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It Takes a Multicultural Village: What Makes a Good Translated Book?

anno_anno's counting houseWhat makes a good translated book? When Roger Sutton asked this question of me and Cheryl Klein, the editor with whom I work on our imprint’s translation efforts, it seemed that our answer might possibly be unacceptably short: it’s the writing that makes a good translated book.

What more could we say? What more is there to say? Our mission is to publish books that we love, books we would pass on to young readers with the enthusiasm that is born of a delightful reading experience; the kind of experience only a truly  outstanding writer can provide.

Wherever they start their lives, we want the books we publish simply to be terrific reads, written by interesting, powerful, affecting writers. And looking overseas (or across borders) is just a matter of making the broadest possible sweep when searching for those talented creators. For me, part of the appeal of looking for great authors to publish in translation is the tantalizing potential in that deep and — for English-language publishers — largely untapped pool of talent out there in the rest of the world. I ask myself, What refreshing new voice, what unique imagination would I find if I could read the very best writers in each country?

As a young person in publishing, I watched the great editor Ann Beneduce bring such unforgettable talents as Mitsumasa  Anno to American readers as part of the rich mix of the early Philomel list. I knew that legendary editors Margaret K.  McElderry and Alfred A. Knopf built some of the most memorable lists in publishing history by sharing the wealth of overseas talent with readers in the United States. As a child I’d greatly enjoyed the results of their kind of global perspective (my beloved Paddington, Pippi Longstocking, Don Quixote), and I wanted to do the same for others when I had the opportunity.

Therefore, while I’m attending the fifty-odd half-hour meetings that fill my time at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, I ask myself a few basic things:

Does this sound like a writer who has something special to offer?

Am I likely to want to publish her or him for the long haul?

Does the book gain something extra from having been written somewhere other than the United States — is there a frisson of authenticity or difference in the writer’s perspective? Will the story I hear sound different coming from this other place, even if the basic plot is familiar?

I have to add an admission about the third point: When I ask if a book “gains something” from having come from abroad, it’s a true consideration, but it’s as much a practical scrim I put over the process of considering books in other languages as it is a philosophical guide. And it is definitely a question we ask after we ask ourselves the primary questions about our response to the book. Since we can translate only a limited number of books per year, I like to add this additional qualification to help us decide among numerous potential translations. If two books are equally brilliant, enjoyable, amazing . . . does one of them have that “extra” quality of truly having gained something from its national or cultural source?

Of course, at this early stage, whether I’ve chosen a good book to consider for translation is only guesswork based on my  feelings about the publisher or rights director I’m talking to — my faith in their good judgment, my general impressions of the list they represent. The nitty-gritty of sorting through those choices comes in the reports from the network of readers of other languages that I have developed with former editor Zehava Cohn and Cheryl Klein, which we are constantly expanding and refining. These readers are our surrogates — they judge the qualities of the writing experience that we can only imagine, and which the stilted, by-the-numbers translations that some foreign publishers and authors sometimes provide do little to reveal.

It took us a while to know what we needed to ask our readers. For the longest time we were getting reports that gave us mostly extended plot descriptions, along with opinions about whether or not the book would seem “foreign” to American readers. Make that “too foreign.”

Honestly, I’ve never found such pronouncements that helpful. They remind me of discussions of what boys like. And what girls like. There’s probably some crumb of truth buried in such a discussion, but it’s not a very interesting truth to me, based as it is on stereotypes and least-common-denominator assumptions. What’s really interesting to me is the experience of the real, complex reader. So we ask our readers to tell us what we’d judge for ourselves about English-language writing:

Is the author’s voice clear? Is his or her style original without being self-conscious? What are the characters like? Do you care about them?

I want to know about the plot, because I’m interested in what happens in a book. But I’m more interested in how the reader  feels about the plot, how the author unveils the plot, and how the plot is revealed through the characters than I am in a blow-by-blow description of events.

And, finally, we want to know about setting. How well-realized is the setting in this particular author’s work? As I started to say before, if there’s any one general aspect of writing that gains extra emphasis in a book from overseas, it’s here, where one hopes a writer will convey with particular vividness an environment that has been experienced first-hand. But this doesn’t reflect a hard-and-fast rule. (Anyone can write about Paris if they know it intimately enough. One doesn’t have to be Parisian, just as one doesn’t have to be from Long Island to set a novel there. But presumably it helps.)

Of course, all our scouting and our readers’ efforts just enable us to choose which books we want to acquire English-language  rights to. It’s the next step — the translator’s work — that provides the make in what makes a good translated book. When  Cheryl and I were talking this over, we tossed around many metaphors. I liked my tennis-oriented one, which was that the original work is one half of a doubles team. If it’s incredibly strong, but not matched with a good partner, it won’t be a winning combination. It’s also like two musicians separately laying down beautiful harmonies to a great song. They both have to sound good individually; both have to demonstrate the hallmarks of great musicianship. But they also have to blend well. And the success of the song is in the effect they produce together.

I think those are both good analogies. But perhaps a publishing metaphor is called for here, and in that case I’d liken this stage — where we’ve selected what we hope is an exceptional book in a foreign language but not yet begun the translation into English — to the point in a picture book’s life when a promising manuscript has been acquired but an artist hasn’t been selected, and the work of joining art to text hasn’t yet begun.

Just as in a picture book, the final “product” — the book in what makes a good translated book — is the work of (at least) two people. The work in the original language has to provide the bones, the story structure, the emotional framework. Then the  translator must apply his or her own art to making the text visible, understandable to English-language readers.

As obvious as this may seem, I have to confess that it took me a while to really understand this fact. It took years of having ecstatic readers’ reports result in bland, literal sample chapters that would make me think, Why was that reader so  enthusiastic? This stinks! In fact, what probably stank was the bad translation that the unfortunate sample-chapter translator rushed to get me in time. It probably was designed to give me a sense of the plot but wasn’t a true translation of the original author’s voice and style, which would have taken a great deal more time and effort.

So part of what makes a good translated book is a publisher who knows how to keep evaluating a book in another language as it goes through the stages of acquisition and translation. And that’s something we’re still learning. There are other questions people have asked us about our translating program that are interesting intellectually, but not part of the main thrust of our efforts. For instance:

What about a book that is “good” in one language or country but impenetrable in ours? Well, I feel that we aren’t in the business of judging objective quality about anyone’s book, no matter what language the author initially writes in. And we’re not in the business of spoon-feeding a reluctant public some notion of what we think might be “good for them” to read but horrible to the taste, like some repugnant literary vegetable dish from abroad.

The same goes for the much more positive spin that many put on the endeavor, which is an emphasis on the social benefits of learning about other cultures and points of view. Yes, absolutely! I agree with this politically and socially, and I’m thrilled if books from overseas help American kids feel their connection to other kids around the world.

But is a translated book measured by the amount of social good it achieves? There was a time in the history of children’s literature when all books for young people were thought to be valuable only to the extent that they taught positive lessons. I hope that someday the notion that books in translation are mostly valuable as tools for social study will seem just as quaint.

For the true value of any book is in the experience of the reader. If a reader isn’t moved, isn’t provoked, isn’t engaged by a book, it doesn’t matter one bit how socially valuable the process of getting that book to said reader is in the abstract. For that matter, none of the processes mentioned in this article about how a good translated book is identified and crafted “matter” in and of themselves.

What really matters — to me at least — is hearing a reader say about that translated book we’ve put so much effort into: “Wow, that was really good.”

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Arthur A. Levine

Arthur A. Levine is editorial director of Arthur A. Levine Books, which has published the translated books The Red Bird by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Marit Törnqvist; The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer; and An Innocent Soldier by Josef Holub (for which AAL Books won 2006's Batchelder Award).

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