On the international literary scene, Lawrence Schimel is something of a stupor mundi. His body of work—which is prodigious and constantly expanding—spans modes, genres, and target audiences. He both writes and translates, in both English and Spanish, for both children and adults; his work has been translated in turn into over thirty languages, and his long list of recognitions includes the Lambda Literary Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award, and the Spectrum Award, among many others. In LALT, we have had the pleasure of sharing his translations of Fabio Morábito, Johanny Vázquez Paz, Ángelo Néstore, Gabriela Cantú Westendarp, Mijaíl Lamas, Carmen Boullosa, and Juan Villoro.
Lawrence and I spoke via email about his unique artistic practice, the joys and peculiarities of translating children’s literature, and the troubling rise in anti-LGBT censorship of writing for young readers.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon: First, a question wrapped in a compliment: you’re incredibly prolific! I—like many translators, I suspect—am consistently blown away by how many excellent translations you’re able to produce over short periods of time (in two directions), all while writing your own books and traveling internationally to talk about your work. Can you share any tips or trade secrets about productivity?
Lawrence Schimel: This comes up a lot, especially from Americans, and especially those who ask how I can afford to translate so much poetry, with as badly as poetry translations are usually paid. Probably the biggest secret or tip is living in a country with socialized medicine, and hence not needing to have a different day job (distracting me from making books) in order to have health insurance, as is the case in the US where health insurance is available/affordable only via employment.
I’ve also tried to channel my time and energy into creative work, so these days rather than get embroiled in online flamewars or something like that, I’d rather translate some poems and be doing something positive in the world instead.
In general, I find that translation satisfies the creative itch in a way, but without draining the well of creativity in a way that my own writing tends to.
Deadlines also help. Having someone who wants to publish something (which is frankly easier with a translation, usually, than one’s own writing) is a very strong motivator for me. Not just getting paid for the work, and hence keeping a roof over my head and allowing me to buy books to read, but also for the work to reach a readership.
AMD: Besides translating children’s literature, you’re also a widely-published writer of children’s literature, and your books are often translated into a variety of languages. What can you tell us about seeing your work spread across lines of language? To what extent do you take part in the process of translating your work into languages you don’t speak or write yourself?
LS: I’m always delighted to talk to translators as they’re figuring out ways to recreate my own work in other languages, and since I both write in multiple languages and translate primarily from and into two, I fully understand and appreciate how flexible one needs to be sometimes—or how many liberties a translator may need to take—in order to be faithful to the spirit of the work (and also its commercial aspect, since, unlike many other kinds of translation, children’s books have the potential to sell quite well and over a long period of time, as the market essentially renews itself every four to five years).
My most-translated books are two rhyming children’s stories with same-sex families that I created with the Latvian illustrator Elīna Brasliņa. They are now published (or at least under contract) for over fifty editions in forty languages. And I’ve regularly talked with a lot of the translators, and helped supply them with some of the various existing versions, in case those might help aid or inspire solutions for their languages. I tell the translators to take whatever liberties they need to recreate the books, which should be fun, rhyming adventures. Since they can’t change or contradict the art, they can be as free as they need to with the plot, if doing so helps them be more faithful to the text, if that makes sense.
I originally wrote the books in Spanish, and provided a line-by-line English gloss for editors and/or translators who might need them. I later did my own rhyming English translations (there are lots of tweaks and edits to the different English-language editions published in Canada, Wales, New Zealand, and South Africa, even though they’re all my self-translations: sometimes it says “stuffie” or “teddy” or just “bear”; sometimes it’s “my two moms,” “my two mums,” or “mum and mam”). So far the book has been published in three different French-language editions: two in Europe (in Switzerland and a bilingual French/Flemish edition in Belgium) which are translated directly from the Spanish, and one in Canada which was translated from my own English self-translation (also published by the same Canadian publisher).
For a long while the biggest objection to the books was the margarine; I hadn’t thought twice about rhyming “margarina” with “cocina” in Spanish, especially as both my husband and I are dairy-free. But some of the editors had moral objections (for instance, in Switzerland, where it was a matter of national pride for it to be butter instead of margarine) and some translators asked if they could change it to butter because margarine is so polysyllabic and didn’t fit the meter or the rhyme well. In Israel, to avoid issues of kosher dietary laws (and because margarine in Israel comes in bars, not round containers), we changed it to hummus and actually named the cat Hummus, too, which worked out quite nicely.
