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World Kid Lit – Young Adult Studies Association Conference

YA in Translation Panel - 3 November 2020

Reham Almutairi, Marcia Lynx Qualey, Nanette McGuinness, Lawrence Schimel and Claire Storey in conversation with Dr Leah Phillips

As with any other genre, the linguist and literary translator in me enjoys reading YA novels in all of my languages: English, French, German, Dutch, and Italian. I’ve always been a bookworm who enjoys reading stories set in other countries, but when was I writing about World Kid Lit Month, I realised that, as a young adult, I probably didn’t read many novels actually written by authors in other countries in languages that weren't English.

Thankfully interest in translated fiction for children and YA has been growing in recent years. More titles are making their way onto the English-language market and UK and US publishers are gradually starting to build their catalogues of World Kid Lit in translation. YA studies is also a growing field as it becomes more and more established in a range of university departments spanning creative writing, English studies, and education. This year saw the launch of the Young Adult Studies Association (YASA) which grew out of the Young Adult Literature, Media and Culture network first founded in 2017. In her introduction to YASA, Dr Leah Philips explains the need to build a collaborative, supportive, responsive organisation for YA studies in today’s world.

“[It] feels especially urgent given the growing awareness of the systematic inequality faced by marginalised groups, especially Black people, within YA publishing and scholarship, as well as the renewed intensity of transphobic narratives in online spaces. YA studies, as an interdisciplinary field, offers an opportunity to dismantle these structural disparities, which we must use to its full effect.”

YASA marked 2020 with its first biennial conference in November, generously throwing open its online doors not only free of charge, but also wide enough to welcome anyone interested in the field. The week-long programme was packed with panels and workshops discussing representation, YA studies around the world, feminism, social media, political activism, gender and sexuality, mental health, perceptions of disabled people, and, of course, the panel I was most interested in – YA in Translation.

Researcher and translator Reham Almutairi had worked with Dr Leah Phillips to bring together a stellar panel of four enthusiastic translators who specialise in children’s and YA books. Marcia Lynx Qualey, Nanette McGuinness,Lawrence Schimel and Claire Storey met through their work founding and contributing to the World Kid Lit initiative, an informal collective of volunteers who are passionate about broadening the range of books available in English.

“We would like to see more diversity in English-language publishing, to give a richer and more realistic representation of the multicultural and multilingual world we live in. We aim to make it easier to find children’s and YA books in translation into English from other languages around the world.” World Kid Lit

Firmly focused on widening YA in every way possible, YASA2020 was also keen to hear more about YA in translation from a practical perspective. Moderator Dr Leah Phillips was eager to learn about the current context and opened the session by asking who was publishing YA in translation and where. Lynx Qualey was excited about the tremendous amount of energy around YA in translation at the moment. Most of the new YA in translation is coming from small and medium-sized presses with a number of new imprints emerging, such as Hope Road, Interlink, and University of Texas Press, who are pioneering change and see YA in translation as a way of contributing to a diverse literary landscape that reflects Own Voices. Storey added that books featured by Word Kid Lit over the past year had been released by a series of small publishers. Pushkin, however, stood out in particular, having made it on to the Global Literature in Libraries Translated YA Book Prize several times. Schimel highlighted Arctis Books, the only imprint specifically for translated middle grade and YA. Another new imprint has recently been launched by Arthur Levine, the publisher who brought Harry Potter to the US. Levine Querido has a special focus books from the Netherlands, an exciting prospect at a time when Dutch books are gaining in popularity, and a Dutch writer made the Carnegie Medal shortlist for the first time (Lampie by Annet Schaap tr. Laura Watkinson). McGuiness recommended graphic novels for anyone looking for YA in translation, a genre that has been very open to translation in general.

Phillips wondered if there were any particular trends or popular genres for YA in translation and asked the panellists what they would like to see more of. Fantasy novels, such as The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff tr. Annie Prime, or Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi tr. Cathy Hirano, were one of the popular emerging trends said Storey. She also thought more thrillers could on their way, such as Fright Night by Maren Stoffels tr. Laura Watkinson. Own Voices may also be given more attention, a point echoed by Lynx Qualey who felt that the interest in translations was seen as a way of enriching the literary landscape. However, she explained that YA in translation generally tended to be European. A few titles came from Japanese and Chinese, but there was much less from Arabic, and translations from Indian languages were even rarer. This was often due to existing relationships in the publishing world, and a feeling that publishing cultures were more similar between European languages and the UK/US. She also explained that some genres didn’t line up in the same way across languages. Her next translation, due out in December, for example, won a major YA Arabic prize, but will be marketed as literary fiction on the English-language market because the protagonist grows up, so it isn’t classified as YA. Schimel talked about editors’ expectations of YA in translation. Books from certain languages and countries are expected to perform an identity. A sci-fi title by a Latin American writer can’t simply be a good sci-fi story, it also has to be about latinidad or latinos in space. Trends are changing however, and there has been a breakthrough for Asian sci-fi, for example, which everyone now wants. McGuinness felt that most YA books she translated focused on identity, not so much latinidad, but rather an identity of the core, such as sexuality. YA and middle grade books can tackle meaningful subjects, and identity is a common theme because those are the issues readers that age deal with. Almutairi said she would like to see more YA translated from Arabic but felt that it would be a challenge because it isn't popular with young adults in Arab countries yet. More YA in Arabic is needed first, so that other publishers can then come and translate it.

The conversation moved on to why translation is so vitally important. For Almutairi, during these difficult times when Middle Eastern Muslims are often portrayed as violent fanatics, translation is a way to read about the authentic experience of Arab teens. It also helps Arab teens born and raised in Western cultures, they can read about themselves and see themselves reflected in those stories in translation. Lynx Qualey referred to a recent conversation with London-based Syrian author Nadine Kaadan on books about Syrian teens. It was disappointing that Syrian teens in the UK had to read books that were such poor representations of their lives both in the UK and back in Syria. McGuinness believed that in a world with increasingly xenophobic echo chambers, translated books were a a way to pierce through them, and get through to lands cut off. Schimel rejected the ‘lost in translation’ cliché, noting that by not translating we lose even more. It’s vitally important in this globalised world that we have access to more and more translations from all over the world. Storey was also keen to add that whilst diversity is important, translation is also about simply about offering English-speaking readers access to some really great books they would otherwise miss out on.

Phillips was curious about the actual practice of translation and how the panellists dealt with differences between cultures. She asked if translating a work meant changing certain things to suit another culture, to make them acceptable, wondering if there was a risk that things could be lost. There is often an age difference, Schimel said, taking the example of his translation from Spanish of a novel from Equatorial Guinea, La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono. It was initially published as an adult book by The Feminist Press, but later won a YA award. He also explained how he approached the use of words from the Fang language and techniques he applied to ensure that readers understood he had translated from Spanish and not Fang. He mentioned the issue of curse words in The Treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos which became a middle grade book in English. He thanked Storey for her article analysing the change of register in his translation, aiming to retain fluency, whilst ensuring the language was age appropriate. McGuinness agreed that cursing was often an issue because it varies so greatly between languages and always requires discussion with the editor. There were other cross-cultural standards, however, such as bullying, name calling, racism, and bigoty. Gendered language can also require thought, some of these words translating naturally, whilst others are a struggle and require discussion with the editor. Her priority is to give best justice in that moment in that time to each specific book. This is what makes translation interesting in different generations, different eyes develop different sets of mores. Lynx Qualey talked about her current project, a trilogy set in contemporary Palestine, a setting that is more difficult for a US audience than a historical novel. Occupation and checkpoints are generally difficult to talk about in the US, and even more so in literature for young readers. She addressed the issue of different sensitivities and how different things read differently for different age groups, noting that some Americans would be surprised to discover they are not the most censorship free.

Picking up on the points about Own Voices and the people in the story and the people writing the stories, Phillips mentioned the importance of representation in all stages of the process and asked about more translators of colour. New initiatives are being launched, said Storey, wholeheartedly agreeing that there needs to be more. The UK National Centre for Writing included a Visible Communities Mentorship for the first time this year which will team up Anam Zafar and Meena Kandasamy, whilst Shadow Heroes is doing some exciting work to promote translation and a wide range of languages in schools across the UK. Schimel added that changes are needed at a lot of levels in the publishing industry, some of which individual translators have no control over. Books are often identified by only one element of the story, something that tends to happen with books about race, gender, or sexuality.

The session concluded with thirty seconds for each speaker to share a key take away about YA in translation. Go and spread the word, was Almutairi’s request as she mentioned how much she had learnt about YA from social media and websites like Arablit. Storey encouraged the audience to talk about translated YA, to ask for it in libraries and bookshops, and get the word out by generating interest on social media. Schimel shared his passion as a reader who loves to pitch books he wants other people to be able to read too. Read, read, read, talk, talk, talk added McGuinness. And finally, Lynx Qualey boldly asked for funding to support translation of excerpts as a way of getting more YA into translation.

All in all, YA and YA in Translation definitely seem to be attracting more attention. Let’s hope we see more exciting new works in the near future as the momentum grows.

Are you looking for some great recommendations for children’s books and YA from across the world? Are you interested in hearing about new titles coming out in other languages? Then be sure to visit the World Kid Lit site. The team would love to hear about your favourites too!

YA Studies Association (YASA) is an international organisation existing to increase the knowledge of, and research on, YA literature, media, and related fields and to encourage the cooperation of specialists, institutions, organisations, and individuals engaging with YA whether through research, teaching, or practice. Read more here.

Reham Almutairi is a Saudi-based academic, bilingual freelance translator (Arabic/English) and PhD student. Her research focuses on the representation of illness and disability in Arabic folktales. She is developing a project to promote YA literature among Saudi Arabian youth.

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a freelance journalist for the Al Masry Al Youm English edition, World Literature Today, and more. She is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of ArabLit, and her translation of Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands is forthcoming (2020). Follow her on Twitter @mlynxqualey.

Nanette McGuinness is an award-winning opera singer and translator of over 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels, and Luisa: Now and Then, a 2020 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize Honor Book. Read more about her work here.

Lawrence Schimel is a bilingual (Spanish to English) writer who has published over 120 books as author or anthologist, for readers of all ages. His books and translations have won numerous prestigious awards and honours, including a Highly Commended Award in the 2020 CLiPPA. Follow him on Twitter @lawrenceschimel.

Claire Storey is a UK-based translator (German, Spanish to English), reviewer, and editor. She is currently working on her debut YA novel translation, and is a co-editor of the World Kid Lit Blog. Her translations have been widely published and nominated for numerous awards. Read more about her work here.

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