Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure, by Alex T. Smith

Son2 has been reading more independently lately, particularly Enid Blyton and the Beano, so I haven’t had so many children’s books to write about. We’ve managed to break that streak recently though (variety being the spice of life, and all that). He’s a long-time fan of the Claude series by Alex T. Smith – so much so that he went to school dressed as Claude on last year’s World Book Day – so moving on to the longer chapter book Mr Penguin and the Lost Treasure (Hodder Children’s Books, 2017) was a logical step.

Mr Penguin

The publisher’s description “Indiana Jones meets Hercule Poirot … with plenty of slapstick humour, mystery and adventure” is pretty apt, and it’s perfectly pitched to appeal to children of around 8 who find bottom jokes hysterical, while still being fun for grown-ups to read aloud. There’s a cast of entertaining characters, an underground jungle and jewel-thieves to foil before Mr Penguin can finally settle down to a well-deserved fish finger sandwich. Fans of Claude will recognise the characteristic wit and exuberant illustrations. We both enjoyed this very much and will be looking forward to Mr Penguin’s next adventure!

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This Little Art

This Little Art

Like much of the rest of the (literary) translation world, I have been reading and enjoying Kate Briggs’ essay This Little Art, recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

It is her obviously, unambiguously and unashamedly personal and subjective thinking on translation and writing, both her own and other people’s. Yet perhaps because of this, it also has a resonance that makes me want to punch the air and say: “Yes! That!” I recognise that feeling, that image, that idea of this thing that we do. I love the fact that she cites How to Train your Dragon alongside Barthes and Derrida. I love her defence of everyone’s right to their own taste in literature.

Imagine: if we were all to fall in love with the same person! Likewise, with literature: some of us will fall in love with some texts and others with others… If we were all to only ever desire the same book, then what would be written would always be the same book, which is not the case.

It is about literary translation, but a lot of the musings are applicable to all kinds of translation, the process by which it is done. “A to and fro, a relay: a venturing of something new on the very close basis of something that already and persistently exists.” We want to get it right, but what does right mean? We have our response to the text, and what makes good English, our own style, which might be very different from the author’s style, languages that might work very differently while needing to say the same thing, yet maybe the point should be to emphasise the differences that make it exciting, or maybe to make it smooth and unjarring…

All this is considered with reference to Robinson Crusoe making a table, the much-criticised translations of Thoman Mann by Helen Lowe-Porter, and Kate Briggs’ own translation of lectures by Roland Barthes, among much else. She takes issue with reviewers who seek out mistakes in a spirit of “gotcha!”, pointing out that a translation also needs to be taken as a whole:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

There are occasional little vicarious thrills when someone I know, or at least have met, gets a mention. There are also little irritations – I’ve been spending way too much time lately obsessing over hyphenation and splitting sentences over lines, and it irks me to see examples of the things I’ve been ruthlessly tracking down on behalf of certain clients.

turing. Agh – ugly!

But now, am I “gotcha-ing”? No, actually, I don’t think so. That’s an issue with the layout rather than the text, but it’s like a wrong note in the middle of a symphony, or “great routine, shame about the wobble”, or the burnt turnip in the middle of an otherwise amazing tasting menu that I still remember more clearly than all the other beautiful courses and flavours! And it’s the fear of making a mistake of that sort (i.e. one that mars the reader’s enjoyment or understanding of the text) that drives my (our?) perfectionism. (I also don’t know if I can entirely forgive the use of a word like unparadigmatizable, but that’s a matter of taste.)

Obviously, I don’t agree with everything she writes – it’s way too personal a book for that.  It’s written in little snippets that make it perfect for dipping in and out of, as well as more sustained reading, and there’s plenty to mull over in between times. This is an interesting, inspiring and entertaining read for anyone interested in translation, or language in general.

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Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk

So last year was weird. Professionally exciting, but politically deeply weird and scary. As a result, my reading tended towards the funny and the familiar. Good for my mental health, but not so interesting to blog about.

