The Gruffalo Goes Orkney Scots aka Translating Picture Book Rhyme

Quick, picture book writers: what’s the one thing you’ve learned to avoid as much as possible from your countless webinars?

Did you say rhyme*?

Unless it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is*. Except for the rhyming books that we all know and love, which are the greatest*. And also it’s hard to translate*. Also, don’t send it to agents because it will scare them off*. Or editors, because they don’t want to have to edit that craziness*. Unless, you know…it’s excellent*–and also, it barely ever is.*…

Confused, yet? Understandable! It’s…complicated.

So…here’s what I’ve gleaned from my countless webinars/conferences/crying out into the sky, shaking my fists.

ACTUALLY, agents and editors adore rhyme…so long as it is:

  • impeccable
  • inventive
  • perfect for the kind of story the story is meant to be (meaning: not sing-songy without purpose).

But…there’s the rub. They typically don’t get that with their rhyming submissions. And it hurts their hearts.

It’s like bad rhymers are such bad manuscript-reading dates that they make even the most rhyme-positive editors and agents wonder if they should swear off rhyming altogether.

But what about the editing? What about the translation?? Well…editors love to edit! BUT it has to be something worth their time. Again, there lies the rub. They don’t want to essentially re-write a rhyming picture book for you. Suggesting improvements to something already stellar? I mean, that’s LITERALLY (hardy har har!) their superpower.

So that leaves (for a stellar rhyming picture book)–just the translation issue.

Well, it turns out, even though translating rhyme takes a deft mind, it can be done. And it can be done beautifully! And it WILL be done if the market demands it–if you’ve written such a fabulous book.

Case in point: Let’s all welcome, “The Orkney Gruffalo” the official-Julia-Donaldson-and-Axel-Scheffler-picture book as translated into Orcadian Scots by Simon W. Hall.

Okay, okay, I know both English and Orkney Scots is based on the same language. Still, for English speakers, it’s a great way to see how much work a great translator does–especially when they are keeping rhyme and meter going. Take a look!

American English on the left; Orkney Scots on the left.
American English spread.
Orkney Scot version of the same spread.
See how the meter is the same and the meaning…but how different the ending sounds.
It’s so great to see how flexible language is!

Also…the obvious work and love that goes into translating poetry and rhyme…well, let’s just say, this is why translators deserve to have their names on the front cover of the book, too.

Well done, Simon W. Hall!

So, I guess here is one way to gauge if you think your rhyming picture book is ready to submit. Would this–could this possibly?–be financially worth translating into Orkney Scots? If it is–you’ve got yourself a winner of a rhyming picture book. Because that means it’s a universal tale told in a wonderful way.

You can do it! It’s…just going to take a lot of work and one heckuva idea.

But you already knew that. 🙂 Go get it, friend!

(Side note: The Orkney Scots version this was given as a gift to my boys some time ago…and we actually all PREFER it to the original, it has become so beloved! Shhh! Please don’t tell Julia!)