But to give an example as a translator working with a language I don’t speak myself: a few years ago, I translated two picture books by an author friend of mine, Clare Azzopardi, from Maltese into Spanish. I had been in a multilingual European children’s writing/translating workshop with Clare many years before, during which we had worked on the first drafts of one of the two books, so I’d been a witness to (and a commentator on) it from its genesis.
I worked partially from an English bridge translation by Albert Gatt, but, for instance, I noticed that in one of the stories, all the cats had rhyming sets of names, whereas in the English version the names were translated accurately but didn’t rhyme. So I consulted with Clare and was given permission to make up new sets of cat names that rhymed in Spanish, like Canela and Franela. Likewise, there were moments where the English proved awkward or confusing to translate into Spanish, and I asked Clare what the Italian would be, and from Italian I was able to come up with a Spanish version that had much better flow and syntax.
Rather than focusing on that cliché of what is “lost in translation,” I prefer to focus on the greater loss of not translating (anything) from an entire nation/language’s literary output.
AMD: How does translating children’s literature differ from translating literature written for grown-ups, if it does? Do your concerns or priorities as a translator change depending on the age of your target audience?
LS: A lot will depend on the kind of book it is (not to mention the kind of publisher): whether the translation preserves all the cultural details or instead whether the translation localizes the book.
I think each project has its own priorities and concerns. For instance, I recently translated a Latin American picture book for a publisher in the UK in which I advocated for keeping the word “pueblo” in Spanish because a “village” in the UK means something very different from the communities founded by escaped African slaves in the remote Colombian mountains where the book was set.
But I also translated another Latin American picture book, this time for an American publisher, in which I would normally have once more advocated for leaving “abuela” and “pueblo” in the original, except that this project, while written and illustrated by an Argentine creator, Isol, was commissioned by the Palestinian Museum as part of their “Palestinian Art History as Told by Everyday Objects” project. Isol had previously given a workshop for the Tamer Institute, and had been given a shawl, which she used as the basis for her book, scanning it and using the embroidery as the background for the art and the story.
So in this case, consulting with my editor, we decided “abuela” and “pueblo” should in fact be translated, even if in another book by an Argentine creator we would have left them in the original.
The biggest determining factor is probably the illustration, though, in that the translation cannot contradict what is depicted, and that will condition what solutions you can come up with for the translation. (I’m thinking, for instance, of languages that are inflected, so nouns have genders; in Spanish, Death is feminine: La Muerte, or Mexico’s La Calatrina, although in English Death is usually depicted as the Grim Reaper, who is commonly male.)
The question of inclusivity and gendered stereotypes and gendered language is also one that needs to be grappled with, and which can be trickier for certain ages.
I translated into Spanish a lovely children’s book by indigenous creators Richard van Camp and Julie Flett. Little You shows various indigenous families in different compositions, but never genders the babies being addressed. The Spanish translation of this interview will have to figure out how to say this, but luckily, since this interview is for an adult readership, the translator will be able to resort to direct non-binary language in a way that I couldn’t in my translation of the book itself, aimed at young readers. It was important for me to respect the authors’ care in creating a fun, rhyming, and gender-neutral book, and so I struggled to avoid using the masculine as neutral in my translation. This led to my taking, perhaps, some liberties to recreate a fun, rhyming, gender-neutral version in Spanish, but by doing so I was more faithful to the spirit of the book, even if not the line-by-line or spread-by-spread text. Some solutions were easier: I could change the line “you are perfect” to “you are perfection” to avoid winding up with the gendered “perfecto/perfecta.” From the very title things were complicated because all diminutives in Spanish are inflected masculine/feminine. In the end, I delivered both a literal version in Spanish and my rhyming gender-neutral version, which is the one that was, in the end, published, under the title Tú eres tú.
AMD: I imagine creating illustrated children’s books must be an intensely collaborative process between writer (and possibly translator) and illustrator(s). Am I right in thinking this, or does the process work differently? What’s it like in cases, such as those of your books ¿Lees un libro conmigo? and Igual que ellos, when the same book is illustrated by different artists in different editions?
