New Zealand’s Gecko Press, which Julia Marshall
established in 2004, “translates and publishes award-winning, curiously
good children's books from around the world [specialising] in English
versions of award-winning children's books by internationally
well-established authors and illustrators.” Gecko Press chooses books
“strong in story, illustration and design, with a strong ‘heart factor’.
Our goal”, says Gecko, “is to produce books which encourage children to
love to read.” Recently Gecko has also begun to publish books
originating in New Zealand. Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley and Gavin
Bishop won the Junior Fiction category and the Book of the Year in the
2008 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. I
talked to Julia Marshall about the rapid rise of Gecko Press and began
by suggesting that to start up a new publishing venture in this
electronic age seemed a high risk thing to do: having a focus on
acquiring, translating and selling works in other languages even more
fraught. What inspired her to make this bold move and how confident was
she that it would be a success?
I was inspired when I discovered that so very few children’s books –
or any books - were translated into English from other languages. When I
started, I didn’t know whether translating books would be successful,
but I thought I had nothing to lose in trying. I had lived overseas for
such a long time that it seemed a good way for me to put to use
something of what I had learned. At the beginning I just took one book
at a time. I think the timing was good.
Julia is not only a publisher but a translator as well. Some of the
first Gecko books were short novels by Ulf Stark and picture books by
Sven Nordqvist (both Swedish writers), which Julia translated. Did
having the responsibility for translating and publishing make things
easier or more difficult?
I really enjoy translating: it is writing without having to worry
about plot or character, working with the best possible material. In a
way it is easier, as I can have a close conversation with the editor
about the text in relation to the original. Maybe that is why I like
publishing books in translation in general – I really enjoy knowing that
the book is very good to start with and that my job is then to try and
make it as good as it can be in English.
Julia lived and worked in Sweden for more than a decade. In a recent
interview on Radio New Zealand Julia said that she knew she wanted to
publish children’s books. I wondered how the Swedish experience plus
that desire to publish children’s books had come together in her
decision to begin Gecko Press.
I was very clear that I wanted to come back to New Zealand. My time
in Sweden gave me the business confidence to set up Gecko Press and it
taught me not to fear translation. Without the time in Sweden I would
never have thought of translation as an option, and I don’t think I
would have managed to make good books in translation without that
experience. After being away such a long time I wanted to transfer some
of what I had learned living in a different country, rather than just
starting over as if it had never happened. Concentrating on translated
books links the two parts of my life, I think. Plus I was shocked that
so few books were available in English from countries that I knew had
very good writers; that seemed very odd to me and I thought it was a
good place to start. Then I discovered that I wanted to stay there.
The first Gecko Press book, Donkeys, was from Austria. It was
followed by the Swedish titles of Stark, Nordqvist and Nilsson and more
recently by two of the popular picture books featuring toddler Max,
written by Barbro Lindgren and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, both also
Swedish children’s books are very good I think: Swedish writers are
completely unpatronising. They don’t talk down to their readers. I find
Ulf Stark and Ulf Nilsson and many of the Swedish writers are able to be
warm and funny and serious all at the same time, which I like.
Deciding on which books to translate is always tricky. I asked Julia how
she knows which ones will 'travel' successfully and which will sink
rather than swim: is it solely based on the book's success in its first
language (and maybe editions in other languages) or does she also bring a
certain intuition, a gut feeling, to the decision-making process?
All those things. I ask to only see the very best books from each
publisher to start with, as to make the leap into English they do have
to be extra-good, I think. I made the decision to concentrate on that
sort of book – to me that means the books that are likely to last,
rather than following trends or fads. Sometimes books don’t work even
though the publishers love them; there is one I am looking at the moment
that I love, but it has been published in other languages where it
hasn’t done well, so for this book I will widen my group of booksellers
and readers to see what they think. Sometimes I make an instant
decision: I said yes to Who’s Driving? (from Belgium) for
instance, as soon as I saw it. I’ve learned a bit, though there are of
course no rules. Some books do better in Australia than in New Zealand
and vice versa: though all the Gecko Press books are steady sellers. The
books where the story is as strong as the illustrations do best in the
long run; that’s what I look for and those are the books that give me
the most pleasure.
I asked Julia what the response to the Gecko list has been so far - from
children, adults, critics, other publishers, booksellers.
We have had an extraordinary response from the people who know about
our books. Our challenge is to make sure that more people do! I have
been told that Gecko Press has made a lot of cut-through in a short
time, in a difficult market. We do get lots of feedback about the books
and that is very encouraging. I especially like reviews from children.
And sometimes a book finds the right person at the right moment and that
makes it really worthwhile.
Julia then told me something about the publishing process she follows, compared to publishing new work.