As for what 2018 has in store, who knows. It would be nice to get some balance back in the world but I’m not holding my breath. I have two books coming out – more on which later. And hopefully I’ll be able to find space for writing about books again.

One of my Christmas presents was Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Daunt Books, 2017), which I finished – appropriately enough – just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. This is just the kind of book I like but which seems to be so hard to find – smart, funny, easy to read, with a joy in “language, its sounds and its rhythms. Rhymes and puns and nonsense, ranging from dumb and fun to witty and profound,” and a story to tell.

Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Roooney

Lilian Boxfish is 85 when she sets out on New Year’s Eve in 1984 for a stroll that unexpectedly takes her across the whole of Manhattan and back. Along the way she muses on her life, back from when she was a bright young thing, and the highest paid advertising woman in the USA, and on the changes she has seen in a city she loves. Lilian has traded on her charm and wit all her life, and she continues to do so now in her eighties. A highly successful professional woman at a time when maternity leave was unheard of, she flouts convention, only to struggle when it catches up with her. Lilian may be based in part on the real Margaret Fishback, whose papers Rooney worked on, but her story is entirely fictional.

The book is as much about New York as it is about Fishback/Boxfish, and Rooney has set out to combine the story with her love of flânerie. It must be hard to write about the construction of the World Trade Center post-9/11 without succumbing to dramatic irony, but I think on the whole it’s tackled reasonably successfully, poignant rather than overblown.

Lilian is an appealing guide to her city and her life, over the best part of a century of upheavals, and her quick-witted verses and ads are a real testimony to the real Margaret Fishback – poet, author, advertising woman and proto-feminist, who inspired her.

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And the winner is…

It was a joy to be at the presentation of the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation on Wednesday evening. This was the 20th anniversary of the award, and all those involved spoke about how the landscape of translated books for children has changed in those twenty years. This year’s entries included more languages than ever, and an array of books that have long been classics in their original languages, but only just becoming available for English-speaking children.

Held, as ever, in the splendid Dartmouth House, where I always feel rather as though I’m inside a Christmas cake, the ceremony was a positive, outward-looking event. This comes at a time when politics on either side of the Atlantic have become thoroughly depressing, leaving me in little mind for blogging – where everything would become a rant – and with little headspace for anything but uplifting reading… Funny books, including a lot of Discworld and PG Wodehouse, have become my lifeline.

It seems to me that if there is any hope for us, it must lie in bringing up our children to undo the mess we currently seem to be making of things. And in that, an openness to the world has got to be positive. So children’s books in translation are more important than ever. Bridges, not walls, and all that.

It was also lovely to see the finished copies of the translation special edition of Riveting Reads, the School Library Association journal, edited by Daniel Hahn and Joy Court, and born out of a challenge issued by Kevin Crossley-Holland at this event two years ago.

Anyway, back to the presentation: Gillian Lathey – who first inspired my interest in translating for children back during my MA – admitted that she had always wanted to say: “And the winner is…”

And the winner was Helen Wang, for Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxaun, Walker Books, 2016 (translated from Mandarin Chinese).imag1032.jpg

Fellow judge Wendy Cooling said, it is “a warm, delightful book set in the countryside of China during the Cultural Revolution. Strong, well-drawn relationships, tough enough to survive anything, are at the heart of the story and carry the reader through great hardship”.

I’m delighted for Helen, who spoke of the award as vindicating her decision to get back into translation, and showing that what we do really matters.


Related posts: Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, and other excitements

And the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation Goes to…

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

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Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, and other excitements

So, yesterday, the shortlist for next year’s Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was announced at an event hosted by the English Speaking Union at Dartmouth House in London’s Mayfair. And as ever, I was mildly surprised by the number of Daimlers and Bentleys that nearly knocked me down on my way there…

The announcement was preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Joy Court (School Library Association) and featuring Gill Evans (Walker Books), Annie Eaton (Penguin Random House) and Sarah Odedina (Pushkin Children’s Books). Although covering a lot of the same ground as many such events – “gatekeepers” getting between children and exciting, international books and making things bland; the difficulties for publishers in finding good books that they can’t read themselves; publishers being “trend-driven” in their acquisitions – there was actually a good deal of positivity and I found it an inspiring occasion.


