Picture book author Kate Hosford recently had the opportunity to talk with Sanda Watt, the Romanian translator of Kate’s first four books. Here are Sanda’s answers to some of Kate’s questions. (Co-edited by Libby Stille)
How did you become a translator?
My favorite story as a child was a Romanian version of Thumbelina where a tiny boy, small as a cornflower seed, would sneak into people’s ears and hear their thoughts. I was overly fascinated with this particular detail and my poor sister had to tell me this story over and over again elaborating on this particular part where Seed-Boy would eavesdrop on people’s ruminations. I guess translation was the closest I could get to that: take people’s thoughts expressed into words and break them into bits of meaning and intention. So, to me, the best compliment I ever got was when a hesitating friend consulted me on a decision to make and, in the middle of our discussion, said: “Wow, you’re translating me to myself!”
Then, as a junior in high school I had a senior student ask me to translate for him, for a small fee, the lyrics in some songs of The Doors. That was a great achievement to a child coming from a poor family and the first time I could associate my passion for thoughts and words to a profession and making a living.
So here I am, some 20 years later, delighted with my work shared between conference interpreting and the more quiet and solitary translation of books.
Have you always been interested in languages and in children’s books?
My interest in languages has been greatly supported by a natural inclination, added to the fact that studying mostly involved my favorite pastime: reading. I still have many of the books in several languages that enchanted my childhood. I spent this winter holiday re-reading some of them, and it was amazing to discover where many of my principles and values come from. One of them is “The Outsiders of Uskoken Castle,” about red haired Zora and her homeless gang, written by the German activist writer Kurt Kläber under the pseudonym of Kurt Held in his exile in Switzerland, upon the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. It was not difficult for me to see where my strong sense of social justice and my basic feminist ideas come from. I was equally happy to know that my daughter has her own great library, when she would rather wear an elf costume for her preschool Christmas Party instead of the omnipresent princess and then explain that she is just like Annabelle from Big Bouffant and prefers an original outfit.
I became interested in children’s book some years before I had my daughter, due to my friendship with artists from the Illustrators’ Club Romania (clubulilustratorilor.blogspot.ro). As a child reared during times of book and visual scarcity, I was exhilarated to see their art in books for both children and adults. I spent many hours discussing with my very good friend, the illustrator Cristiana Radu (cristianaradu.blogspot.ro) in her studio, over small crafts as we supported each other in our projects, and joining her in illustration exhibitions and events. When I become a mother, though, it became imperative that aesthetic options were matched by powerful ideas, great literature skills from the authors, quality print and even appropriate dimension and length of the books. As the world we live in changes radically and as the children’s book market grows, I feel we’re part of a laboratory or social experiment where new stories inspired from today’s reality and issues as well as interpretations of classical myths and stories shape the future.
I was delighted when I found out that my books had been translated into Romanian. Can you tell the story of how that happened?
As I directed my work interests towards children and parents since I became a mother, I also befriended associations and psychologists specializing in education, developmental psychology, and children’s and parental issues. So it happened that I was a friends with Bianca Sava, psychologist and founder of the Association Atelierul de Zâmbete (which translates as The Smiles Studio), organizing workshops for parents and running projects for children in foster care. Every year in their Christmas fund-raising campaign, Association Atelierul de Zâmbete relied on the small publisher Lizuka Educativ for book donations. But last year they had a different idea and a new project to support the association on a longer term: the Association would edit books of their choice, Lizuka Educativ would publish them and they would share part of the sales. I was delighted with their beautiful partnership and their capacity to fulfill both the strict requirements of a difficult Romanian children books market and their vision of social responsibility. I was so happy they chose Kate Hosford’s splendid series from Lerner Books and felt privileged to have had the opportunity to translate them.
Do you speak other foreign languages as well?
I actually started with French as it just happened that we had French and Russian classes in my secondary school. I went to a high school where I attended an intensive French class. But then, during my second year, a British publisher organized a book fair in our school yard where we could get English literature classics for small change. My random treat was Selected Poems by William Blake, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. And that was goodbye to French studies for me. I spent that summer studying English by myself, then took an exam in autumn and continued high school in an English intensive class. Then English and Romanian Studies with the University of Bucharest, where I also took the German classes. Then I later benefited from the European Union unity projects and continued my education in a Spanish town where I studied Spanish and some Catalan. As my family extended towards one of the former USSR states, I am truly proud to say that I can now read Cyrillic and manage some very basic Russian.
