People often ask me why I’m studying translation. It’s a question to which there are an awful lot of answers (much like ‘why Japanese?’, which is another question I get asked a lot). One is that I love the act of translating – I always have, ever since my Latin GCSE and Virgil’s Aeneid. For a long time I wasn’t even faintly interested in studying foreign languages to speak them – it was all about translating, about solving the puzzle, cracking the code. Another answer is that I’m interested in translation theory. I know lots of translators aren’t and that’s fine, but I just find it fascinating, especially when we get past the endless arguments about different kinds of equivalence and into manipulation and polysystems and all that good stuff.
But to me the answer that seems the truest, that actually explains why I went back to translation after spending three years post-university ignoring it completely, is to do with picture books.
At the time, I was working as a rights executive for a major UK children’s publisher. I loved the books I sold, my colleagues were great and I very much enjoyed the job, which basically consisted of meeting publishers and agents from all over Asia and the Middle East, persuading them to buy translation rights to our lovely books, and then managing the process of signing contracts, taking payments, liaising between the foreign publisher and our production department throughout the printing process, and ensuring that the finished books got delivered to the right port at the right time. There was only one thing that bothered me: that moment when, at a meeting at Bologna or Frankfurt Book Fair, the foreign publisher I was talking to would give me their latest catalogue, in the hopes that I would pass it on to our editorial department and they might, perhaps, be able to sell some of their books to us.
The company I worked for had nothing against translation in particular, but all of their books were created in-house by a talented team of designers and editors, which meant that no, they didn’t buy any rights – translation or otherwise. I explained this over and over to my customers, and they kept leaving the catalogues anyway, and I kept looking through them to ‘get to know their lists better’. I developed a particular fascination for Japanese and Korean picture books, and the more I looked at them the more I felt that it was a shame for me to be exporting all this Anglophone culture to children throughout the world, when there was so much out there that was waiting to be brought in. At some point I went to a seminar about this sort of thing at the London Book Fair, where I heard about BCLT Summer School, which reminded me of everything I loved about translation at school and university. That was when I started thinking that maybe adults could do with more translated literature as well.
I’m aware that my translator origin story is slightly strange, and as a result I feel I lack a number of experiences that other translators seem to have in common, and that I have had a few experiences that they seem to lack. Everybody else I know seems to have an author (or several) they just FELL IN LOVE WITH and had to share with the English-speaking world (a ‘proper’ author, not a picture book author), or an aptitude for language and pure enjoyment of the process of translation which led them to start working as a full-time translator, or some other valid-seeming reason for doing what they’re doing. As for me, I’ve discovered a lot of things I like about translation since I first started thinking about it, but fundamentally I’m here because of picture books – lovely, classic stories about children’s everyday lives in faraway countries, brightly-coloured board books full of things to talk about, unfamiliar folktales and completely recognisable child protagonists. I’m here because I believe that English-speaking children need books that are windows, as well as books that are mirrors, and because I met a few people who agreed with me.