My latest children’s book started with an email from Siobhan Parkinson, editor at Little Island Books. Her three-person publishing house punches above its weight, with prizes including the recent inaugural Irish Small Press of the Year award.
Parkinson’s email was headed: “A project you might like”.
Little Island had come across a Latvian book of poems for children on the theme of illness and recovery. Parkinson thought the book could be perfect for the Irish market with its universally relevant theme and appealing text and illustrations.
Little Island weren’t looking for a regular translator: “we feel it’s a job for a poet, and in particular a poet with a children’s lit string to her bow,” wrote Parkinson. The Latvian publisher had provided a translation of the text, which was both literal and learned, with footnotes to explain idioms and suggest alternatives.
More importantly for me, the publisher had agreed to a free rather than a faithful translation, so I would share the authorship of the book with the original poet, Inese Zandere.
I said yes straight away, even before I saw the illustrations by Reinis Petersons, whose vintage poster-style work in bold red, black and green I loved.
Books in translation were an important element in my childhood. Many were fairy tales that came from Russia, translated into Irish by An Gúm or into English by their Moscow publishers. They spoke to me of a different culture as well as speaking the universal language of fairy tales. I’m conscious now of the unvaried diet of books that children get to read in English. It was a challenge to bring a Latvian book home and to find the right balance between Latvian and Irish elements.
The first thing was to read through the rough translation by Lauris Veips.
This was a useful starting point, but in some ways the illustrations gave me more vivid pointers. With my two previous children’s books, the texts had gone out to illustrators who responded to them.
In this case, I really enjoyed being guided first by the illustration and then by the literal translation.
For instance, a poem translated by Veips as “When Taking Your Medicine” came with a picture of a fleeing germ, bright green with spindly legs. The Latvian character had been translated as the Wrinkled Imp, but there was a footnote to say the term meant “the devil”.
I decided I needed a more original name for the character, so “The Jellyleg Germ” was born.
This poem was one example of difference in the Latvian and the Irish approaches to what is appropriate for young children.
Latvians are a poetry-loving nation – they read even more poetry than the Irish. Every November, Latvian children start learning poems to recite under the Christmas tree in order to receive their presents.
Latvians also have a more stoic attitude to characters and ideas that Irish parents might consider too scary. The devil in this poem bundles children who don’t take their medicine into his bag and carries them off: “No matter if you’re under the covers, or nude/He’ll grab your leg and put you in a sack!”
I preferred my Jellyleg Germ to be less frightening: “No matter if under the covers you slip/Dressed in your jammies or all in the nip/The Jellyleg Germ will grab hold of your toe/And greener and greener and greener you’ll go.”
I wanted children to enjoy the germ as a comic character, not one who might abduct them from their beds. While I worked on the poems, I always had a child in mind, a child who was waiting in A&E, staying in hospital, sick at home or sitting in a doctor’s surgery. I wanted the tone of the poems to be reassuring and gently humorous.
I also had experience of what works in poetry for younger children. Rhymes and rhythm are enjoyable to listen to and help with memorising, something even the youngest child will do. Staying close to song, and in some cases writing a song, as I did with “Owen’s Bone Blues”, can also be appealing: “I’m making it up as I go along/Owen’s Bone Blues, yes that’s my song”.
A particularly dark poem was The Feisty Fairy, who causes so much havoc in the playground that children are advised to stay away: “She threw sand in everyone’s eyes/Beat them with shovel and bucket,” Veips translated. “Don’t go playing in the park/Where the fairy preys upon the children.”
I didn’t think Irish parents would approve of a warning to avoid the playground because of a bullying sprite. I decided that an Unfair Fairy, who might or might not be really there – a bit like the Mr Nobody who was responsible for all the things that broke when I was a child – would work better.
Instead of being at her mercy, children could look out for the Unfair Fairy, blame accidents on her, and maybe even stop her in her tracks.
According to a footnote, one of the mean things the fairy did was to “make fun of Janis Rainis”. Rainis (1865-1929) is known as the Shakespeare of Latvia. The note suggested James Joyce as an equivalent Irish figure.
I was certain that few young children in Ireland would even know who Joyce was, or care if he was mocked! My version of the poem doesn’t mention any writer at all.
Of course, there were lines and poems that I fell in love with in the direct translation and wanted to keep. One of those poems began, “The heart has no phone, she cannot call her friends”.
For me, those few words captured the vulnerability of a child’s heart being treated. They brought a lump to my throat and deserved to be kept.
The title of the book took longer to decide on than anything else. The first translation had suggested Jill is Ill. An English publisher might have been happy with that, but Irish people tend not to use the word “ill”. Using “sick” in the title would mean readers in England might think of someone throwing up.
After much brainstorming, we plumped for Open Wide!, then reconsidered next day to All Better! I like the positive tone of the name, already anticipating the child’s recovery.
Even though I was given free rein to reimagine the poems, I was nervous about the response from the Latvian writer, Inese Zandere, whose work I had riffed on. We connected on Facebook over the Irish launch, and she posted a comment that said, "You are the champion, Catherine!" That vote of confidence, combined with the pleasure of reading the book to children in schools or seeing them read it themselves, made the book worthwhile.
You can find All Better! in bookshops or on the Little Island website with free delivery worldwide