Laura Watkinson is an award-winning translator of both children’s books and books for adults. She studied medieval and modern languages at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University, followed by a Master of Studies in European Literature. She taught at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and University of Milan, before returning to take a Masters in English and Applied Linguistics at RCEAL and Trinity Hall, Cambridge University.
Watkinson has translated work from Dutch, Italian, and German into English, and she has done great work with EBYR on numerous projects, including: Animal Beauty (Italian), The Call of the Swamp (Italian), The Dog that Nino Didn’t Have (Dutch), Felix (Italian), Get on Your Bike (Dutch), Jesus (German), Just for Today (Italian), Leave a Message in the Sand (Dutch), The Life and Times of Martin Luther (German), Mikis and the Donkey (Dutch), Prayers for Young Children (German), Red (Dutch), Roger Is Going Fishing (Dutch), Roger Is Reading a Book (Dutch), Scout’s Heaven (Dutch), Soldier Bear (Dutch), and The War within These Walls (Dutch).
Eerdlings: How long have you been translating, and how did you enter the field?
Laura Watkinson (LW): I’ve been interested in languages for as long as I can remember. When I was about seven, I used to read the list of foreign phrases in the back of my mom’s dictionary and imagine what it would be like to speak French and Latin. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd!
Predictably, I studied languages at university. Then I spent a few years teaching English at private language schools and universities in Italy, Germany, and the UK. I also worked in subtitling and at the BBC Pronunciation Unit. The theme was always languages – and often translation.
When I lived in London in around 2000, I signed up for a year-long postgraduate course in literary translation at University College London, and I’d say that was the point when I really began to enter the field of literary translation. It was a very practical course, with lots of translating and plenty of advice about translation as a career too. I think it would have taken me a lot longer to find my feet within the field of literary translation without that course. I’ve been translating on a more or less full-time basis ever since.
Eerdlings: What’s a typical workday like?
LW: I work at home, so I need to have quite a lot of discipline. I plan out what I’m going to do each day, and I try to stick to the plan, aiming to work fifty minutes to an hour and then taking a ten-minute break. I enjoy working on first drafts, as it’s fun getting to know the text, and I like working through subsequent passes of the translation too, polishing and shaping the text. If my schedule allows, I like to vary my work within the day, so that I’m not working on one translation all day long. I think that keeps me—and the translation—fresher.
Eerdlings: What is your favorite thing about being a translator?
LW: Ooh, there’s so much to like. I enjoy working by myself and really getting into the nitty-gritty of a text. I also appreciate the freedom that translation gives me. I feel quite settled in Amsterdam now, but teaching and translation have allowed me to work while traveling and living in different places. Being a freelancer also means that I can go for walks and to yoga classes in the middle of the day, which is a real benefit. It’s also great to feel that your job allows you to strengthen connections between different cultures and countries by making stories available in another language.
Eerdlings: Can you tell us a little about the EBYR books you have translated? How was your experience?
LW: Working with EBYR has been a wonderful experience. The editing process has been so smooth in every project, with easy communication and great suggestions. I really have the feeling that we’re working together to make the best possible books.
My most recent EBYR project was Leave a Message in the Sand by poet Bibi Dumon Tak and illustrator Annemarie van Haeringen. It’s a book of poems about all kinds of fun and unusual animals, like the bongo and the dik-dik. It was so much fun working out how to move the fun and the puns into English, and it really helped to know that Eerdman’s Kathleen Merz was there with her thoughtful insights and feedback.
I’ve enjoyed all my projects with EBYR, and some standout titles have been Bibi Dumon Tak’s Mikis and the Donkey and Soldier Bear, which both won the ALA’s Mildred Batchelder Award, and The War Within These Walls by Aline Sax (author) and Caryl Strzelecki (illustrator), which won a Batchelder Honor.
Eerdlings: What languages do you speak?
LW: That’s a tricky one. As I mentioned above, I’m a language nerd, so I’m always picking up little bits of different languages here and there, taking various language courses, and maintaining my Duolingo streak. My reading skills are stronger than my speaking skills in most languages though. I live in the Netherlands, so I speak Dutch pretty much on a daily basis, and I’m a keen speaker of Italian too. I like to travel to Italy (when that’s possible) and I take part in Italian conversation and culture classes at the Taalhuis, a language school in Amsterdam. My spoken German is a bit rusty now, although it used to be my strongest foreign language, and my French is kind of okaaay at a pinch. My Spanish comes mainly from Duolingo, and I keep meaning to pick up Yiddish again. Oh, and Esperanto. I’m enjoying exploring Frisian literature too. In 2018, I went to the Faroe Islands and Iceland and took part in language summer schools in both places. I have enough Faroese now to read picture books, and during lockdown I’ve been taking part in online Icelandic classes at a school in Reykjavík, so my Icelandic is slowly improving. But as for saying that I speak the language… not so much. My list would probably be English, Dutch, Italian, German, and, on a good day, kind of-ish, French.
Eerdlings: Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
LW: I love animals – particularly lemurs. One of the best and most memorable experiences of my life was working as a lemur keeper for a day at the Duke Lemur Center, in Durham, North Carolina.
Eerdlings: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
My highlights are when the mailman delivers boxes of books that I’ve translated – and when readers say how much they’ve enjoyed one of the books I translated. That always makes me grin.
Eerdlings: Why do you think reading books in translation is important for children?
LW: I love great stories. Who doesn’t? And translating books means that there are even more great stories out there for us to read. Stories also, of course, allow us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, which can make it easier for us to identify with people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences. Translated books often open up different cultures and countries too, which I think is really exciting and important for readers of all ages.