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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Post-Referendum Reading – Vigilante

I haven’t been reading much lately, or it’s been taking me much longer to get through books than usual. There are all sorts of reasons for this, to do with family life, too much time on social media or playing silly computer games, but also to do with mental space and increasing anxiety around the impending national suicide and other indications that we do indeed live in interesting times.

I was trying to read Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which I’d been very much looking forward to after enjoying Life After Life. But this time, her dicking about with time just annoyed me, and the wartime and dysfunctional relationships issues got too much into my head. So I gave that up. It turned out that re-reading Lord of the Rings suited my mood much better. Tolkien may have been thinking of World War I when he wrote, but the world is apparently similarly going to hell in a handcart right now.

Then the referendum disaster struck, and concentration went out of the window altogether. I found myself hugely in sympathy with Lucy Mangan, writing in the Guardian about comfort reading, especially this part:

I am looking at my beloved Wodehouses at the moment and want to burn them. You unthinking fool, Wooster! You lucky, prewar, club-dwelling bastard! Where’s my Jeeves? Where’s the omniscient valet the nation needs to clean up a proliferating set of potentially disastrous consequences set in motion by the idiocies of a group of pea-brained Old Etonians like yourself? Where do you get off, being fictional when the rest of us are stuck in the real world? Wodehouse will not serve today.

Georgette Heyer didn’t work either, for similar reasons, but I did enjoy Jane Austen at her most acerbic in Northanger Abbey.

I tried some of the Amazon Crossing freebies from London Book Fair, but found them schlocky, or jarringly American. I looked at long and/or literary things translated by friends: the books looked back reprovingly, but I knew I didn’t have the staying power for them.

While Mangan headed for post-apocalyptic fiction, my mind eventually settled on Agatha Christie – I found the writing better than I remembered and even though these books still offer unnaturally neat resolutions there is satisfaction in that, and at least some comeuppances are dished out.

So, finally getting round to the point of this post, I was in the library while the boys stocked up for this year’s summer reading challenge, and saw a striking book cover:


This was just the right thing to get me finally out of my reading slump. Shelley Harris plays on the chick lit cliché of the bored, frustrated “wife and mother”, while tackling issues of body image, misogyny and everyday sexism, all wrapped up in a feminist thriller. It was entertaining enough to draw me in, gripping enough to keep me going, and thought-provoking enough to still be rattling around my mind a few days on.

Now August has been declared Women in Translation Month, so here’s hoping I can keep this momentum going, and share some more of what I discover.

See also:

A fuller review of Vigilante

Women in Translation Podcast



























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BCLT Summer School

I had wanted to do the BCLT Summer School for years, and particularly since gatecrashing the lovely German group at the Millennium Library in Norwich way back in 2012, and again in 2013, and hearing what fun they were having. And finally, finally, things worked out with holidays, and the boys able to have a week with Granny and Grandad, (to whom many thanks!) to make it possible to attend.

To have a week away from routine, if not, in my case, from home, working on a collaborative translation of an amazing text, with the author on hand to explain context and intentions and whether or not this particular word has a deep significance, uninterrupted and with the stimulation of working with other lovely translators… Bliss! Of a very intense and slightly nerdy sort.

The Enterprise Centre, UEA

We were based in the Enterprise Centre, UEA’s newest building. It has thatched walls and roof, and slightly space-age lighting that won’t do what you want it to because it’s so energy efficient, and walls you can write on, and super-whizzy rolling chairs and tables. All of which is apparently strangely conducive to creativity, because by the end of the week, we had produced a translation we were all proud of.

The German group were working on  two extracts from Rasha Khayat’s debut novel Weil wir längst woanders sind, which we gave the English title of Because We’re Elsewhere Now. It’s the story of an inseparable brother and sister, Basil and Layla, who are half-German and half-Saudi, whose childhoods and adult lives are split between these two very different cultures. Layla has gone back to Saudi Arabia and is intending to get married and settle into that very traditional culture, which Basil sees as backward. He can’t understand her decision, and this is  driving a wedge between brother and sister. Basil travels out for the wedding, determined to regain that closeness.

Weil wir längst woanders sind, Rasha Khayat, DuMont VerlagThe extracts we translated, with the expert assistance of the lovely Katy Derbyshire, our tutor for the week, are taken from two different chapters. The first is the opening of the novel, where Basil and Layla see snow for the first time in Germany. The second is after Basil’s arrival in Jeddah as the wedding preparations begin, and he meets his future brother-in-law Rami for the first time. There are interesting parallels between the two sections in the idea of never quite being at home anywhere, and Basil’s outsider view of both cultures.

The week finished with a celebratory afternoon of presentations, hearing the other groups’ work and presenting our own at Dragon Hall in Norwich – a far cry from the Enterprise Centre, this ancient building also blends the old and the new in exciting ways. I was so excited to finally go inside, having walked past many times, and it certainly lived up to its billing, even if a canapé reception didn’t quite equal dinner to lots of peoples’ minds.


Dragon Hall, rear view

Old and new reflected at Dragon Hall, new home of Writers’ Centre Norwich

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable week, and highly recommended whether as a way into literary translation for those starting out, or of challenging and stretching yourself and your practice for those of us a little further on in our careers.

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