Translating Non-Fiction from Russia

by Sam Hutchinson, Publisher, b small publishing

Our book, How Does A Lighthouse Work? by Roman Belyaev, was published this March to rave reviews. Books for Topics named it one of their March ‘Books of the Month’ and one reading consultant predicated it would ‘sweep the awards’. Cross your fingers for us! The book started life in Russia, where Roman was discovered by the Art Director at Samokat Publishing House. Roman’s style is perfectly suited to non-fiction books, especially now that our market is more open to stylish, design-led books. The illustrations are what attracted us to this book in the first place but it was the educational substance that made us think we wanted to add it to our list.

As a very small publisher, we don’t buy in many titles, in fact nearly all of our list is created in house so we have to feel very strongly about a book in order to make a bid for the English language publication rights. One of our sales agents, Rachel Pidcock, actually found this book for us. Rachel is in charge of selling the translation rights for our books to many European markets, including Russia. When researching new publishers who we could approach with our catalogue, Rachel came across Samokat’s catalogue and forwarded it to me with a quick note to take a look at this standout title as an example of the great quality of their list. As publishers, the best decisions often come from just following your gut instinct and in this case my gut told me to pursue this book.

On reflection, it could be my childhood copy of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch telling me to go for it, as I have such fond memories of reading about seagulls stealing the poor lighthouse keeper’s sandwiches until his wife filled them with mustard to catch them out.

Roman’s illustration style suits the current trend for stylish non-fiction perfectly. The limited colour palette creates a uniquely electrifying mood of adventure and discovery. Roman mixes emotionally charged brush strokes in the crashing waves with intricately detailed cross-sections of buildings and lens types, giving us a non-fiction title that both draws in the reader and educates them. This spread is a great example of that.

All of the books on the b small list are heavily educational and this is a big part of who we are. Samokat, the Russian publishers, provided a rough translation of the first few spreads so we could see that Roman had written a really informative book that had been well researched. The next step was to negotiate with Samokat directly, acquire the English language publication rights and get the book ready for our market. We had a very tight schedule and it’s entirely possible that I’m quite controlling about the editorial style in our books… So I decided to work with a Russian speaking bookseller, Maria (Masha) Kulikova at the European Bookshop, to create a rough translation into English that I could then edit to fit in with our list whilst staying true and faithful to the original text.

Masha provided the English text along with a host of notes for us to consider. I then started editing the text and fact-checking as I went, which included a lengthy phone call with a local authority on lighthouses to make sure we had the right technical terminology for all of the parts of the lighthouse. The only major change we made was to how Roman talked about lighthouse keepers. In the UK, lighthouses have been automated for about 20 years now and lighthouse keepers have been replaced with attendants who check on the machinery every now and then. We also simplified one mathematical equation about how far light can travel, as the children we shared the spread with all looked a little terrified by the complicated formula!

One of the hardest spreads to work on was the one that explained about the special type of lens that Fresnel invented. We had to get our heads around the translation and the science! Don’t let anyone tell you that writing children’s books is easy. Children are the first to point out when something doesn’t make sense and we had to make sure we had understood this science before we could decide the best way to communicate it to English-speaking children.

This spread also reminds me of one of the other main challenges, which was translating the names of the lighthouses correctly. Some lighthouses have several names and the direct translation from Russian sometimes led us on a bit of a journey through various names until we found the one most commonly used in the UK.

All in all, it was a very satisfying journey through the history of and science behind lighthouses. We hope you like the book too!

This was a guest post from Sam Hutchinson. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG. 

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