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Shining a Light on Children’s Books in Translation: Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp on World Kid Lit Month

By Words Without Borders

September is World Kid Lit Month—a celebration of translated literature for young people. We invited World Kid Lit advocate and children’s book translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp to tell us about plans for the month and how we can get involved.


WWB: What is World Kid Lit Month?

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (RAK): September is the time to find out about global literature for young people by following and sharing recommendations across social media using the hashtag #WorldKidLitMonth. It’s a dedicated time to shine a light on a vibrant and diverse area of children’s publishing that can be difficult to navigate and that has until recently received very little media coverage.

Worldwide, children and teens have been off school for months during this pandemic. But as schools reopen (we hope!), we’re asking ourselves: Can we start the new academic year with a more global perspective? As teachers set up new classroom displays and librarians restock the shelves, September is a great time to reflect on whether the selections we present to our children and teens are as inclusive and representative as they could be of our multicultural and multilingual world.


WWB: What age group is World Kid Lit Month aimed at?

RAK: We believe world literature for young people has something to offer everyone, young and old. On the World Kid Lit blog, we cover books for every age group, from sturdy board books for babies to fiction and graphic novels for teens and young adults. The blog and resources are aimed more at the adults who buy books and curate selections for young people, be they booksellers, librarians, teachers, or caregivers, but we’d like to welcome everyone to get involved.

Many adult readers want to know more about diverse and global writing for children, whether from a professional point of view because they work in publishing, or because they are keen to diversify their own reading and explore fiction from other countries. Perhaps you’re studying a foreign language and are beginning to read works in the original; it can be reassuring to start with something short and accessible, like a middle grade novel, reading both the original and a translation in parallel. As Words Without Borders readers know, there are endless reasons for exploring world literature, and we’re keen for the blog to be a hub or gateway to as many of them as possible.


WWB: How can readers get involved?

RAK: Show us your shelves (#shelfie)! Why not share a photo on social media of the translated books for young people in your collection, and perhaps say a few words about them? What language are they translated from? Did you know they were translated when you first came across them? Which translated children’s books did you enjoy in your childhood?

If you have time, you could also join the #WorldKidLitMonth challenge: read and review one children’s or young adult book translated into English from another language. The review needn’t be long, perhaps just a photo and a few words on Twitter or Instagram, a longer analysis for your blog or school newsletter, or a guest review for the World Kid Lit blog; we welcome reviews by readers of all ages. So many translated children’s books are published by small, independent presses, and every review counts.

Please also sign up to watch World Kid Lit Live: a series of online panel discussions where you can hear about how books travel from one country and one language to another. The first took place on Wednesday, September 2, and featured Charlotte Ryland, director of the Stephen Spender Trust (UK); Shelley Tanaka, author and fiction editor at Groundwood Books (Canada); Radhika Menon, publishing director at Tulika Books (India); and Emma Wright, founder of The Emma Press (UK), in conversation with Marcia Lynx Qualey, the co-founder of World Kid Lit and editor of ArabLit (Morocco). You can view a recording of the event here. We also encourage you to attend our next event, “Why Translate KidLit? A Talk with Translators around the World,” at 4:00pm BST on September 30.

We would love to see window displays and recommended titles shelves in bookshops and libraries, and perhaps collaborative maps in schools of books students have read from around the world. Please share any photos on social media with the hashtag #WorldKidLitMonth.

You’ll find many more ideas and resources on the website, making it easier than ever to pick a place in the world and fly there with a book.


WWB: How much literature for young readers is translated into English? What are the challenges of publishing children's literature in translation?

RAK: Since we’ve been researching it, I’ve been astonished at how much is translated; this year alone there were 150+ books translated into English from some twenty-five languages. But it is also noticeable how much goes under the radar. It can be hard for publishers to promote authors who aren’t available for school visits, for example, although now that so many arts events have moved online, perhaps this will be less of a barrier in the future.

One of the goals of the World Kid Lit project is to encourage translations from a broader diversity of languages, especially from non-European languages and ones that are less widely translated.

Obstacles include both a lack of literary agents promoting children’s book authors in the English market and a relative shortage of translators pitching new books and working as scouts. Sadly, many national bodies promoting their country’s literature seem to focus exclusively on literary fiction for adults; it may be that they lack the expertise rather than the will to promote children’s authors and illustrators.

Another obstacle is the lack of awareness among publishers about how to find a bilingual reader to review a manuscript, or a specialist translator if they do buy the rights to a foreign language title. We aim to counter some of these difficulties with our resources page for publishers.


WWB: Do you have any advice for literary translators interested in branching out into translating children’s books?

RAK: Long excluded from discussions of literary translation, children’s writing is increasingly seen as a specialist area within the profession, with a corresponding increase in training and peer support. Last summer, literary translator and children’s literature advocate Daniel Hahn ran a weeklong workshop focused on translating for younger readers at the BCLT Summer School, and there will be a seminar on kid lit translation at ALTA43, this year’s conference of the American Literary Translators’ Association.

We have a section of the blog called "Translate This!," where anyone can recommend a book they would like to see published in English translation. We’re also hoping to produce some guidance notes on pitching and translating samples of children’s books; keep an eye out for more information here. One way to get a foot in the door with children’s book publishers is to translate samples for publishers in the country whose language you translate from, or that country’s literature promotion agency.

And finally, translators of children’s and young adult books are invited to share their published work on the new YouTube channel Translators Aloud, hosted by literary translators Tina Kover and Charlotte Coombe. Just send in a five-minute recording of yourself reading from one of your kid lit translations (more details are available here).

We hope exploring global children’s literature throughout September will inspire more translators to consider working on children’s books, graphic novels, and literature for young adults.

For more information about World Kid Lit Month and suggested children’s and teen books from around the world, see the World Kid Lit blog, our Facebook page, and our Twitter and Instagram accounts. Throughout September, you can find others’ recommendations and share your own with hashtag #WorldKidLitMonth.

Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a literary translator working from German, Russian, and Arabic into English. Her work has been shortlisted for the Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize. She translates novels, nonfiction, and children’s books, and her translations include books from Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Russia, Switzerland, and Syria. She is currently translating historical crime fiction set in Stalinist Russia, and the memoir of German arts critic Ijoma Mangold. She is co-editor of three blogs about children’s books in translation: World Kid LitRussian Kid Lit, and ArabKidLitNow!

Related Reading:

Child's Play: International Children's Literature (April 2020 issue of Words Without Borders)

Five Translators on the Joys and Challenges of Translating Children's Books

Interviews with Publishers of Children's Literature in Translation

Published Sep 11, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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