Amongst the authors and illustrators taking part in The Children’s Bookshow 2015 is award-winning writer Bernardo Atxaga. Daniel Hahn interviewed him and his award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa for Books for Keeps.
Such is the dearth of translation in the children’s books world that the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation invariably goes to a book by an ‘unknown’. Yes, they’re often world-famous everywhere else, but they’re always considered obscure here. This year, however, the judges (of whom I was one) chose a book by someone well-known already – albeit for something different…
Bernardo Atxaga is a brilliant novelist from the Basque country, who writes in Basque, novels that have won him countless international awards. With books such as Obabakoak, The Lone Man and Seven Houses in France, he’s earned some success in English – always via the same translator, the peerless Margaret Jull Costa. (Bernardo supervises the translations of his books into Spanish, and since 1991 Margaret has been using these Spanish versions as her originals.) But these have all been adult novels, till now.
But he’s actually been writing for children for a while. He and an illustrator friend, Juan Carlos Eguillor, were discussing what costume to wear ‘for some fiesta or other. Not that we were actually intending to wear a costume,’ he says, ‘but we were having fun talking about it. I said I would dress up as a traditional peasant woman, but that, on top of that costume, I would wear an old aviator’s uniform, complete with straps and goggles and leather hat.’ His friend suggested that this peasant-cum-aviator might make the subject of a good children’s book. It did. In 1979 they published Nikolasaren abenturak eta kalenturak: Nicolasa’s Adventures and Other Madcap Escapades.
The Atxaga book for which Margaret won the Marsh is a delightful collection of stories about a dog called Shola, whose inspiration had more straight-forward origins – she was Bernardo’s real childhood pet. ‘She was very bright. One day, she was left alone in the house, and one of my brothers thought: “I’m going to pretend to be a thief. I’m going to make as if I were trying to force the lock, and see how Shola reacts.” So he pretended to be breaking in, but nothing happened. No growls, no barks. My brother thought: “She’s not there. Someone must have taken her for a walk.” Minutes later, he went to his room and heard a noise in the wardrobe. He opened it and there was Shola – hiding! Well, that was the origin of the Shola stories.’ The fifth Shola book, out in Basque this month, uses this very story.
As a long-time collaborator and friend, Margaret knew of Bernardo’s children’s books, and it was she who brought it to the attention of Adam Freudenheim, newly arrived at Pushkin Press. ‘And he,’ she says, ‘being a man of taste, fell in love with Shola.’ Surprisingly, however, for a literary translator with such a distinguished career behind her, this was Margaret’s first time working on stories for children; but, she says, ‘I approached it in exactly the same way as I would a book for grown-ups. And since the original expects its young (and old) readers to cope with terms like ‘rara avis’ (which is explained in the text anyway), I didn’t feel I needed to adopt some simplified form of English. Bernardo doesn’t in any way talk down to children.’
When I ask Bernardo about the “constraints” of writing for children, he takes the same view. ‘Whenever you write anything, there’s always some limitation, some constraint. It’s part of the creative process. When writing a sonnet, for example, you’re constrained by rhyme and the number of syllables, but those things also help you, as anyone who has ever written a sonnet knows. Obviously, there are constraints and constraints. You can’t breathe very easily with a boa constrictor around your neck, nor can you write a good story for children by submitting to tyrannical, preconceived ideas: “this story must be about the problems created by divorce in the family”, “this story must describe an example of gender-based violence”, “I’m not going to use the word ‘Babel’ because most children haven’t read the Bible’… Writing for children is about trying to communicate with them. It does, as I said, have its rules and constraints, but it’s best to keep those firmly at the back of your mind when you’re writing.’
So is it easy? ‘In my case, it takes me about a month to write a children’s story, but it can take me years to find the key, the poetic centre. It’s the same with poems or the lyrics of a song.’ He was helped, of course, by the presence of a heroine he knew well, who was already ‘fully formed’ when he started.
For a translator there’s a different but comparable process of finding a book’s voice, particularly for a book as characterful and witty as this. (No surprise that Margaret reads her translations out loud to test them out.) A translator can look for guidance to things like the illustrations, and in this case a long-time familiarity with the author’s work – ‘each of his books is quite different,’ Margaret says, ‘but there is something about the Shola stories that is very ‘Bernardo’ – a lightness of touch, an awareness of human and canine absurdity.’ But the most important clues are there in the original words. ‘As with all good books, the words in the original were telling me what register or tone or vocabulary to use in English, so, in a way, Shola’s speaking voice came quite easily. Or perhaps I was channelling my own inner Shola…’
I wouldn’t be surprised. Bernardo’s clever little dog is very, very hard to resist.
Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator and national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is the editor of the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.
The Adventures of Shola is published by Pushkin Children’s Books, 978-1782690092, £14.99.
The Children’s Bookshow is an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators from the UK and abroad. Bernardo Atxaga and Margaret Jull Costa will be appearing at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on Monday 16 November at 10.30am with young actor Samuel John, who will be reading excerpts from The Adventures of Shola. Bernardo Atxaga will be interviewed by Michael Rosen at Europe House, Smith Square London on Friday 20 November. Tickets are free but booking is essential.