“Soldier Bear, the Batchelder, and the Risky Business of Publishing International Literature,” by Kathleen Merz
Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Here she describes EBYR’s reaction to the news that it had been awarded the American Library Association’s prestigious Batchelder Award for its translation of Bibi Dumon Tak’s Soldier Bear, and she offers insight into the “tricky and risky business” of publishing translated children’s books.
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Monday, January 23, was a day of celebration for everyone here at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. This year’s Youth Media Awards — some of the most significant awards in children’s publishing — were announced that morning at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association. And as our staff gathered around my computer to watch the webcast, we were stunned and elated to hear that the Batchelder Award went to our book Soldier Bear, the story (based on a series of actual events) of an orphaned bear adopted by a company of Polish soldiers in World War II.
The Mildred L. Batchelder Award is given to an American publisher to recognize the year’s most outstanding translated children’s book published in the United States. The award was proposed in 1966 by Eleanor Burgess, head of children’s services at none other than our very own Grand Rapids Public Library. After hearing a speech from Mildred Batchelder, a fellow librarian and tireless promoter of international children’s literature, Burgess was so inspired that she immediately suggested that an award be established in Batchelder’s honor, for the purpose of encouraging American publishers “to seek out superior children’s books abroad and to promote communication among the peoples of the world.”
Having one of our books chosen for this prestigious award was a thrilling surprise and a great honor. But even more than that, it is a wonderful encouragement to us to continue the work we’ve been doing to bring international books to a U.S. audience. Soldier Bear, originally published in Dutch, is our first translated novel, although EBYR has published numerous picture books in translation — Willy, John Jensen Feels Different, and 2009 Batchelder Honor winner Garmann’s Summer are just a few noteworthy examples.
We’re grateful for the affirmation, because publishing translated books can be a tricky and risky business. For starters, there is the daunting task of acquiring a book written in an unfamiliar language. EBYR regularly looks at books published in French, German, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, and Korean, among others. Needless to say, our department’s collective understanding of these languages ranges from shaky to utterly nonexistent. With a picture book, the art can at least offer some sense of a story’s possibility — though the text may not measure up at all — but with a novel,often the only clues to its potential are a brief synopsis and perhaps one or two roughly translated sample chapters provided by the foreign publisher.
This was the case for us with Soldier Bear. We were, however, intrigued enough by the story to take the next step and find a reader who knew both the Dutch language and the field of children’s literature well enough to give us a report on the book. When the evaluation came back positive, we moved ahead with finding a translator and hiring her to translate five chapters to give us an idea of what she might be able to do with the book. At any point along the way, of course, we might have discovered that the book wasn’t for us — and all that effort would have been wasted.
But we were fortunate. The story that started to unfold in those five chapters charmed us all. We wanted to know more about the mischievous little bear cub Voytek and the soldiers who decided to take him along as they traveled across the Middle East and to the frontlines in Italy. So, with seventeen chapters still unread, we agreed to publish the book.
We were fortunate as well to find an excellent translator. Laura Watkinson did a wonderful job of bring the story to life in a new language. It was impossible to tell that the chapters had been translated; they read as smoothly and naturally as if they had been written in English originally. That, too, is another risk of publishing translated books: it’s incredibly hard to get the translation just right, striking the perfect balance between faithfulness to the original language and accessibility to a new audience. We had lots of long discussions about seemingly trivial things. Should we use the original name “Wojtek” for the bear, or the more anglicized (and easier to pronounce) “Voytek”? “Pjotr” or “Peter”? Not the sort of thing you often need to consider if you’re publishing a book written by an English-speaking author for an American audience.
Eventually, of course, we arrived at a consensus on all these issues. And after formatting and reformatting, polishing and proofreading just one more time, we had a finished book. And then we held our breath.
The greatest risk of publishing international literature is that a book will be too far outside what the U.S. market is accustomed to and not be able to find an audience. But in a way, this is also the joy of it — that we have the chance to publish something fresh, something edgy, something altogether unexpected. Something that stretches in some small way the boundaries that readers hold rigid around them without perhaps even noticing that they do. Or maybe just something delightful that children in the U.S. should have the chance to read.
We at EBYR get very excited about the chance to discover these sorts of books. And we’re very grateful to the dedicated individuals at the American Library Association and the United States Board on Books for Young People who have made it their mission to support international literature. Without their encouragement, and without readers who are willing to try something new and perhaps a little unfamiliar, it wouldn’t be possible for us to publish books like Soldier Bear. We’re glad that Soldier Bear is finding appreciative readers, because it paves the way for us to continue to look for books that can offer a small window into a larger world.