Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Guest Post: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on Literature in Translation as Empowering Own Voices

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Before becoming a translator, I wrote historical fiction set in part in Chile, a country I knew from working with exiles who had fled the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s as well as with musicians inside the country who were working underground to restore democracy.

In addition to my knowledge gained from personal relationships and spending time in Chile, I read works of fiction and nonfiction by Chilean authors, in the original language and in translation. 

These books were the original Own Voices, and translators were the people who made these voices available to those who didn’t speak or read Spanish.

My award-winning novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009) portrayed one of many refugee stories, past and present. 

Eighteen months ago, Claudia Bedrick at Enchanted Lion gave me the opportunity to translate a book about a refugee family in Portugal fleeing a brutal dictatorship that ruled from 1926 to 1974. This family left in the mid 1960s in search of a place “where all children go to school” and ended up in Communist Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Prague Spring. 

Henriqueta Cristina
Growing up in a small town in the interior of Portugal, Henriqueta Cristina and her family were close friends with a family that was forced to flee, and their experience became the core of her debut picture book text Com 3 Novelos (O Mundo Dá Muitas Voltas), illustrated by Yara Kono (Planeta Tangerina, 2015). 

I translated that title to Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World)(Enchanted Lion Books, 2017).

And change the world it does!

Not finding the freedom they seek in their new home, the young narrator and her mother set about creating beauty and bringing change to their corner of the world. 

At a time when so many countries are closing their borders to families seeking safety and freedom, Three Balls of Wool shows how refugees and immigrants can enrich their new homes. They bring knowledge, skills, creativity, vibrant cultures, new ways of doing things.

Photos of the Portuguese and French editions from an exhibit 
featuring illustrator Yara Kono at a public library 
in Vila Franca de Xira, a town outside Lisbon, Portugal.
Own Voices books are authentic stories, mirrors for those who share the backgrounds and experiences, and windows for those who do not. And right now, we need authentic window books more than ever, to develop the capacity for empathy and understanding.

Through the efforts of We Need Diverse Books, Teaching for Change, and others, we are seeing more books about and by people of color, and those books are making their way into schools and onto bestseller lists.

I believe that international books in translation are the next front line in terms of diversity and Own Voices.

In times of crisis, people look to examples from the past and from other countries to offer guidance.

Set during the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, and under Communism in Eastern Europe, Three Balls of Wool offers these examples, in an authentic and age-appropriate way. 

Here are some questions to think about and discuss with young readers:
  • What is it like to live without freedom? Why do people take risks to have freedom? 
  • What can we learn from others forced to make the choice between staying in a bad situation or moving to places unknown where they may or may not be welcome? 
  • How would you welcome someone from a different land, from a different culture, who speaks a different language? 
  • How do people fit into their new home while staying true to who they are and where they come from? 
  • How do immigrants contribute to making their new homes a better place to live?
The fact that Three Balls of Wool has been translated from another language into English offers additional educational opportunities. Students in foreign language classes, from the earliest grades on, can discuss and understand the advantages of knowing another language. Students who are bilingual can try their hand at translating a poem or a story from one language into another.

Who knows? This may turn into a valuable career one day!

When I became fluent in Spanish, and then Portuguese, it was like having a key to unlock a hidden room. Knowing these languages has allowed me to read and listen to authentic voices and to bring them to readers in English who don’t know these languages.

I hope that my translations will encourage you to explore other countries, to learn from the diverse people who live there, and to welcome their stories into your homes and classrooms.

Cynsations Notes

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009), Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013) and Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015). 

She also translates picture books, novels for children and teens and scholarly articles in the social sciences from Portuguese and Spanish into English. 

Lyn has an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin. 

She is the former editor of MultiCultural Review, and has taught English, social studies, and Jewish studies. (See Lyn's Cynsations interview about editing MultiCultural Review.)

She is the assistant host of Vientos del Pueblo, a bilingual radio show featuring Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history. 

She grew up in Houston and currently lives in New York City with her family.

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