Sunday 16 April 2006

Illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo: Suffering in Translation

“We don’t work out of a vacuum,” writer-illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo says. “We are working in culture of the moment in time.” She was speaking to an audience of writers and illustrators in London last September 2005 on the subject of character design.

But which culture?

This is the question that taxes publishers, editors, writers and illustrators of picture books in the increasingly competitive global market of children’s publishing. How does one publish across the world without suffering in translation?

Toto in Paris, Bridget’s first published book, perfectly captures the wonder of discovering another culture.

“I came up with Toto in Paris about a small boy sharing an adventure with a French friend and a runaway dog,” she says in an interview. “When I'd travelled to other countries as a child, I’d remembered the strangeness of small things – peculiar breakfasts, odd coins, different sweets – and I wanted to include these things in the story.”

The diversity of cultural experience is a recurring theme in Bridget’s talks. She herself had an English father and a Spanish mother, and in her childhood had lived in the United States, England, Spain and France, where she now lives and works.

Bridget called her talk ‘Mice, Mothers and Others in Children’s Books – a Long Hard Look at Character in Translation’. Jointly sponsored by the Association of Illustrators and SCBWI British Isles, the talk looked at fashions and conventions and the way faces and figures are depicted in different times and places.

Why do some things travel and others don’t?

“One of my hobbies is to get people 'armchair-travelling' via picture books," she said, before treating the audience to a feast of images from children’s books, criss-crossing the globe – Babar in New York by Laurent de Brunhoff, Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson, The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

“Within the illustrating world there is an obsessive search for style and yet style is often the bugbear of illustration,” Bridget said. For the children's book illustrator, she said, it is rare that style on its own guarantees a book’s success. Characterization is more important. Focusing on mothers, she demonstrated how different cultures saw women and mothers in particular, in different ways.

How often do you see a woman getting dressed or breast feeding in a children's book? She showed one exception from New York-based illustrator Marc Simont. In The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, he shows women in a variety of comic contortions as they struggle to get into their black evening dresses to perform in a concert. Equally exceptional, though from a more surreal perspective, is an image taken from Maurice Sendak's I Saw Esau (“I one my mother, I two my mother, I three my mother … I ate my mother”). His breastfeeding mother is gradually gobbled up by her fat baby.

Are mothers conditioned by their specific cultural expectations?

“In British books, there seem to be an unusual number of tired, put-upon mothers” Bridget said as we came to an exhausted mother in Bye Bye Baby illustrated by Janet Ahlberg and another in tears in Burningham's Avocado Baby. In contrast, the chirpy and brightly-dressed French mother in Le Pantalon de Gaston by Marie Delafon seems to be having quite a party from her bed with her family. Certainly not tired and in fact downright menacing, is the mother in a modern French picture book classic, Le Chien Bleu by Nadja. She sits in tight-fitting black velvet and high heels on the edge of a bath telling her pleading daughter that she won't allow her to have a dog. Highly acclaimed in France since it came out in 1989, this psycho-charged story with surreal overtones has been published in Spain and Germany but remains unpublished in English.

Different cultures have different attitudes. Mon Amis Crocodile by Fred Bernard is about a shy boy who imagines how his life would improve if he could have a crocodile as a friend to take to school. In one illustration is a woman, incidental to the story, walks past toting a bag made of crocodile skin. “I don’t think a British or American publisher would go for that somehow,” says Bridget.

Bridget attributes the French laissez faire in picture book imagery to its strong children’s publishing market – attributable to the big budgets of its libraries which makes it less dependent on sales in other markets. “Increasingly British publishers have needed to sell elsewhere to survive,” she said. “French publishers don’t see foreign rights to books as a priority.”

Indeed most picture book writers and illustrators working in the UK know the rules of co-edition publishing – no rhyming text for fear that it cannot be translated, no culturally-specific images like red London buses, or black London taxi cabs. A book must be saleable within any cultural context. That's one reason why animal stories in natural habitats are so popular internationally and why Margaret Wild's book Kiss, kiss! which Bridget illustrated for Little Hare, has sold well internationally. “Any child anywhere can identify with the character of little hippo exploring the natural world around him,” says Bridget, “and a hippo mum can be your mum, once you've identified with the main character!”

The brutal fact remains that co-editions (more about co-editions) are where the money is in most children’s markets, and publishers cannot afford to publish books that suffer in translation.

“America, historically an important ally here, has cut back significantly on its UK imports,” explains the Arts Council England, in a consultation paper on children’s literature, “In consequence… for writers and illustrators alike, there is increasing pressure on the possibility of difference and diversity, experimentation and risk.”

Bridget counts herself lucky to be working for American, Australian and French publishers as well as for France’s dynamic children’s press. She works regularly for monthly magazines including Bayard's Pomme d’api.

“In the UK, the few magazines there are seem to be dominated by TV and merchandising,” Bridget said. “But the variety of visual representation, the quality and range of illustrators in French kid's magazines, is remarkable – they use a lot of illustrators from Britain and Spain too. What’s great about magazine work is that you can develop a repertoire with quicker feedback than for book publishers. You can experiment with approaches and have more freedom to develop within different constraints.”

Kiss, kiss! by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo has been published in nine countries and is being re-issued by Little Hare in the UK as a boxed set for Mother's Day 2006. Knock, knock by David Bedford and Bridget Strevens-Marzo was published by Little Hare in 2005. Bridget's latest French book is a colouring book with a difference, Les Petites Mains Dessinent, published by Bayard in March 2006.

What do you think? Is there more to be gained than lost by publishing picture books that do not suffer in translation?


  1. There's more to be gained. Perhaps not so much with picture books, but certainly older children's fiction benefits. Translating texts helps people to see that we have lots in common with other cultures... it can bridge differences, or am I being an idealist?

  2. Bridget was interviewed last Mother's Day on BBC Radio 4, Woman's Hour about the way mother's are presented in picture books. Interviewed with her was Dr Penni Cotton, research fellow at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature. The interview opens with the wonderful voices of small children comparing the mothers they see in books with their own mothers. Listen to the radio item here.


Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom