Diaspora Q&A Series: Laura Watkinson

LW bio picTell us a little about your cultural influences. What place(s) do you consider ‘home’ and where are you based now?

I’m from the UK and I’ve moved around a bit. I grew up in the Midlands and the Cotswolds, studied in Oxford, lived in Germany for four years, Cambridge for a year, Milan for a year, Aberdeen for a couple of years, and then spent a few years in London before moving to the Netherlands in 2003. I’ve been living in Amsterdam since 2010. I love the city and definitely consider it home, but I like going back to England, too, and visiting Italy as often as I can. I wouldn’t rule out another move in the future. That’s one of the best things about translation, of course – the job moves along with you.

What language(s) do you translate from (and into, in the case of bilingual translators working into others besides English)?

I translate mainly from Dutch and also from German and Italian, always into English. I work for English-language publishers in various countries, though, so I sometimes find myself translating into different varieties of English.

What you love most about being a literary translator?

I love that it’s a fully flexible job and you can do it wherever you like. It’s great to be able to use your creativity on a daily basis and to work on wonderful stories that you can introduce to new readers. I’ve also met some lovely people through literary translation. I think we’re pretty good at creating friendly and helpful networks, and so many translators are really generous with their advice, support and expertise, which is enormously valuable for the profession as a whole. I’m really pleased that you’ve taken the initiative to set up this diaspora group, too, Jamie. It’s a great move.

What is your daily work routine like? Do you work from home/in a library/in a co-working space?

I generally work at home, but sometimes I’ll work in a local café or bar. There’s a tradition of the leestafel in Dutch bars, a big “reading table” with magazines and newspapers for customers. So there’s nearly always a free spot for a lone translator with a laptop… The city library in Amsterdam is stunning, too, with a fantastic view over the city and a nice café at the top of the building. Hmm, maybe I’ll move my office there for a couple of hours this afternoon…

View from the top floor of the library in Amsterdam

View from the top floor of the library in Amsterdam

Do you attend translation events in the UK or U.S., and if so how often?

I like to pop over for events every now and then, such as the International Translation Day programme or translation talks at the Society of Authors. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to talk to other translators in person, rather than just on Facebook.

I also took part in a panel discussion at the American Library Association’s summer conference a few years back, which was a fantastic experience. I’m still in touch with some of people I met there and there was definitely a lot of enthusiasm about translated children’s books, which has developed over the years into various projects and collaborations. I’ll be back in the US later this year and I’m hoping to meet up with a few translation-related contacts there.

I’ve been involved with the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators www.scbwi.org since 2008, when I set up the Dutch chapter. They’re based in the US, but have smaller chapters throughout the world. They’ve recently started to focus more closely on translators, too, with an initiative led by Avery Udagawa, so I hope that will lead to more translated children’s books and events to raise the profile of children’s literature in translation. The European SCBWI chapters are having their Europolitan conference in Amsterdam in April and we’re organising a translation panel with a great line-up. So that’ll be nice and local for me.

Translation events at book fairs are always good fun, too. I’m planning to visit Bologna for the children’s book fair again next year and definitely Frankfurt, as the Netherlands and Flanders will be guests of honour.

How do you maintain and strengthen your working relationship with UK/U.S. publishers while living abroad?

I often wonder how translators must have managed before the internet came along. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, so I keep up to date with publishers on social media. If I’m over in the UK or US or at one of the book fairs or conferences, it’s always nice to meet up with publishers, too, so that our contact isn’t limited to email exchanges. I’ve been lucky to have worked with a lot of friendly publishers and editors who are generous with their time and keen to keep in touch and to hear about interesting books.

Is there an active translation community in the city/country where you are based?

That’s another area where I’ve been really lucky. There’s quite a close community of Dutch–English translators, many of whom are based in Amsterdam. Over the years, colleagues have become friends and there’s always someone to turn to for advice about tricky phrases or contracts.

I’ve also translated comic books with Michele Hutchison, for instance, which wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t live so close. The two of us travelled down to Angoulême last year for the comics festival and met up with a bunch of Dutch comics writers there.

A few times a year, a bunch of us will meet up and go for a meal or a drink or a big old ramble in the countryside to the north of Amsterdam. Last year we went for a trek around the poems painted on the walls throughout Leiden, followed by a lunch, which was accompanied by the usual translator-type chat. We’ve also organised translation-related events in tandem with local bookshops, such as the American Book Center www.abc.nl. David Colmer has been particularly active in building up relationships with Dutch bookshops.

The Dutch Foundation for Literature www.letterenfonds.nl/en/ and the Expertisecentrum Literair Vertalen http://literairvertalen.org/ are another fantastic source of support, providing plenty of opportunities for translators to connect with writers and with each other, like the annual Literary Translation Days in December, two days of seminars and workshops that are open to active and aspiring literary translators.

How is the literary translator regarded there? Are there organisations and initiatives (such as the TA in the UK and ALTA in the U.S.) working to improve translators’ status, rights and visibility?

As a translator into English, I look more to the Translators’ Association in the UK for advice on contracts and professional issues, but I’m also a member of the equivalent Dutch organisation, the Vereniging van Letterkundigen (VvL) http://www.vvl.nu/, which has a working group for literary translators that fulfils a similar function to the TA.

Are there any initiatives there which you think UK/U.S. translation organisations could implement or learn from?

One of my favourite initiatives organised by the VvL’s literary translation group is the annual Vertaalengel (translation angel) and Vertaalduivel (translation devil) awards. They’re designed to reward those who have had a positive impact on literary translation and to encourage people and organisations who could be doing more to help. This year’s devil award went to literary translation journal Filter to encourage them to place more emphasis on the practice of translation, rather than the theory. The angel in 2015 is Poetry International for continuing to emphasise the importance of poetry translation and translators: http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/home/index. Last year, Amsterdam’s fabulous Athenaeum bookshop www.athenaeum.nl won the “angel” award for doing so much to promote books, particularly in translation. The “devil” award went to De Wereld Draait Door, one of the most important Dutch TV shows for culture, to encourage them to name the translator when discussing translated books. Sound familiar?

Depending on where you live, you may be immersed in the language of your source language(s) and distanced from your target language, or perhaps even distanced from both. What do you do to keep your mother tongue and other languages active and evolving?

Keeping my English fresh is never going to be a problem in Amsterdam. My partner is English and there are plenty of English speakers around, so I have an environment that’s fairly well balanced in terms of source and target language. Keeping up my Italian and my German is more difficult, but there’s a Goethe-Institut and an Italian Cultural Institute in Amsterdam, which is handy, and I read a lot of the kind of books that I like to translate in those languages (graphic novels and children’s books) and travel to those countries as often as I can.

And, finally, what are you working on at the moment, and what book would you still like to translate? Thank you!

I’m translating a brilliant young-adult novel by Anna Woltz, A Hundred Hours of Night, for Arthur A. Levine in New York. It’s about a troubled Dutch girl who finds herself in New York during Hurricane Sandy, and is partly based on the author’s own experiences of New York in the hurricane. Anna’s a wonderful writer and Arthur’s a fantastic publisher, so I’m really pleased that the two of them are working together, particularly on this New York-based project.

I’m also just about to embark on a translation with Michele Hutchison of Brecht Evens’s graphic novel Panther. We’ve translated two of Brecht’s previous graphic novels and it’s always fun and interesting to translate as a team for a change.

What book would I still like to translate? Oooh, there are so many…

Website: www.laurawatkinson.com
Twitter: @Laura_Wat

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