20 More ‘Rules’: Becka McKay on Teaching Translation and Petra Dünges on Translating Picture Books

Becka Mara McKay teaches translation and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010 and her translation of the novel Laundry by Suzane Adam was published by Autumn Hill Books in 2008.

Ten Rules for Making New Translators

1. Make them believe in the necessity of translation. On the first day of the first graduate translation workshop I taught, I gave them Translate This Book!, a remarkable document produced by The Quarterly Conversation consisting of dozens of recommendations by writers of works yet to be translated into English. Peering into that vacuum of inaccessible literature, presented in such a striking way, galvanized many of them into taking the first step.

2. Make them into readers. Without a continuous, varied way to enhance and refine their resources in their mother tongue, they will find it difficult to create readable translations.

3. Make them into better readers. Translation is close reading—teach them to read closely.

4. Make them understand their strengths. I teach a translation workshop in which the participants do not need to know a second language. But they are all writers. So my goal is to teach them to bring their writing skills to the act of translation—their ears, their vocabularies, their personal bags of tricks.

5. Make them have fun. Teach them the relationship between translation and decision making.I bring in multiple translations of a single poem (Rilke’s “The Panther” is a good one) and have them create their own versions.

6. Make them aware that translation can be thankless work. It’s only fair to warn them. (My students claim that I have not done this well enough.)

7. Make them understand that translation begins by choosing what to translate. I always explain that by choosing to translate one text, they are also choosing not to translate another. They need to ask themselves some important questions: How does this work represent its country? Its culture? Its language? Its author?

8. Make them aware that they are not alone. Help and support for new translators is out there. Send them to ALTA (the American Literary Translators Association), which offers beginning translators a few scholarships to their annual conference every year. Ask other translators to suggest texts that need translating. Encourage them to organize. (My grad students are in the process of creating a “Translation Club,” which will allow them to apply for travel funds to
translation conferences.)

9. Make them part of the spectrum of translation. I am training writers as well as translators (because I believe that you shouldn’t be the former without being the latter, and vice versa). I therefore encourage my students not only to translate, but to adapt, imitate, and re-create.

10. Make them evangelists. Now that you’ve created a set of new translators, it’s their turn.


Petra Dünges is the translator of the first Arabic children’s book to appear in a German edition. She has translated books by Fauziya Rashid, Fuad Qa’ud, Walid Taher and Rania Zaghir, with illustrations  by Fuad al-Futaih, Racelle Ishak, Ihab Shakir and Walid Taher.

She has a scholarly interest in  Arabic children’s literature, publishes widely on the subject and gives talks at universities and academic conferences. She maintains a web site on Arabic children’s literature
and is curating a small collection of this literature for the Gutenberg Museum Mainz. At Saarland University, she does research on formal semantics of natural language, translating fragments of natural language into mathematical logic.

Translating Arabic Children’s Literature into German

1 Carefully select the books you want to translate.

You should be intrigued by the book: you will  live in the world which is created by the book while translating it and the translation will be connected to your name. But being intrigued is not enough: you need solid criteria for the quality of children’s books.

2 Make contact with the Arab publisher and try  to find a good German publisher.

Finding a German publisher for Arabic literature  in translation is extremely  time-consuming and you need great perseverance. But it is your task as translator, because German publishers usually do not know much about Arabic literature nor do they read Arabic. Unfortunately,  a publisher may  like a given book but still reject it for fear of not selling enough copies. This is already a problem for adult literature, but it is far worse for children’s literature, because of the different style of illustrations in Arabic and German children’s books.

3 Read widely, read wildly.

Read lots of good children’s books, both Arabic and German. Don’t forget to read some really bad books from time to time. Ask yourself what it is, exactly, that makes you like/dislike this sentence or that illustration.

4 For picture books: First read the illustrations, then read the text.

First try to understand the main story  from the illustrations alone. You can only do this if you are not already influenced by the text. Then read the text. Check the relation between the stories told by illustrations alone and text alone: do the stories hang together well? What is the influence of text/illustrations on the spirit of the book? Remember that small children who cannot already read texts love to “read”  books without an adult, just by looking at  illustrations.

5 Think hard about inconsistencies.

Careful readers such as translators (or children!) sometimes detect inconsistencies in text, illustration or between text and illustration. Inconsistencies can be motivated, e.g., to  create a certain tension in the story. But more often they creep in inadvertently. Contact author and illustrator  and try to come up with a creative solution.

6 While translating, keep an eye on the illustrations.

There is no such thing as literal translation when it comes to literature in translation. Note that inconsistencies between illustration and translation might creep in if you only look at the text.

To take an extreme  example, consider word plays. To translate a word play  into a  word play, you might have to change the entities which are being talked about. You are in for trouble, if these entities are depicted in the illustrations.

7 Translate for your young readership.

Authors writing in  Arabic sometimes use rare expressions which are not understood by the average Arab adult. This is usual in adult literature but it is tolerated in books for children too, even though  a growing number of   Arab scholars point out that it makes books hard to enjoy for young readers. In adult literature you might   translate rare Arabic expressions  into equally rare expressions in the German language,. You cannot do this for children’s literature,  as German readers  would be drawn aback, not being used to rare expressions in children’s books. Thus here you should translate only the meaning, using a different style.

8 Read your draft aloud, show it to adults, read it to children.

9 For bilingual versions: be involved in  layout and typesetting.

If the original illustrations are kept, extra care must be taken as you now have twice as much text as in the original. Careless publishers can create havoc! When it comes to vocalization, have your grammar at your side.  After checking vocalization, you might need a set of new eyes…

10 Join a professional organization for translators.

This has been said before but it cannot be said often enough. Professional organizations help in your professional development and  in making fair contracts.