LS: Unquestionably the case, and I think one of the important things for writers to be aware of is to leave room for the illustrator to create their own visual narrative in parallel with (or sometimes in contrast to) the story being told in the text. Very often, after the illustrations are done, I’ll go through the text again and see if there are things that need to be cut or changed, so the combination of text and illustration works hand-in-hand.
That, of course, is for picture books; working with middle grade or adult fiction, which are often pure text, can be different. Oftentimes, intended age ranges can vary between languages, with a book scaling up or down in terms of audience.
One recent book I translated, Different: A Story of the Spanish Civil War, written by Venezuelan author Mónica Montañés and illustrated by Eva Sánchez Gómez, was originally a very text-heavy picture book when published by Ediciones Ekaré. I suggested to Eerdmans, who published the book in English, for us to use the same text and the same art, but to change the trim size and format to let it be a middle grade novel, with more pages, which better suited the ages of the characters in the story and the length of the text in the English language market. The book just won a Batcheldeer Honor from the American Library Association, so it seems like our instincts and the adaptations we made were solid. And Ekaré is even thinking of doing the same thing now, when they sell through the current Spanish-language print run of the picture book!
You mention ¿Lees un libro conmigo?, which has gone through various editions. Most recently, it was published in a bilingual English/Filipino edition by Kahel Press in the Philippines, with new art by Pepot Atienza. The art by Thiago Lopes which was used in most of the editions and translations of the book didn’t have enough space for the bilingual text, and also in order to fit the series where the book was published, it needed to be a square rather than a rectangular shape.
Perhaps most importantly, there were some major cultural differences in how blind people are portrayed, and so there were visual cultural clues that wouldn’t necessarily have “read” for young readers in the Philippines.
AMD: You’ve translated several books for young readers—such as Niños, written by María José Ferrada and illustrated by María Elena Valdez, and Different, which you mentioned earlier—that deal with heavy, difficult historical subjects (in the case of these two books, the disappearance of children under the Pinochet regime and the experiences of children during the Spanish Civil War, respectively). How do you approach this sort of project? What do you hope young readers will gain from the experience of reading these books?
LS: I think it is important for all of us to remember that children live in the world with us, and hence anything that happens in the world is an appropriate subject for children as well, so long as it is written appropriately for their frame of reference.
In the case of a book like Niños, the poems themselves are not heavy in any way. Rather, what’s heavy is the architecture or construction of the book, the contextualization, which crystalizes everything: Ferrada imagines the missing childhoods of the children who were disappeared or killed during the Pinochet dictatorship with one poem named for each of those children.
For Different, the English translation also has a lot of original backmatter that contextualizes the Spanish Civil War for young readers who might not yet know anything about it, as well as a glossary of terms we agreed to leave in the original, and whose definition provides additional cultural or historical context.
At the same time, the story of a family fleeing for political freedom is one that, sadly, is so very timely, in so many parts of the world.
(I did also think it was vitally important for American kids in particular to read this story in which Venezuela, not the US, was the fabled country of freedom to which they flee, to counteract recent years in which certain politicians and the media only call Venezuela a “shithole country.”)
AMD: In 2021, we read in the news that Hungarian bookshop Líra Könyv had been fined for selling the Hungarian translations of your books Early In the Morning and It’s Not Playtime! due to the fact that these books depict queer families, with same-sex parents interacting with their children in everyday settings. In the United States and other countries, we continue to see efforts to ban or censor books depicting queer characters, based on the reactionary notion that such books will somehow harm or corrupt children. What are your hopes or concerns for children’s literature affirming queer identities in the current publishing scene?
LS: I was completely unprepared for those books to have provoked the backlash they did, especially since Elina and I set out to write books that focused on queer joy, not just books about being different or overcoming homophobia. So the books, we thought, were completely innocent, until we had it proved by various government backlashes how dangerous so many people found our queer happiness to be. Aside from the Hungarian government’s intent to suppress the sale of the books, the NGO in Russia who published them was shut down by the state.