Joy Court pointed out that children are incredibly open to books from around the world, rather than being scared by difference because, after all, everything is new to them. Gill Evans and Sarah Odedina agreed that they were looking for books with an exciting uniqueness to them, that a very specific sense of place would often help a book do better than just being the latest in a long line of, say, vampire stories but just happening to be by a Spanish author… There was agreement that children generally don’t notice whether or not a book is in translation, but can be inspired and intrigued by a “foreign” setting – food seemed to play a key role in children’s books, and two panelists talked about wanting to try the baked cheese in Heidi. Sarah Odedina of Pushkin Children’s ended the talk on a high note, saying that “now is a great time for publishing translations” because as a society we are so much more open and globally connected, and books need to represent this diversity. Given recent depressing political developments in this country, I’m not sure that I share this optimism, but it’s certainly true that we need more than ever to give our children the chance to see beyond our own little island just now.

The shortlist itself was announced by Wendy Cooling, who chaired the judges, and said:

The entries this year were exciting, satisfying, funny and sometimes disturbing reads. In the 20th year of the Award it was exciting to see a very wide range of languages being translated for young British readers. Judging was not work but a real pleasure.


She remarked that this was the “best year ever”, with more languages represented than ever, and that none of the books was plagued by being “too worthy for their own good”. She also said that all six have something that lives on in your head after you have finished reading – always a good sign.

So, <drum roll> the shortlisted books are:

  • The Flying Classroom, Erich Kästner, trans. Anthea Bell (Pushkin Children’s Books),
  • The Little Black Fish, Samad Behrangi, trans. Azita Rassi (Tiny Owl Publishing),
  • Bronze and Sunflower, Cao Wenxuan, trans. Helen Wang (Walker Books),
  • Oh, Freedom!, Francesco D’Adamo, trans. Sian Williams (Darf Publishers),
  • The Secret of the Blue Glass, Tomiko Inui, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori (Pushkin Children’s Books)
  • Detective Gordon: The First Case, Ulf Nilsson, trans. Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

(image from! for further details, see:

Meanwhile, running alongside the award for the first time, is a children’s book reviewing competition called My Marsh. As well as this, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medal nominations have just been published. These are open to translations for only the second year, but there are 5 on the Carnegie list and 2 on the Greenaway one too. AND… there’s the Book Trust In Other Words initiative aimed at promoting “the translation and UK publication of outstanding children’s literature from around the world.”

So there’s much to be excited about, and much to be looking forward to. Many congratulations to all shortlisted authors, translators and publishers, and here’s to the future of world children’s literature!

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Translating in Cambridge:Fun, Food, Friends and all things French

Translate in Cambridge was the latest installment in a series of high-level French <> English translation events held in various locations across North America, and then last year heading to Chantilly in France. It is unusual (unique?) in focusing specifically on one language pair, and on the actual craft of translation rather than business skills, marketing, specialisation and all the other aspects of a freelance career. After all, translators are writers in their target language, and you can be as clued up on everything else as you want, but if your translations aren’t up to scratch, there’s not going to be much repeat business.



The Cam by the Jesus Common Lido – picture perfect Cambridge evening

I’d followed the related hashtags enviously in previous years, but felt that logistics were really against getting even to Chantilly. Cambridge though, is only just down the road. Surely it could be possible this time round? Our summer holiday was specifically planned to avoid clashes with both this event and the BCLT Summer School before it. The fees seemed eye-watering at first, but the Goethe Institut bursary for the Summer School made doing both events possible, and family events arranged themselves to permit doting grandparents to take on childcare for the duration so it seemed really meant to be.


