We’ve dabbled in non-genre posts in our “Get Genrefied” series, covering different formats like graphic novels. For this addition to the series, we’re going to dig into a category within YA that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, since it includes all genres, and one that doesn’t fit nicely into a format, since it can come in a variety of formats. We’re talking YA books in translation.
Works in translation for YA make up a very small number of titles published each year, and those which are published through major publishers make up an even smaller portion of those titles. While good numbers of English-written books are sold for translation in other languages, the number of titles published in foreign language and translated into English is tiny. On this post about books in translation at The Girl Who Keeps Reading, she cites a study from Publishing Perspectives that notes 3% of the market for books is works in translation — that is inclusive, which suggests that the YA books in translation number is similar, if not smaller.
There’s also surprisingly little being written about YA works in translation.
YA works in translation contribute directly to the diversity within this category of literature. It opens up perspectives on story and voice. Even the most expertly translated works are expert for a reason: they allow the original author’s writing and storytelling to shine through. Though the themes or the appeal of the book may be universal, the magic of reading a title in translation is experiencing that universality. And, perhaps, what makes works in translation even more exciting for many readers is that those voices or ideas can be so divergent from the thoughts or ideas offered in what’s published in English. How many of the works in translation in YA dive into a philosophical notion that feels completely foreign or maybe even scary or strange?
It’s through exposure to those odd-to-us worlds, though, we build bridges among and across cultures.
In 2006, Roger Sutton posed the question of what makes a good translated book, and publisher Arthur A. Levine weighed in with this:
Wherever they start their lives, we want the books we publish simply to be terrific reads, written by interesting, powerful, affecting writers. And looking overseas (or across borders) is just a matter of making the broadest possible sweep when searching for those talented creators. For me, part of the appeal of looking for great authors to publish in translation is the tantalizing potential in that deep and — for English-language publishers — largely untapped pool of talent out there in the rest of the world. I ask myself, What refreshing new voice, what unique imagination would I find if I could read the very best writers in each country?
One of the interesting elements in this piece is that Levine notes the idea of a book being “too foreign” for an English readership isn’t something he takes into consideration. He notes:
I’ve never found such pronouncements that helpful. They remind me of discussions of what boys like. And what girls like. There’s probably some crumb of truth buried in such a discussion, but it’s not a very interesting truth to me, based as it is on stereotypes and least-common-denominator assumptions. What’s really interesting to me is the experience of the real, complex reader.
Another interesting piece from Horn Book, this time from 1999, looks at the task at hand for those who are translators. Cathy Hirano translated Kazumi Yumoto’s The Friends, which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book award in fiction, and she talked at length about the different elements that she had to keep in mind with not just Yumoto’s book, but what all translators think about when bringing a work into English. It’s far more challenging than a straightforward sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word translation:
I must strive to remain true not only to the essence, but also to the style and tone of the writer in the source language while at the same time render it in a way that is understandable to someone from a very different culture and way of thinking. It is a balancing act, requiring sensitivity and intuition, a combination of humility, vigilance, and arrogance. I say humility because as a translator I must be willing to accept that the author comes first, and that even if I don’t agree, or think that I can say it better, the author is always right.
Laura Watkinson, a translator whose work has been recognized by the Batchelder Award, did a fascinating interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, talking about the good and less-than-good parts of the translation process that hint at maybe why we don’t hear as much about YA in translation as we might otherwise:
Reading some reviews, you might think that a book gets magically translated into English at the press of a button in Google Translate.
I think that perhaps the funniest – you have to laugh – review of a translated book I ever saw included a great long list of facts at the beginning, including the name of the author (of course), publisher (yes), price (okay…), number of pages (hmm), font (maybe interesting from a design point of view), and type of paper used (huh?), but neglected entirely to mention the name of the translator, i.e. the person who had written every single word of the book that was being reviewed.
I laughed – and then I wrote a note to point out the critic’s omission. They were very apologetic, but said that it hadn’t actually occurred to them to mention the translator’s name. Sigh.
And then there are the occasions when the perceived weaknesses of a book are blamed on the translator. There’s honestly only so much you can tweak when you’re translating a book. You have various options at word and sentence level and you can spot consistency issues, but plot and character issues are generally out of the translator’s hands.