I used to translate from Spanish into Romanian as well, including children’s books some years ago, but of recent years it’s all more and more English. I’m lucky with my daughter and her very international small library which her father and I take turns in translating as we read.
What is your favorite part of being a translator?
As probably was obvious in my previous answers, I am extremely gregarious and love being around people, which I don’t get much of as a freelancer. Nevertheless, words bring me closer to people as a translator, and while sitting by myself in my study, in front of my computer, I can still feel this very intimate connection to the person whose words I’m translating. Sometimes, translating someone’s text gives me such a keen sense of their personality that I am eager to meet and talk to them. You can imagine I was in heaven when we [Kate and I] exchanged e-mails. And I was constantly cautious, lest my familiarity would be interpreted as rudeness, but you turned out to be just as warm and kind and generous and funny as I pictured while translating your books.
Two of my books that you translated are in rhyme and one is a book of poems. What were some of the particular challenges with those projects?
Children love rhymes, they have a very strong sense of rhythm and they’re the first to spot a half rhyme or a broken rhythm, so I knew I’m up for some unsparing criticism. Sometimes I would just read one draft page to my daughter. When she gave me the big eyed smile I was relieved to know that I managed to convey the original playful cadence and humorous tone. I guess the most challenging part was not complicating things, keeping the verses simple and transferring the sense in quite plain and accessible vocabulary. Sometimes I’d fix the most flowing rhythm and rhyme and then sit and wonder whether “lunar” or “celestial” are appropriate in children books.
Regardless of my choice, children simply loved the books. In one preschool, pages came off Big Birthday and then a teacher arranged them in the wrong order when he tried to glue them back together. But children already knew the book by heart and kept correcting their teacher when reading it to them while enjoying the laugh at the new sequence of events: “Nooooo, they first ‘shot into space with gravity pulling on everyone’s face’ and `boogied in a cloud of moondust’!”
My latest book is How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea. Which aspect of the book appealed to you most?
I loved the repetitive style with the leitmotif dialogue, I loved that despite her reluctance the queen is trying so many new enjoyable activities like snuggling, dribbling, dancing, that she’s invited to help make the tea, I love that she finds that the best cup of tea could only be the one you make yourself and share with friends. But what I love most is the little chat the queen has over the cup of tea with all her new friends. You see, in Romania, we’re very big into cozy coffee shops and tea houses and when you want to discuss something, catch up with an old friend or simply get to know someone better you invite them to have a cup of tea or coffee together. We even have an expression which would translate as “sitting over a cup of words”. I think is so precious that in our fast-forward lives we can sit down, relax and open ourselves to others while sipping a cup of this wonderful relational glue that is tea.
The Queen goes around the world learning how to make tea in a variety of cultures. Can you tell us a bit about the role of tea and tea-making in Romanian culture?
As Romania is just across the Black Sea from Turkey, we borrowed many centuries ago their coffee drinking habit which you also mention in the ending Author’s Note. So we’re big coffee drinkers, while tea is mostly functional with us. Apart from children who may be served tea at breakfast, most people drink herbal teas (chamomile, peppermint, linden) or fruit tea (rose hip, berries) and mostly when they have a cold or other discomfort. Black or green tea have been rising in popularity only recently, but I’m still into herbal teas, and I love it when I visit my granny and can simply pluck some leaves from the garden and brew them for a wonderful refreshing drink.
What are some of the differences between American picture books and Romanian picture books?
For most people in Romania, books are strictly text and, in our still incipient picture books market, it is difficult for parents and adults in general to imagine that a picture book can be addressed to adults. There are very limited examples of such books, like translations of the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman and very few Romanian creations. Consequently, picture books with only a few lines on the page are mostly regarded as nursery books. A book so rich textually and visually like “Infinity and Me” is pretty much avant-garde in the Romanian children books landscape. While the exquisite illustrations are an invitation to meditation, the concise text is quite extensive in its meanings and can be an endless source of conversation with elder children.
What kind of projects are you interested in working on in the future?
Since I became a mother five years ago, I was mostly involved in projects for parents, translating major psychology and parenting books by influential authors and interpreting lectures and workshops. At present, I feel my parenting cup is pretty much filled and I would love now to delve back into more children’s and adult fiction. Alongside my work I was recently, like most of us, intensely preoccupied with the political and social changes in my country and in the world, so I got involved in a couple of civic projects that I intend to support on the long term in a hope for a better world for all of us.
Thanks, Kate and Sanda!