I don’t read Hungarian or Russian, so I was spared the majority of the backlash and vitriol. I learned to Google myself in Cyrillic, and when I was feeling strong enough to stomach it, I would search for what was being said about the books or myself—ranging from posts suggesting that I, the illustrator, and the translator should all be shot to the Vice Chair of the Communist Party denouncing me on TV for committing “fifth column attacks” against Russia. But I wasn’t able to keep it all at arm’s length, only when I went looking for it; I was also subject to daily online attacks, threats, etc. on multiple social media platforms.
It was hard to live through, but it only confirmed for me how important it is to continue to create these kinds of stories, and to find ways of getting them into children’s hands, despite not just the haters but also the publishing industry and how it makes room only for a certain kind of story, or only in one slot (to be on Pride displays for June), ignoring us the rest of the year.
And while the backlash against these two books of mine usually gets most of the attention, there was also a lot of solidarity and collaboration. Not just campaigns like the one run by 100% Mensch in Stuttgart, together with the NGO Equality Factory in their sister-city of Łódź, in which for every copy bought in German they donated a Polish-language edition of the books to the LGBT-free zones in Poland. Or how NGOs like Stonewall Cymru donated a set of the books in Welsh to all eight hundred primary schools in Wales. Or how, in Portugal, the books were published by the government itself, in particular the Comissão para a Cidadania e a Igualdade de Género, and given free to schools across the country.
There were also all the publishers (big or small) and NGOs and queer bookshops and other entities who came together to co-print the books in different languages, and to help bring the per unit costs down enough to make it possible for all those who took part.
Not to mention how bookstores like Líra Könyv reacted to the government: instead of putting a warning label on the book, as many other bookshops did, they put up signs at the entrance to every bookstore saying: “In this bookstore we sell books with different content than traditional ones.”
AMD: Finally, a question on a topic other than children’s lit: through your translations of Agnès Agboton (Voice of the Two Shores, published by flipped eye in 2023) and your collaboration with Layla Benítez-James on the work of Lucía Asué Mbomío Rubio (Hija del camino, which was supported by a 2022 NEA Translation Fellowship and will soon be seen on screen via Netflix), you’ve done a lot to lend visibility to Black writers working from Spain, and to Afropean identity. How do you perceive your role in breaking down ethnocentric ideas about what “Spanish literature” should look like?
LS: I have a personal commitment to make sure I am translating at least one racialized writer each year, in either direction. These are, unfortunately, not usually projects I am asked by publishers to translate, so instead I feel it is important to use what privilege I have—and the luxury of time to be able to devote to creating a sample on spec—and what industry contacts I’ve amassed over the years to try and open what doors I can for these voices the publishing industry is otherwise actively and passively suppressing.
This can be work from a writer like Agnès Agboton, from Benin, who writes in her mother tongue, Gun, and then self-translates into Spanish, publishing in bilingual editions in Spain, where she’s lived for over thirty years now. I started working with her when she represented Benin for the Poetry Parnassus celebration held in conjunction with the London Olympics; I translated from the Spanish and then she recited the Gun originals so I could hear the music, and I read her the English so she could hear the music, and we tweaked as necessary.
Or a children’s book by Afro-Guatemalan writer Julio Serrano Echeverría, forthcoming from The Emma Press in the UK (which won a PEN Translates Award from English PEN, as did the Agboton project for flipped eye).
Or into Spanish, translating writers like South African poet Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia (with Arrate Hidalgo), or non-binary African-American poet Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
But I also think it is important to help create space and opportunities for racialized writers as well, and one way I figured I could do so would be to share a contract with a younger translator as a kind of private mentorship. That was how the collaboration with Layla came about, and it’s been fascinating and wonderful because the learning happens in both directions. As an autodidact, there is so much I only know on an instinctual level, and thus having to try and articulate it has helped me a lot in terms of understanding my own ideas and understandings about translation. And she has also helped push me out of my comfort zones or my complacencies; she makes me challenge or change some long-held ideas or habits that don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny.
Obviously, I don’t pretend to be the only one doing this work, but until we burn down the systems in place that result in the suppression of so many voices, it’s work that all of us need to be doing, and I hold myself accountable to continue to (actively) do what I can.