It’s so frustrating to see that tired old “lost in translation” line trotted out when you know how much work goes into the process of translation and how many tricky issues the translator has to solve.
The whole interview is excellent, and it’s a nice window into the world of translating children’s books for an English audience.
As noted above, there is an annual recognition for the best work in translation for children, the Mildred A. Batchelder Award. The award honors the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English, from a country outside of the United States which is then translated into English for publication in the US. One the small print aspects of the Batchelder Award is that it’s limited to books published for an audience of those up to and including 14, meaning that older YA titles — those that would generally be published 14 or older — are not eligible for the award. The Batchelder is an award given from ALSC, the children’s division within ALA, so it makes sense. But it’s interesting there hasn’t been an equivalent award through YALSA or an award that covers the books that would fall under both ALSC and YALSA’s age divisions, as some others do.
Although works in translation contribute to the variety in YA fiction, it’s not always obvious when a book is a work in translation. Sometimes that gets noted in reviews, typically in the trades, but not always. And as Watkinson noted, rarely do we know about the intermediary who does the work of making the book come alive in English the same way it captured attention in its original language. Perhaps there’s a bias against translated works, as Levine notes in his piece, and perhaps it’s simply not being aware that these books are out there or that they are works in translation. If we don’t know, we can’t spread the word or talk about whether the translation is or isn’t successful. More than the perceived success of the translation, we can’t talk about the bigger, more interesting issues relating to translating, including why stories are or deserve to be translated, what stories we are exposed to through translation, and even the overarching question about what storytelling does for us as humans.
Another angle of thinking about YA in translation, and maybe what would be most familiar and accessible to teens, is manga. The bulk of manga is translated, and readers who love it have little to no problem diving right in and “getting” it.
Let’s dive into the world of YA in translation. I’ve not limited my list to recent titles, but have included a span of publication dates. All descriptions are from WorldCat, and I’ve tried to note relevant information about original language or the name of the translator, where I can find it. If you know of more YA novels in translation, I’d love to make this a bigger list, so please feel free to hop in in the comments.
Boy On The Edge by Fridrik Erlings: Henry has a clubfoot and he is the target of relentless bullying. One day, in a violent fit of anger, Henry lashes out at the only family he has– his mother. Sent to live with other troubled boys at the Home of Lesser Brethren, an isolated farm perched in the craggy lava fields along the unforgiving Icelandic coast, Henry finds a precarious contentment among the cows. But it is the people, including the manic preacher who runs the home, who fuel Henry’s frustration and sometimes rage as he yearns for a life and a home. Author Fridrik Erlings offers a young adult novel that explores cruelty and desperation, tenderness and remorse, but most importantly, kindness and friendship.
** This book isn’t technically in translation. Erlings wrote the book in English, based off the original he had written in Icelandic. But I’m including it because it’s too neat not to.
The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis, German, translated by Miriam Debbage: Wealthy, seventeen-year-old Anna begins to fall in love with her classmate, Abel, a drug dealer from the wrong side of town, when she hears him tell a story to his six-year-old sister, but when his enemies begin turning up dead, Anna fears she has fallen for a murderer.
Why We Took The Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf, German, translated by Tim Mohr: Mike Klingenberg is a troubled fourteen-year-old from a disfunctional family in Berlin who thinks of himself as boring, so when a Russian juvenile delinquent called Tschick begins to pay attention to him and include Mike in his criminal activities, he is excited–until those activities lead to disaster on the autobahn.
172 Hours On The Moon by Johan Marstad, Norwegian, translated by Tara F. Chace: In 2019, teens Mia, Antoine, and Midori are selected by lottery to join experienced astronauts on a NASA mission to the once top-secret moon base, DARLAH 2, while in a Florida nursing home, a former astronaut struggles to warn someone of the terrible danger there.
are u 4 real? by Sara Kadefors, Swedish, translated by Tara F. Chace: After meeting “online” in an Internet chat room and helping each other deal with family problems, Kyla and Alex, two very different sixteen year olds, decide to meet in person.
