Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head – Q&A with Daniel Hahn

At the end of the village, behind a green door,
lived happy Miss Jolly, with Melvin, her boar.
“What makes her so happy? We really must learn!
“Cried her neighbours, Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern.
“It’s awful being miserable day after day,
Let’s find out her secret! There must be a way!”

One ridiculously joyful lady, cauliflower hats, fish bonnets, a few very large animals, a pet boar called Melvin and a whole lot of watermelons.
Three miserable women discover the secret of happiness to be very pink and very messy.

Here’s another of fils cadet‘s favourite picture books, and it’s one with an interesting story behind it, which I first heard at the Other Worlds event on translating children’s literature, held at the English Speaking Union back in October 2012.  Daniel Hahn was one of the panel at the event and he described the process of working on Stella Dreis’ Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head so vividly, and the book sounded so appealing, that it immediately went on the Christmas list.

It went on to become a hit with both boys so I wondered if Danny would be willing to tell us a little more about it, which indeed he was.

Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head

RW: Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions about the Watermelon book.  Firstly, would you describe yourself as the author or the translator, and how did you come to be involved with it?

DH: That’s a surprisingly difficult question – in a sense, I’m not really either. (Or perhaps, both?) I’m not the author, in that I didn’t start from scratch and devise the story, the shape of the thing; but nor am I the translator, because what I’ve written in English isn’t (and isn’t supposed to be) as close an approximation to the original text as I could manage. I was originally approached to simply translate the book, and it was only after I’d done my first draft, which was what you might call a “regular” translation, that my editor and I decided the job needed something quite different. We needed to come up with something that used the same story and worked with the same pictures, but told that story not only in a new language but also sort of with a different flavour. So we stripped away the Portuguese words, and I wrote the best new English text I could that would still function with Stella Dreis’s brilliant pictures. The new text is verse, where the original was prose, and there are many other changes – but I still think of Stella as the author; it’s her story, and her pictures that give the book its character, I think.

RW:So the basic plot is the same then?

DH: Yes, the plot is the same. There are things I might have changed in the plot had I been able to, but we were tied to the existing pictures, so anything I wrote had to work well with them, and had to fit the story they told. We moved quite far from the original text, which is what usually defines the boundaries of a translator’s constraint, and instead worked within what the pictures – my new constraint – would allow.

RW: You said it had a slightly different flavour – would you be able to unpack that a bit?

DH: To a great extent it’s the attempt to work as closely as possible with the pictures that  gives a clue to what I was saying about the ‘flavour’. To my mind, the original text was lacking some of the fun and eccentricity of the pictures, and I tried to write a text that would better match that. The new text is in rhyming verse (like so many of my own favourite picture books); it feels – to me at least – freer and more anarchic, and much sillier than the original prose, and I think freedom and anarchy and silliness are just the kind of ingredients you need to work best with Stella’s wonderful, wild pictures. So I hope the new flavour I referred to wasn’t really something new exactly;  rather it was still something that I was drawing as lovingly as I could right out of the original – it’s just that in this case it was a faithful translation of what I found in the pictures, rather than in the Portuguese words.

RW: I asked the boys which bit they liked best and they said “the bit with the watermelon” and “the bit where it goes SPLAT!”. Do you have a favourite section or illustration?

DH: I do like that line your boys liked, too – “…and it flew through the air and came down with a SPLAT!” Not because it’s the best in the book (tho’ it’s the most fun to read aloud with small kids who know it and can join in with the ending), but I’m grateful to the line because it’s the one that popped unexpectedly into my head after I’d done a first lousy prose version of the book and made me think, Ooh, what about doing this in verse? Maybe my favourite bit of picture-book writing in the English text is the page-turn that introduces Miss J with the fruit on her head (with a spring in her step -… and a fruit on her head!); the way it works with the two pictures is the example I most often use to demonstrate what I was trying to do each time I changed the text, and how I think picture-books work best. Oh, and I love the last couplet, too.

Not surprisingly, though, the things I love most about the book aren’t of course any of the things I wrote, but Stella’s amazing pictures. I think the line and the palette and the way the pictures use the pages overall are stunning; but there are also small details I think are just beautiful. There’s picture of a giraffe head poking out onto one of the pages that is so gorgeous… And there’s a particular picture of a very sad pet, which I love. Also Melvin the boar hurtling through the air in the middle of a watermelon fight.

Hmm. Melvin the boar hurtling through the air in the middle of a watermelon fight? See what I mean? Anarchy and silliness. A sensible, elegant, earnest text could never, ever work, evidently.

Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head by Stella Dreis and Daniel Hahn (or is that Daniel Hahn and Stella Dreis?) is published by Phoenix Yard Books, 2012.

Daniel Hahn


Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor and translator from Portuguese, Spanish and French. He has both won and judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is a former chair of the UK Translators Association, and currently national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.

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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4 Responses to Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head – Q&A with Daniel Hahn

  1. Vicki says:

    Always on the lookout for new books and now I can’t wait to find this one. It sounds so much fun! Lovely to hear from the people involved in its creation too…

  2. Pingback: Carlos Ruiz Zafón on Translation | a discount ticket to everywhere

  3. Pingback: Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head – Planet Picture Book

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