In recent years, a proliferation of books in translation for children and young adults has brought imaginative stories from around the world to new readers. We’re speaking with some of the extraordinary publishers who make these books possible about their experience working in this vital field.
Words Without Borders (WWB): How long have you been publishing children’s literature in translation and what inspired your decision to do so?
Cheryl Robson (CR): Aurora Metro started publishing children’s literature in translation in 2005 with French author Jean Molla’s book Sobibor, as we realized that the proportion of children’s literature that is translated into English is extremely low, depriving English readers of some of the best children’s writers in the world today.
WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far?
CR: It has been rewarding for us to bring great authors such as Alki Zei from Greece, Lars-Henrik Olsen from Denmark, and Lutz van Dijk from South Africa to a new English readership and to have the books received well and validated by awards, such as the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, which our books have been nominated for five times.
WWB: What (if any) have you found to be the most challenging aspect of publishing children’s literature (as opposed to literature for adults)?
CR: The most challenging aspect is raising the funding needed to make the translation happen; it can take five years of persistence and editing numerous drafts of a translation to make a project come to fruition. Then you often face a wall of indifference from reviewers, booksellers, and librarians whose eyes glaze over unless a book is by well-known authors writing in English whose books will fly off the shelves—and that can be tough.
WWB: What do you think has changed in publishing for children and young adults in the last twenty-five years?
CR: Although there are many more platforms, and authors can self-publish their books easily and get dozens of online reviews, getting attention that is helpful commercially for a book is still hard to find. Children’s books in translation remain a challenge to publish and a challenge to sell.
WWB: How do you find the authors/works you publish?
CR: We receive submissions from agents, from translators, and from authors. We research which books have won prizes, such as the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People), and contact the publisher. We meet with people at book fairs and events and listen to pitches. We run a competition every two years for women novelists called the Virginia Prize for Fiction, which has led to our discovery of several talented writers and some highly original books.
We realized that the proportion of children’s literature that is translated into English is extremely low, depriving English readers of some of the best children’s writers in the world today.
WWB: What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader?
CR: We look for a strong authorial voice or vision, pace, good characterization, drama, and originality.
WWB: What do you think draws a child into a story? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well?
CR: We are drawn in by the characters, which we have to care about, being put in dangerous or difficult situations and having to make complex choices. We read on if they develop as individuals and learn to draw on their inner qualities. If a story does not involve some growth or insight gained by the main character, we rarely want to read to the end. Adults buy the books, so appealing to adults too is always a major factor.
WWB: Do you think there has been a general upsurge in children’s publishing in recent years? What do you think has brought it about?
CR: The films made of children’s books, such as Harry Potter, have led to a commercial windfall for certain publishers and, importantly, they have increased both literacy and a love of reading among young people. Children’s publishing is one of the few growth areas currently, so publishers are doing more books for children.
WWB: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
CR: Danish author Lars-Henrik Olsen came to the South Bank Centre in October to promote the first book in his bestselling series, Erik and the Gods: Journey to Valhalla. It’s a cracking adventure story set in the realm of the Norse Gods, in which Thor enlists the help of a teen called Erik to go on a secret mission to save the world. And yes, they are making a film of the book in Denmark!
WWB: What’s next for Aurora Metro?
CR: We’re reading through all the entries to our writing competition and looking for the next great unknown novelist to emerge. Always an exciting, if nail-biting, time. The winner of the fifth round of the Virginia Prize will be announced in February.
Writer and editor Cheryl Robson cofounded Aurora Metro Books in 1989 and has been a champion for finding new voices and publishing fiction and plays from around the world. Aurora Metro has published a number of YA novels in translation, play anthologies, and over 150 international writers, which have won numerous awards. Cheryl will be part of a panel at the 2018 London Book Fair discussing children’s literature in translation.