Monday, February 19, 2018

Guest Post with author and translator Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Today we are thrilled to host Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of three novels for teens—Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago, and Rogue—and the translator, from Portuguese to English, of The World in a Second, Lines Squiggles, Letters, Words, The Queen of the Frogs, and Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World). Today, Lyn is here to share her perspective on translating books for young readers.

Translating Books and Cultures

For the past four years I have translated picture books and novels for teen readers from Portuguese and Spanish to English. Four of my translations have been published, with one more coming out in summer 2018.

In translating books for young readers, one has to balance faithfulness to the content and voice of the original with consideration for the readers and their ability to connect with the story and characters. This is especially true of children’s books because problems can arise with something as simple as pronouncing a character’s name.

For instance, in my 2016 translation Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words – the story of a young boy who learns to read and in doing so sees his world in a new way – the boy’s name in the original edition was João, a common name in Brazil where the book is set but quite difficult for readers in English to pronounce. I wanted to keep the sense of a name from another country, to show that this little boy goes to school in Brazil and not in the United States, but I didn’t want to create difficulties for read-alouds. So I changed João’s name to Pedro, another common name in Brazil but one with a straightforward pronunciation and a cognate in Spanish.

While problems with character names can be solved fairly easily, cultural differences are trickier to resolve. How much should a translated book reflect the culture from which it comes when the story line violates the conventions of picture books published in the United States? This was my challenge in my most recent translation, Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), published last October.

Published in cooperation with Amnesty International, Three Balls of Wool portrays a family in Portugal in the mid-1960s that flees that country’s fascist dictatorship, only to end up in Communist Czechoslovakia because the parents know that there, unlike in Portugal, “all children go to school.” But while the children can attend school, they have no freedom otherwise. The mother, however, sets about creating freedom and beauty in their corner of the city, and their efforts spread, showing the ways that refugees bring new and better ways of doing things to the places where they settle.

In the original version, the mother is the character who solves the problem, not the child narrator. This runs counter to the “rule” in U.S. picture books in which the child has to solve the problem. But in more traditional societies like Portugal during this period, families were hierarchical and adults maintained agency and authority. It would have been disrespectful for the unnamed narrator to take charge. At the same time, I didn’t want her to be a completely passive character, and a rough transition near the end of the story allowed me to insert a bit of agency on the part of the narrator. When her mother goes to knit in the public square one spring day, the narrator calls attention to her efforts, in a sense becoming the mother’s publicist.

This is the paragraph I added:

“What’s that sweater?” one girl asked.

“My mother made it.” My voice grew stronger.

“Come see,” I said, waving toward my mom.

On the next page, the square fills with all the other parents making sweaters while the children play.

There’s a limit to how much that can be changed without defeating the purpose of the translation, which is to offer a window into different values and ways of life. In some cases, though, failing to make the change can severely limit the readership for a book. In my debut translation from 2015, The World in a Second, pictures rather than text was the problem. The World in a Second offers illustrations and brief description of events happening around the world at the same second. One of those takes place in a barbershop in the Azores where “a man bids goodbye to his mustache.” In the Portuguese original, calendars with scantily clad women adorned the barbershop walls; in the U.S. edition, the illustrator replaced these with cars and volcanoes.

Even with the changes, we translators and our publishers work hard to present in world in all its diversity. We want children to know the different ways of life and experiences beyond our borders, so they will be prepared to live in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. We want them to be curious about this world and welcoming of its people, to counteract the insularity and false superiority promoted by those currently in power. We should not be afraid to live in this wider world, because by getting to know each other and working together, we can solve problems, as the Portuguese refugee family does in Three Balls of Wool, and bring light and beauty to each others’ lives.
How to find out if a book is translated:

Sometimes publishers put the name of the translator on the cover or title page, but not always. The best place to find out is the copyright page, which lists the title of the original book and the copyright for the translation, which is usually in the name of the translator, but may be in the name of the publisher.

Classroom activities around translated picture books:

Use the books to research what it’s like to attend school in another country. What does the school building look like? The classroom furniture? The teacher? How do children in other countries dress for school? Do they learn similar things?

Research family life in other countries through text and illustration. How are families in other countries different from your family? How are they the same? Who makes the decisions? How do parents teach children and get them to behave? Do other people live in the home besides parents and their children? What kinds of pets and other animals do families have?

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of three novels for teens—Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago, and Rogue—and the translator, from Portuguese to English, of The World in a Second, Lines Squiggles, Letters, Words, The Queen of the Frogs, and Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World). Gringolandia—the story of a refugee teenager from Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and his relationship with his father, a just-released political prisoner—was an Américas Award Honor Book and selected for the ALA/YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list in 2010. She blogs on travel, politics, and writing at


  1. Lyn, loved reading and learning from you. And this isn't the first time. :-)

  2. Excellent article, Lyn. Thank you for sharing.


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