A really rather dreadfully photoshopped image of Philip Ardagh and Axel Scheffler with Harry Rohwohlt between them
According to figures in a great article in The Guardian about books in translation into English, 13% of books published in Germany are books in translation. The figure is 70% in Slovenia. This compares with perhaps 2% in the UK.
I mention this because the UK children’s book industry is dependent – and I don’t think that’s an overstatement – on the skills and sensibilities of the people who cast our books into other languages, and, in doing so, make them accessible to a whole new audience. I’ve written about selling rights and co-editions here. Nosy Crow, after just four and a half years of publishing, has already sold the right to publish Nosy Crow titles in 28 languages. This is particularly important in the case of children’s books: as anyone who’s travelled to, say, Holland or Denmark knows, the level of English spoken by most adults is breathtakingly high, but that’s a skill that comes with age, so, while many Dutch and Danish adults would happily buy books in English to read themselves, as parents, they are looking for books in their home languages to share with their children.
Harry Rowohlt was an enormously talented, hugely experienced, larger-than-life German translator who put his stamp on many English books, and is particularly recognised for his translation and audio reading of the Winnie-The-Pooh books. He died, after a long illness, earlier this week. Here is how The Bookseller reported his death. In remembering him, I am sort of paying an oblique tribute to all of the translators who bring our, and other publishers’, books to the non-English language speaking children of the world.
In the last years before he died, Harry Rowohlt translated the first two books in The Grunts series by Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, for Beltz und Gelberg. He also recorded the German audio version.
Axel writes this about Harry Rowohlt:
“Every now and then I wake up to the wonderful voice of Harry Rowohlt. My daughter “does her stickers” in the morning before school. The walls are thin. She puts a CD on an ancient CD player on which the volume is set slightly too loud. Sometimes, she’s listening to The Grunts – Familie Grunz – translated and read brilliantly by Harry Rowohlt. He was one the greatest translators, readers, performers and commentators on German life (in the Pooh Bear column he wrote for Die Zeit throughout the 1990s). There was nobody else with such a feeling for the English (whether American, British or Irish) language’s wit, irony and sense of humour irony who had such a talent to transport those qualities into German.
He also repeatedly reminded the Germans of the huge cultural loss to Germany caused by the murder and driving out of Jewish entertainers, writers, musicians and artists in the 1930s and 40s – a loss from which (and I agree) Germany has never recovered.
I regret that I never met him properly – except for some short (and perhaps appropriately, as it turned out) grunted greetings. He translated How To Keep A Pet Squirrel, a text I found in an old British encyclopaedia which I’d illustrated as a birthday present for my illustrator friend, Rotraut Susanne Berner. When her husband, Armin Abmeier, saw it, he wanted to publish it in a series of booklets by artists that he was editing called Die Tollen Hefte and he asked Harry Rowolt to do the translation – mindful of the fact that, quite apart from Harry’s translation skills, having Harry Rowolt’s name on the cover of a book is great for sales.
I was very excited when he agreed to translate The Grunts series written by Philip Ardagh for Beltz und Gelberg. Harry had worked Philip’s books before, and Philip loved him and his work. Sadly he got too ill to work on more then the first two volumes of the series. I had a little exchange of letters (he was a great and funny letter writer as well: some of his letters have been published by Haffmanns Verlag) about a Coca-Cola bottle on one of my drawings. Demonstrating his great attention to detail, he accused me of having no idea how to draw a Coke bottle (I must admit that I had overlooked the bottle design, but so had Nosy Crow). By chance, I happened to have a book on the history of Coca-Cola design (don’t ask), and found a photograph of an old bottle with straight sides from before the characteristically curvy bottle was introduced which I could send him to save my reputation.
But the Coke bottle error means that I can cherish my very own Harry Rowohlt letter.
He will be missed.”
Thank you to all the translators of children’s books throughout the world, and RIP Harry Rowohlt.