Planet Picture Book

Q&A with Translator Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the translator of the picture book ‘Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World)’ by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono and published in 2017 by Enchanted Lion Books in partnership with Amnesty International. I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Lyn about her role in bringing this title to an English-speaking audience.

How did you come to translate Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World)?

I heard about this book when I was in Portugal in 2015 but left before its publication date. However, Isabel Minhós Martins, the editorial director of award-winning publisher Planeta Tangerina, sent a copy to Claudia Bedrick at Enchanted Lion, and I fell in love with it. I was thrilled that Claudia would take a chance on a historical picture book about events that are pretty much unknown in the United States – the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal and the 1968 Prague Spring – but this is also a story about a refugee family trying to adapt to a very different new home, a subject that is both timely and universal.

What background reading/research did you undertake before translating Three Balls of Wool?

I think Isabel knew I would appreciate this story because we first met in spring 2014 when I was in Lisbon covering the fortieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that ended the 48-year dictatorship. She showed me some of the important sites of the revolution, and I returned to them on the day of the anniversary. So I had a pretty solid understanding of life in the final decade of the dictatorship, which I augmented with reading histories in Portuguese and visiting the Museum of Resistance and Liberation, which opened in 2015. I’ve also travelled to the Czech Republic and read histories of that period (a lot more has been written in or translated into English) as well as seeing several films that cover that era. These blog posts offer some of the background information on the two countries featured in Three Balls of Wool:

Did you experience any challenges when translating the text? How did you overcome them?

There were two principal challenges. One of them is that while I know a lot about the history of the period, I don’t know a thing about knitting. Fortunately, I attended a writing retreat in winter 2015 along with a friend from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program who is an avid knitter, and she helped me with the terms that the narrator’s mother knew so well. Watching her knit also helped me to capture the clicking and flashing of the needles, which is a different and more direct sound that the “agulha-vai, agulha-vem,” the gentle motion that the author uses to describe the mother’s knitting in the Portuguese version.

Henriqueta Cristina

The other challenge had to do with cultural differences in storytelling between Portugal and the United States. In the U.S., it’s almost a requirement that the child solve the problem. In Portuguese families during this time period, that wasn’t the way things worked, and even now, children don’t necessarily drive the action in picture books. As often as not, they are observers. But there was a rough transition between two scenes, and I smoothed it out by having the child narrator take on a bit of agency as she tells one of the Czech children, who she meets in the square, to look at what her mother is doing when she knits the sweaters into patterns. And that’s the moment when this refugee family starts to change the world around them.

Yara Kono’s illustrations in this picture book are striking and expressive. How did you work with them when you were translating the picture book?

In contrast to Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words, where I had to translate signs and billboards in the illustrations from Brazilian Portuguese to English, I didn’t have to suggest changes in the illustrations themselves. There’s one scene right after the children arrive when they’re playing in the park and the other children are speaking Czech. I didn’t translate the Czech words because I wanted readers in English to feel as disoriented as the narrator and her brothers were when they first arrived. Because the illustrations are so expressive, I allowed them to tell part of the story.

Which aspects of Three Balls of Wool appeal to you the most?

One of my favourite spreads is the first, which illustrates the family fleeing Portugal in their car in the middle of the night. This is a story about a family in crisis, but it’s also presented gently and with hope. Even though the parents’ whispered words are frightening and the narrator doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, the warm orange light from the car’s headlights shows that they will find a safe place in the end. I also like the illustrations of the children the narrator and her brothers meet in their new home. The mother assures the narrator that “children learn languages faster than grownups. She was right, as always.” And in the illustrations, we see the friendliness and welcoming attitudes of the other children and the way that the refugee family’s creativity ultimately brings a whirlwind of colour, shapes, and patterns to everyone in the city.

You’ve translated three additional picture books from Portuguese into English (and there’s another on the way). What other picture books in Portuguese would you like to see in translation?

There are a number of excellent picture books from Brazil that have yet to be translated into English. Only recently have we seen the work of Roger Mello, a Brazilian author/illustrator who won the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Award for lifetime achievement in international children’s literature – the youngest person to receive this award. Chico Buarque – one of my favourite singer/songwriters from Brazil and the author of several novels for adult readers that have been translated into English – has also written children’s books that have yet to appear in English. I’d also like to see children’s books from Lusophone Africa. I’ve taken a picture book from the Angolan writer Ondjaki to several publishers but so far haven’t gotten to yes with any of them.

First page spread from Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World)

And finally, a question not related to translation, because I’d love to know more about it. You have also built a LEGO town, Little Brick Township. Can you tell us more about this project?

I started this project in my son’s bedroom after he left for college, around the time LEGO began the Modular series of attached retro-style buildings. I own all of the Modular buildings issued after 2017, and have arranged them with buildings of my own designs, parks, and street scenes on three tables and a shelf in my living room. I’ve created a soap opera involving some of the minifigures in Little Brick Township, and use photographs of the town and its molded-plastic denizens to illustrate many of my blog posts. All of the major characters from my YA novels – published, unpublished, and in progress – have LEGO minifigure equivalents. That’s one way I keep track of what they look like.

Thank you for your time, Lyn!

Lyn has translated three other picture books from Portuguese into English:

The World in A Second by Isabel Minhós Martins, illustrated by Bernardo L. Carvalho
Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words by Ruth Rocha, illustrated by Madalena Matoso
The Queen of the Frogs by Davide Cali, illustrated by Marco Somà

A further translated title Olive the Sheep Can’t Sleep by Clementina Almeida, illustrated by Ana Camila Silva, is due out in August 2018.

Lyn is also the award-winning author of three YA novels: Rogue, Gringolandia, and Surviving Santiago. You can find out more about Lyn and her work on her website.

Translator and author photographs and book illustration courtesy of Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

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