World KidLit: Translation Rights and Challenges in Children’s Books

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In an upcoming digital discussion, the four-year-old World Kid Lit project focused on translated literature for children will hear from translators about their marketplace experiences.

Image: World Kid Lit

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘A Structured Cooperation’
On Wednesday (September 30), World Kid Lit Month will close with a discussion, “Why Translate KidLit?” The session, moderated by ArabLit’s Marcia Lynx Qualey, is to feature translators including:

  • Lawrence Schimel (Spanish)
  • Avery Fischer Udagawa (Japanese)
  • Laura Watkinson (Dutch, Italian, German)
  • Sawad Hussain (Arabic)

Graphic by Pablo Gallo

The translators will talk about their experiences in a role that—as any translator can tell you—often involves not only doing the actual work of translation but also cajoling publishers into buying the translation rights of a promising book.

But World Kid Lit’s aim is really to be a year-round event, fitting neatly into an ecosystem of translators, publishers, international rights sales, and ultimately young readers, their parents, and their schools, all with the objective of increasing and encouraging diverse and multicultural reading from an early age.

The original three behind the initiative are Qualey, Schimel, and Literature Across Frontiers’ Alexandra Büchler, an English-to-Czech translator. They were inspired by  Women in Translation month, Qualey says. Founded in 2014, Meytal Radzinski’s Women in Translation month now is firmly established and has helped celebrate women author-and-translator teams such as Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft, and International Booker winner Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

In 2016, Qualey created an online site for World Kid Lit and asked people to contribute. “There’s something to be said about organically starting something to see if there’s interest,” she says.

The interest was there, and the site has been growing, with engagement coming from publishers, booksellers, teachers, and parents. Starting with 1,000 visitors to the site and 2,000 page-views in 2016, by this month, the site was seeing 8,700 visitors and 25,000 page-views for 2020.

The first World Kid Lit live event, “How Translations Happen,” was held earlier this month, and had more than 1,00o views. It focused on what publishers look for in translated children’s literature, the difference in market standards across regions, and the impact of the pandemic on the business of children’s books.

The founders have been joined in working on the program by translators Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Claire Storey, and Mohini Gupta and a number of blog contributors. All work on the initiative in their spare time.

‘A Context for This’

“There’s a context for this,” says Buchler. “It fell on fertile ground. There has been more interest in the UK for children’s literature in translation and it’s connected to the emergence of small indie publishers.”

Lucas Rocha’s book, published in June in the United States by Scholastic’s Push imprint, is featured this week at World Kid Lit

Several of those publishers, including Tiny Owl, Lantana, and Book Island, participated in a session on the subject at the 2019 London Book Fair.

Pushkin Press was one of the publishers earliest to work in children’s book translation rights in the UK, opening Pushkin’s Children’s Books in 2013. Interest in the rights trade for translated young readers’ literature has been growing in the United States, too, according to Elizabeth Bird writing at School Library Journal, who reported last year that 169 children’s books in translation published in 2018 in the American market, and an increase of approximately 9 percent annually since 2002.

Still, the number of translation rights deals in children’s literature is comparatively low, and the original languages are not always widely diverse—French, German, Italian, and Spanish are the sources for most translations.

Véronique Kirchhoff

Véronique Kirchhoff, whose VéroK Agency is specialized in international children’s literature, says that the panorama has definitely shifted since she founded her company 12 years ago.  She says she’s seen change “especially in the past five years, when it comes to English-speaking publishers acquiring projects from other publishers and foreign authors and illustrators.”

In 2015, Kirchhoff told Publishing Perspectives that publishers were intent on selling rights, which was creating new challenges. “There are more publishers who sell rights” she said then, “and they want to focus on selling rather than buying. So I constantly have to look for new customers. You are competing with a lot of people.

Kirchhoff says that small publishers began leading the way and have, “throughout the years, created a real enthusiasm among readers and their peers for foreign literature and more diversity in terms of artwork, leading to bigger publishers following in their footsteps. The fact that more and more publishers and artists have started to sell rights from all around the world, has also created a wider recognition of talent from all nationalities and languages.”

The World Kid Lit program is trying to bring attention to languages that are less represented in translation. Often, the problem is linked to translation-rights subsidies and grants available. More often than not, those are likeliest to be forthcoming from Western European countries.

Alexandra Büchler

Still, the World Kid Lit site can play a huge role, says Büchler, underlining a section for publishers called Translate this!, which Qualey says she’d like to see filled with more reviews from people who can read a wide variety of languages.

The team is ambitious. They say they’re planning to add information about grants and resources for schools, and to increase the amount of information for publishers and translators, so it’s all collected in one place.

The initiative will need funding to continue its work. “We need to structure and institutionalize it,” said Qualey. “We need to make the site more attractive and more professional and then we can reach out to more organizations. Once you start a structured cooperation, you realize there’s a limit to what people can do as volunteers.”

Büchler says that it’s important to keep statistics on rights sales for children’s books in translation, similar to the translation database that Chad Post started with the University of Rochester’s Three Percent, now housed with Publishers Weekly.

Qualey says that during the World Kid Lit she moderated earlier this month, she learned that the site “is a resource for publishers translating from any languages. It’s a digital resource for everyone, not just for native speakers of English. Our initiative can serve to promote books in other languages, as well.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on children’s books is here, on international rights trading is here, and on translation is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.

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