on a set of three nature guides, featuring the birds, butterflies and small mammals to be found in their own garden. Each creature is depicted in several ways: in photographs, cloth collages, watercolours, and 3-D models. Comparing their appearance in all these different media helps us to look at them in new ways, and brings them to life on the page. I felt like rushing outside to find all the birds and butterflies for myself. What I did find in the Pawlaks’ garden was their beautiful white cat, Filemon, who followed us about as if to prove it is in fact his garden. His predecessor, Bobik (in the photo), was the inspiration for a book by Ewa, featuring her exquisite felt collage illustrations. She has used the same technique for the delightful story of a raccoon family, where the lively children defy their parents’ obsession with cleanliness – another must for my portfolio.
On translating word puns
Mr and Mrs Raccoon were always cleaning and tidying. Naturally, they also made sure their children were clean too, and had enough to eat.
Can you see the words sałatka szopska in the drawing? There’s an example of the challenges facing the translator of children’s books. It’s a pun, because although it’s a salad (usually made of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, peppers and feta cheese), szop means a raccoon, so it sounds like “raccoon salad”. Sometimes I can think of a play on words in English to provide a similar joke, but in this case, so far I’m stumped.
Translating Oscar Seeks A Friend offered some challenges too. In Polish, the skeleton boy is called Ignatek, the diminutive form of the name Ignacy, which corresponds to Ignatius, but is still a not unusual boys’ name in Poland, without sounding particularly old-fashioned. But “gnat” means a bone, so Ignatek includes a pun, as well as being a perfectly reasonable name for a nice little boy. I suggested calling him Scully, or Boniface (which, like Ignacy, is a Catholic name), but the Lantana team didn’t think either of those would work for their readers. At first, they suggested Iggy, but I wasn’t sure about that – it had no “bone” pun, and it made me (being middle-aged) think of Iggy Pop, who is scary but not sweet. Then they had a great idea. In the rough translation the Polish publisher had provided, the character was called “Ossie”, picking up on the bone connection, and that made them think of Oscar. I agreed that it’s a very good name for our hero.
I’m grateful to Lantana Publishing for adding Polish to their excellent list, and for having such a good eye for unusual stories and stunning illustrations.
What if you could turn the world the other way around and take a peek at what’s on the other side? Perhaps you’ll find something you never expected. Such as friendship. When Oscar meets a lonely little girl, it’s the start of an adventure for both of them. Together they make an unusual journey to two very different worlds, each beautiful and necessary. And it all begins when the little girl’s tooth falls out...
Click HERE to look inside the book!
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a leading translator of Polish literature. Her award-winning work includes fi ction, reportage, poetry, and children’s books. She mentors younger translators and is former co-chair of the UK Translators Association.