The Ears of the Hippopotamus and other matters: The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation 2013

Having dismally failed in my quest to read the shortlisted books before the winner of this year’s Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was announced, I set off yesterday for the award ceremony, to which I was invited having blogged about the shortlist. That was quite exciting in itself.

After a slightly stressful start to the journey, I also managed to pop in to say hello at the beginning of an Emerging Translators’ Network meet-up at the Free Word Centre, where Ollie Brock and Canan Marasligil were discussing their forthcoming stints as translators in residence. It was nice to meet people and I’d have liked to stay longer, but it’ll have to be another time.

Marsh Award 2013

Anyway, I made it to Dartmouth House in plenty of time for wine, canapés and mingling. The canapés were excellent, the wine flowing freely, so everyone was in a very good mood by the time the presentation came round. After an introduction by a representative of the English Speaking Union, which supports the award, Gillian Lathey gave us a potted summary of the shortlisted books before handing over to Danny Hahn to make the presentation.

Danny’s speech was mercifully brief and began with “Once upon a time”, or as they say in other parts of the world, “there was, and there was not”, or “there was once” or so many other things. Giving a potted history of story telling and what it is we translators actually do, Danny pointed out that translators need to be alive. This fact is less obvious than it might appear in the face of Google translate, which, Danny said is “excellent, at a certain kind of thing” but it can’t do good writing or voice. That almost mystical attribute of “voice” is hard to define but you know it when you meet it.

“Translators read, then write; inhale, exhale.”

When we are working for children, the reading is easier, but the writing is harder. For translations to work, you need an original and creative mind. The books we grow up with crystallise within us like nothing we encounter later. An example of this came out in conversation with Chloe Schwarz earlier in the evening. She grew up with the Little Prince and so it was hugely important to her, yet many of her friends had never even heard of it, something she found baffling and sad, so she’d been thrilled to work with her mother Ros on a new translation of the book.

Moving on to speak about the state of translated literature in general, and children’s in particular, it was pointed out that there are 6.7 billion people in the world whose first language is NOT English. We should make more of an effort to hear what they have to say. At this point, however, Danny invited us to consider the obligatory rant already said – he didn’t want to depress us on the occasion of such a celebration of translation! Other languages help you to see things differently – are these translated books the tip of the iceberg or the ears of the hippopotamus, as they say in Afrikaans? – and open up new horizons for us.

The Ears of the Hippopotamus

The ears of the hippopotamus of the tip of the iceberg?
Photo via

So, who won? As you may have already seen elsewhere, this year’s award went to Howard Curtis for In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda, translated from Italian and published by David Fickling Books. Here is what the judges had to say about it:

This is a harrowing story of a young boy travelling from his home in Afghanistan to Italy, in search of safety. Based on the experiences of Enaiatollah Akbari, his story is told with a sense of humour and adventure, and with great pace and tension. This highly topical tale shares the extraordinary experiences of a courageous young man that will inspire and nourish young readers.

Accepting the award, Howard said that he felt that he was receiving it on behalf of two people who could not be there, Fabio Geda, whose Italian prose was clear, precise and a pleasure to translate, and Enaiatollah whose story it was. His journey had taken five years, but he had made it without breaking the promise he’d made to his mother:  no drugs, no fighting, no stealing. Howard read us a light-hearted extract from the book and yes, it had voice. You know it when you hear it! I particularly liked the image of the  dinghy, oars, life jackets etc in a box the boys were presented with as “an IKEA flat-pack for illegals”.

So, I really will do my best to read it now. I want to hear more of that voice. If you’ve read it, or any of the other shortlisted books, do let me know what you thought.

After that, the evening flowed on with more wine, more chatting and an opportunity to catch up with friends old and new. So, congratulations again to Howard Curtis, Fabio Geda, Enaiatollah Akbari and David Fickling Books. And thank you to the organisers for a great event, and for inviting me to tag along!

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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