Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 3: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? An Adventure In Translation

A month or so ago, I received a lovely email from Katja Lauther, an occupational therapist in Germany.  She had read my children’s book, “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname),” and fell in love with it.  “We have to have this book in Germany,” she said. “Can you make this happen?”

  • Barrier #1 was pretty obvious:  I don’t speak German.  Katja had already anticipated that and said she could do the translation. 
  • Barrier #2:  I had invested a LOT of money into the beautiful illustrations (all hand-painted and inked works of art), so I couldn’t afford to pay for any work related to the project.  Katja said she wasn’t expecting payment;  this was just something she wanted to do.
  • Barrier #3:  How to print and distribute in Germany.  Printing and shipping from the US would be cost-prohibitive.  I did some research and found that Amazon has a German division, so using their CreateSpace site to publish would take care of all of those logistics.  Yahoo!  We agreed to take on the project.

Within a few days, Katja had completed the first draft of the translation.  She sent me a copy, but it was all Greek…er, German…to me.  She also asked three friends to proofread it for her.  Their consensus was that the translation was too formal, since the story is told by a fourth grade boy, so she redid the translation in more kid-like German.

As Katja was working on the translation, interesting questions started popping up.

  • The names of the characters represent many ethnicities.  Should they be kept or replaced with German names?  We kept the various ethnic names.
  • The nicknames of the characters are common American slang:  Bugsy, Bookworm, Jokester, etc.  Katja substituted nicknames that reflected the spirit of the names but that would make sense in Germany.
  • In translating my bio, Katja needed clarification:  “are you speech or language or AAC or all of that?”  The answer is “all of that.”  She was surprised because, apparently in Germany, one can either specialize in speech or language.  And much of AAC work is done by OTs.  Hearing that, I was surprised!  Wow!  No wonder SLPs in the USA are always exhausted!
  • One of the funniest questions centered around the old chicken joke that Katie tells with her communication device. In the story, Katie only asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”  The punchline isn’t given so Katja asked for the answer.  When I replied, “to get to the other side,” she assumed that meant that the chicken was going to heaven.  No, not THAT other side!, I explained.  I never thought about the chicken becoming roadkill!  We went back and forth about this for a while, but the joke was just so dumb that Katja couldn’t translate it to be funny in German (and frankly, it’s not so funny here…which is what makes it so funny, I guess!), so I agreed that she could substitute a dumb German joke instead.  It’s something about a frog, but she said she really couldn’t explain it in English, and Google Translate didn’t help.  I found it very interesting that the simplest humor (and you don’t get more simple than a chicken joke!) simply didn’t translate.

Once we had these and other subtleties of translation worked out, Katja sent me her final draft, for which I had to download the same German font.  Then, my work began.  Remember, I’m an SLP, not a graphic artist, so I was limited in the software I had available for laying out the book and inserting the illustrations. This was quite challenging for me in that I had to keep taking sections of German text into Google Translate to make sure I was matching up correct illustrations and text.  I had a rather amusing experience once with online translation,* so I knew not to pay attention to the actual translation, just the gist of each paragraph.   I did the best I could, then sent it to Katja for approval.  She very diplomatically asked if I would mind if Annette, a graphic designer friend of hers, played around with it.  Of course, I agreed, but I was very impressed….and also curious….about these two women who were devoting hours, days, and weeks on this project for which they were not getting any pay or profit.  For anyone who thinks I am getting rich from writing children’s books, ha! ha! ha!  For all the investment of $ and time that goes into writing, producing, and marketing, I net a royalty of about 10%.  No, these books, like my websites, are a labor of love for me, and it seemed the same was true for Katja and Annette.

Well, Annette did such a wonderful job in laying out the book and creating a new cover for the German version that I insisted she get a credit line and bio in the book, along with the credit line and bio that Katja already had as translator.  When she submitted the final cover and text, I saw Annette’s name in a paragraph on the author page so I Google Translated that, and found that, in addition to being a talented graphic artist, she was involved in designing a communication app for the iPad.  The app is called MetaTalk, named after her daughter, Meta, who uses AAC. (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/metatalk/id450698633?mt=8).   And in many Facebook chats with Katja, I learned that Katja works in a school for students who have special needs, and is also involved in the development of the AAC app, which is used in Germany and now is in English.  Both of these women were so dedicated to the Katie translation because the story is about a girl with significant disabilities who is in a regular education class.  This is not yet common in Germany, but is a trend that is slowly growing there.  They are very hopeful that Katie’s story will be seen in Germany as illustrative of what is possible when children who have significant disabilities are given the assistive technology and support needed to succeed.  As Katja said to me, “Annette and I are spending a lot of time making the world for the AAC kids a bit better.”  From the meticulous attention and careful consideration they devoted to this project, I knew I had found kindred spirits in Germany, and have been enriched by this experience.

“How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” will be coming out on Amazon.de in Germany in June.  Thanks, Katja and Annette, for planting this seed and helping it to grow!

*I can’t end this post without relating my first and funniest experience with online translation.  The first time my son traveled to Brazil, I sent him an email to greet him on his arrival.  Thinking it would be cute to do it in Portuguese, I wrote my brief message and put into Babelfish, Yahoo’s online translator.  I was about to copy/paste the translation into my email when it occurred to me that I should reverse it back to English to make sure it was correct.  Don’t ask me why that idea popped into my head, but I’m very glad it did.  My message to my son to “enjoy yourself in Brazil” was translated as “I hope you pleasure yourself.”  Oops!  Not quite the message a mother would send to her son. (blush).

“How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” is available in English from www.patmervine.com.  There you will also find a Reader’s Theater version with PowerPoint scenery, a communication word search, a Discussion Guide/Writing Prompts, and a video about Disability Etiquette.

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