We had the opportunity to interview author, translator and anthologist Lawrence Schimel who has published books in a wide range of genres and has translated books for Eerdmans. Among other His picture books have been selected for the White Ravens catalog from the International Youth Library and have been chosen several times for IBBY’s Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities List.
He started Spain’s chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and served as its regional advisor for five years. He was also a juror for the 2010 James Tiptree Jr. Award and for two SCBWI-Bologna Book Fair conferences.
EBYR: How did you become a literary translator?
LS: I fell into translation by accident. I had already been publishing fiction and poetry as an author, and grew up speaking Spanish at home, even though at school I started studying Latin and Greek. One day a publisher I knew needed someone to take over immediately as translator for a graphic novel, since the translator who had originally been scheduled to work on it had had an accident. And I was able to juggle my other deadlines in order to take it on. So it was literally because of an accident that I started translating books!
EBYR: How long have you been translating, and how did you enter the field?
LS: I’ve been translating for 27 years now, although for many years I focused more on my own books and did very little translating. It’s only over the past decade or so that I’ve begun to translate so much, and it’s been a bit of a revelation. It gives me intellectual stimulation, I find it fun and creative, but without being as exhausting as creating my own work can sometimes be. I used to play a lot of sudoku, but now I channel that sort of creative play into translating, which has the result of helping bring great books to readers in other languages.
I entered the literary field as a reader, and still consider myself first and foremost a reader. But when I had read everything I could get my hands on, I started to write my own stories. And I started submitting them to magazines and anthologies, when I was still in high school. In fact, my parents had to sign the contracts for my first acceptances, because I was under 18 and couldn’t yet legally grant the publication rights in exchange for money on my own.
I have lived in Spain for over 20 years now, and write in both Spanish and English. And I translate in both directions, as well. I’ve published over 120 books as an author or anthologist, for readers of all ages, and have probably translated an equal number of books as well.
EBYR: What is the book translation process?
LS: Every book is different, which is one of the exciting things about translation. Also, it keeps me from getting bored! Every new book has its unique challenges to recreate the reading experience (which is always my goal) in the target language.
Sometimes the challenges are more technical (for instance, if a book is written in rhyme). Other times, it’s specialized vocabulary I have to learn (in either the source language or the target language or sometimes both!). If I’m translating a book about pirates, say, I need to know not just pirate slang but often all sorts of nautical terms and even maybe specialized names for weapons or things like that. Or if it’s a book about books, but there are all sorts of plays on words in the titles, I might have to re-invent different titles in the translation, but ones which are just as playful.
But even when I have to fall back on strategies I’ve used in the past, translating each book is a unique project. (And translating a sequel means I have to look up how I translated things the first time, to be consistent! Because it has often been a year or so since I last worked on those characters, and in between I will have written or translated many other books!)
EBYR: What is a typical workday like?
LS: I am a sprinter rather than a plodder. So while some writers or translators will try and meet a daily quota, whether it’s 500 words a day or 2500 words, I tend to binge and translate, say, 4000 words for three days in a row, and then collapse and do no translating for a week.
Being a writer or translator is not just the actual writing or translating, though. So there’s revising proofs, dealing with contracts, doing PR work (pre-publication or post-publication), and so on. So there are lots of writerly/translatorly thing I do, even on days I am not actually translating.
To give you an idea of my workflow, during the first two months, January and February, of 2021, I’ve translated:
Into English: 2 poetry collections for adults, 2 graphic novels, 1 middle grade non-fiction book about neuroscience, 1 picture book, and around 200 pages of poetry (extracts from 4 different collections for adults)
Into Spanish: 2 board books and 1 picture book
Into Galician: one of my own picture books
And that is just what I translated during those months, not including going over the edits or proofs of books I translated or wrote previously. So every day is different–as I am always juggling different projects.
EBYR: What is your favorite thing about being a translator?
LS: I am a voracious reader, so helping readers in another language have access to a great story or wonderful poems—that is definitely my favorite thing about being a translator.
Also, I am able to earn a living and still have time to read lots. In 2020 I read 403 books (!!!): 139 novels, 222 poetry collections, 22 memoirs, 7 non-fiction books or essays, 5 graphic novels, & 8 short story collections.
EBYR: Can you tell us a little about Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile? How was your experience?
LS: I’ve long been a fan of María José Ferrada’s work, so it was great to be able to have the chance to translate these poems. The context of the book is terrible and terribly moving–the children who were killed or disappeared under the Pinochet dictatorship. The poems, on the other hand, try and recreate the lost childhoods those children were deprived of. So the book is so complex and full of different emotions simultaneously. With an especially emotional ending. (I cried when I translated it, and again when I re-read the galleys. But happy tears!)
EBYR: What languages do you speak?
LS: I love languages, and love learning bits of languages, and especially words that don’t exist in the languages I speak fluently. For instance, I was in a poetry workshop in Slovenia, and was fascinated to learn that Slovene has a dual case, you and I, and even though neither English nor Spanish, my two primary languages, have that, ever since I became aware of it as a possibility, I am always aware now if a we is an “intimate we” (just you and I) or a more general we (a group of three or more).
As I mentioned, when I was in high school, I studied Latin and Greek, and in college I studied Old English and Old Norse. I will sometimes work from Portuguese or Galician or Catalan, but those are not active languages for me.
I create in both Spanish and English, and love that I can create things that are “untranslatable” in each language.
EBYR: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
LS: There are so many and there continue to be new ones all the time, so I can’t pick just one.
Maybe the thing that made my mother proudest was when I translated George Takei’s graphic novel memoir They Called Us Enemy into Spanish. She has been a Star Trek fan since the very beginning!
EBYR: Why do you think reading books in translation is important for children?
LS: Children live in the world, and I think it is important for them to have a chance to see the many different realities that exist in the world. Just having access to a single culture is to deprive them/us/oneself of many experiences, emotions, moments of understanding and empathy, inspirations, etc.
This book is a stirring memorial to those victims and to the cost of extremism. Thirty-four poems—one for each child lost—consider the diverse hopes of these fragile young lives. From Alicia to Jaime, Héctor to Paola, Soledad to Rafael, they were brave and creative, thoughtful and strong. In these pages, some children watch for the changing seasons. Some listen for new sounds on rainy afternoons. And some can’t wait for their next birthday.
Featuring gentle, emotive poems and soft, pastel-toned illustrations, Niños is an unforgettable tribute to the children of Pinochet’s Chile and all those threatened by political violence across the world.