Ruby Red series by Kerstin Gier, German, translated by Anthea Bell: Sixteen-year-old Gwyneth discovers that she, rather than her well-prepared cousin, carries a time-travel gene, and soon she is journeying with Gideon, who shares the gift, through historical London trying to discover whom they can trust.
Arcadia Awakens series by Kai Meyer, German, translated by Anthea Bell: When seventeen-year-old Rosa Alcantara travels from her native Brooklyn to her ancestral home in Sicily, she falls head over heels for Alessandro Carnevare, whose family is the sworn enemy of hers, and must confront both of their families’ criminal–and paranormal–pasts.
Nothing by Janne Teller, Danish, translated by Martin Aitken: When thirteen-year-old Pierre Anthon leaves school to sit in a plum tree and train for becoming part of nothing, his seventh grade classmates set out on a desperate quest for the meaning of life.
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Spanish, translated by Lucia Graves: In 1943, in a seaside town where their family has gone to be safe from war, thirteen-year-old Max Carver and sister, fifteen-year-old Alicia, with new friend Roland, face off against an evil magician who is striving to complete a bargain made before he died.
God And I Broke Up by Katarina Mazetti, Swedish, translated by Maria Lundin: Linnea is sixteen and when she meets Pia, she feels like she has finally found a friend. But now Pia is dead and Linnea struggles to understand the loss.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit series by Nahoko Uehashi, Japanese, translated by Cathy Hirano: The wandering warrior Balsa is hired to protect Prince Chagum from both a mysterious monster and the prince’s father, the Mikado.
No and Me by Daphine de Vigan, French, translated by George Miller: A novel about two very different teenagers and the true nature of homelessness.
As Red As Blood series by Salla Simukka, Finnish, translated by Owen Witesman: In the midst of the freezing Arctic winter, seventeen-year-old Lumikki Andersson walks into her school’s darkroom and finds a stash of money splattered with someone’s blood. She is swept into a whirlpool of dangerous encounters with dirty cops and a notorious drug kingpin as she helps to trace the origin of the cash.
City of the Beasts series by Isabel Allende, Spanish, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden: When fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold accompanies his individualistic grandmother on an expedition to find a humanoid Beast in the Amazon, he experiences ancient wonders and a supernatural world as he tries to avert disaster for the Indians.
Me On The Floor Bleeding by Jenny Jagerfeld, Swedish, translated by Susan Beard: Highschool-outsider Maja would never hurt herself on purpose as her dad, teachers, and classmates seem to believe. Can’t a person saw off the tip of her thumb without everyone starting to worry? That is, everyone except Maja’s mum, who worringly seems to have disappeared from the face of earth. Crashing a neighbour’s party, Maja meets twenty-year-old Justin Case, a super-verbal car mechanic with pink pants, who makes her forget everything about absent mothers and sawn-off thumbs, at least temporarily. But then Maja hacks into her father’s email account and reads an email that hurts more than all the electric saws in the world.
Dream A Little Dream series by Kerstin Gier, coming January 2015, German, translated by Anthea Bell: Liv Silver, fifteen, has lived in six countries in eight years and she and her sister yearn for a real home and normalcy, but soon after moving in with her mother’s boyfriend in London, Liv’s dreams turn bizarre, filled with talking stone statues, mysterious corridors, and strange rituals conducted by four boys who happen to be her new classmates.
Playing A Part by Daria Wilke, Russian, translated by Marian Schwartz, coming March 31, 2015: In June 2013, the Russian government passed laws prohibiting “gay propaganda,” threatening jail time and fines to offenders. That same month, in spite of these harsh laws, a Russian publisher released Playing a Part, a young adult novel with openly gay characters. It was a brave, bold act, and now this groundbreaking story has been translated for American readers. Grisha adores everything about the Moscow puppet theater where his parents work, and spends as much time there as he can. But life outside the theater is not so wonderful. The boys in Grisha’s class bully him mercilessly, and his own grandfather says hateful things about how he’s not “masculine” enough. Life goes from bad to worse when Grisha learns that Sam, his favorite actor and mentor, is moving: He’s leaving the country to escape the extreme homophobia he faces in Russia. (Description via Goodreads).