Kings College – quite a fancy porters’ lodge…

The venue was Kings College, Cambridge, resplendent in its faintly absurd architectural glories (with less romantic concrete add-ons round the back). The weather was (mostly) fine, the food fantastic. Tuesday evening’s formal dinner featured a truly stunning performance from the Lucy Cavendish Singers, while on the Monday we had the opportunity to see As You Like It performed in the college garden as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Although it was rather chilly by the end, the atmosphere with bats flitting in the fading light and a magnificent sunset building over the “stage” was magical.


… and the back view isn’t bad, either.

There were friends old and new to meet and make, networking and socialising, chatting over lunches and dinners, professional and personal conversations to be had. And for this introvert, there were welcome strolls from a very pleasant B&B a little way out of the city centre to ease me into the day, and explorations of the area around the college to stretch the legs and recharge the brain after lunch or before dinner, not to mention the chance to visit the chapel for free.

And the course? Well, there were talks on hunting down Gallicisms, or turning abstract French into hands-0n English; very practical discussions on issues such as press releases, subheads and job titles; a chance to work with Ros Schwartz on editing her first draft of Mireille Gansel’s memoir Traduire comme Transhumer – with her editor and author also in attendance; and my personal highlight, the opportunity to hear Anthea Bell OBE discuss her decades of experience translating Asterix. It was both a privilege and a welcome laugh at the end of the day; her depths of cultural and literary knowledge are incredible. Sadly I was too slow to get a copy of the latest book for signing, though.


Anthea Bell tells Ros Schwartz how she had waited decades for the chance to use certain puns in the latest Asterix book

Running parallel to this was an English-French track with similar panels and seminars. There was a French>English translation slam, and an English>French one, which, as always, confirmed that there is no two translations of the same text will ever be the same. Four highly skilled and experienced translators had made four distinct but equally valid translations of two texts. Although the subject matter and prose might have left something to be desired, the resulting discussion was scintillating nonetheless! There were discussions of particular words, bugbears or bêtes noires, which offered useful options for rendering them in our own language. And so on. There were chances to have a go and times to listen (even if the darkened corner at the back of a lecture theatre is not a conducive place to listen to rapid French in an unfamiliar accent after a late night…).


Special dispensation to stand on the grass!

I am now back to reality with a slight bump, pages of notes to organise, glossaries to write up, and a head buzzing with ideas and inspiration. This was a truly fantastic event, and many thanks go to Anne de Freyman for her determination to bring it to the UK and run it with the ITI. Magnifique! Next year, the event is heading back over the Atlantic, so watch out for Translate on Broadway, and there are rumours afoot of something similar being organised for Italian and German. Watch this space!

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One Hundred Shadows – Women in Translation Month

During the BCLT summer school, Deborah Smith (winner of the Man Booker International, publisher at Tilted Axis Press and all-round good egg) was tutoring the Korean group, and also launching her second book, One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun. Translated by Jung Yewon, this is described variously as a modern fairytale and a non-sentimental love story with a faintly sinister fantasy edge. There is something elusive about the writing, which is in keeping with the slippery nature of the story.

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang JungeunIt relates the touching relationship between Eungyo and Mujae, who work at different electronics repair shops in a market in a Seoul slum (a word they muse on, “I wonder if they call this kind of place a slum, because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down. Slum. Slum.”). It’s a trick employed a couple of times – repeating a word till it loses it’s sense – and it made me wonder how those words sounded in Korean, and if the sounds of the English words were at all similar, or how the effect differs.

There is also something strange going on, with people’s shadows starting to “rise”, to take on a life of their own, in a rather sinister way. This is never fully explored or spelled out, and the story is all the more unsettling for that.

I’m not sure that this is the sort of thing I’d have read if it hadn’t been for the circumstances of the book launch, the Prosecco and the chance to get a copy signed by the author, but that’s one of the serendipitous joys of the thing.

The book is published in October – check it out!

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