The process is different, and it is much shorter, and possibly less
three-dimensional than publishing original works as we only have to work
with the text and the typeface, and some layout issues, rather than the
entire conception from scratch. The illustrations are exactly the same:
we make a decision about whether to keep or change the cover, though
most often we keep it as the original. The text is first translated, and
then edited. Unlike chapter books, in picture books this can be a
reworking process as it is so critical that the story works absolutely
for our audience. We remain true to the spirit of the original, and
after editing we go back and check the original against the final
version to see if there are any places where we have lost strength in
translation or misinterpreted something. Finally I send the whole thing
to the original publisher for approval. The original publisher doesn’t
play any part other than to approve the translation and to provide the
original illustration files, which we pay for on top of the royalty.
Sometimes the original publisher will arrange the printing but this
tends to be more expensive for us so I generally try to avoid
co-editions – unless it is for an expensive book to produce like the Who’s Driving? pop-up edition and Mouk.
What do you mean by ‘re-working’?
Some books are easier to translate than others. In some picture
books, license in the translation process may be necessary because of
there being so few words to work with, so that often it is like trying
to translate poetry. For instance, in Donkeys, there were a lot
of puns in the original that were difficult to translate. So writer and
editor Penelope Todd introduced the device of Jack and Jenny rather than
Mr and Mrs Donkey, and also the animal references to pigheadedness,
acting the goat, the reference to plenty more fish in the sea, to get
the feeling of the puns; our aim is always to keep with the spirit of
You mentioned that writer Penelope Todd fine-tunes the texts of many of Gecko's titles. Can you tell me how this works?
Penelope Todd has a great talent for taking a translation and really
making it work on the page, while still retaining the essence of the
original translation. This is part of the two-step process of
translation (for picture books in particular) and is very necessary. It
is what makes the difference between your being aware that something is
translated and not realizing it has been translated. You shouldn’t have
to think about it at all. We say that good translation is like looking
through a clear glass window; you don’t know it’s there: and bad
translation is like looking through a dirty glass window. So for me a
bad translation may be either not be true to the original, or one that
it ‘feels’ like a translation.
Julia began travelling to book fairs like those in Frankfurt and Bologna
while she was still working in Sweden. She gains a great deal from this
I am given tips about books I haven’t seen that I might like, and
feedback from other publishers, as well as seeing new titles. Publishing
is very relationship-based, so I try to meet people from new countries
as well as to see my favorites. My job is also to sublicense the rights
to other English publishers, and in the case of books like Snake and Lizard and My Village and Gavin Bishop’s new board book, There was an old woman, to sell the rights to the non-English market too.
So you would seek to have these titles translated into other languages?
Yes, absolutely. No question. This was always the plan, from the
start, to take some New Zealand and Australian writers in the other
Julia has also built up relationships with other publishers who
specialize in translated books, for example, Wilkins Farago in
Andrew, of Wilkins Farago, and I often like similar books. Kane
Miller is another publisher focusing on award-winning books in
translation in the US, and they are publishing Snake and Lizard there.
At the New Zealand Post Books Awards function Gavin Bishop said that
Gecko Press, by its outstanding example of quality production values,
would change the nature of publishing for children in New Zealand within
the next two years. This sentiment was echoed by the New Zealand Post
Book Awards judges who said that Snake and Lizard was a book
whose high production values mirror the exemplary work of its author and
illustrator. I wondered if Julia found this sort of expectation
frightening or did it present a challenge she relished?
That was very kind of Gavin Bishop, but I think New Zealand is
producing some beautiful books. Gecko Press books do have high
production values, because I think it is important. I do think that the
whole feel of the book is important to it having a long life and that’s
what I want.
Did it made any difference to Gecko Press having Snake and Lizard a New Zealand Post winner?
It has made a huge difference for us in New Zealand; as it shows we
are a New Zealand publisher (some bookshops are now making a Gecko Press
space in their shops for our books). Text Publishing is publishing Snake and Lizard in Australia early next year which is fantastic. Snake and Lizard
was also included in the 2008 White Ravens’ list awarded to 250 books
published internationally, which also was a boost for Gecko Press
overseas, as all the White Raven books were displayed at Bologna. That
generated a lot of international interest in the book. I think it is
also part of the reason Gecko Press was voted a joint winner of the
Thorpe-Bowker Publisher of the Year award in New Zealand recently and
that was a fantastic honour too and one of which I am very proud, as it
is voted for by booksellers.
Gecko continues to publish material originating in New Zealand. As well
as Gavin Bishop’s new book, Wellington librarian and writer Dylan Owen
has written a book for Gecko featuring New Zealand artists and their
works. I asked Julia if this local publishing was something she was keen
to continue and develop, or would the chief focus of Gecko Press remain
with books from offshore?
The chief focus will absolutely remain with books from off-shore, but
I like the thought of doing one or two books each year from New Zealand
One of Julia’s latest books, Duck, Death and the Tulip by the Hans Christian Andersen Award winning illustrator from Germany, Wolf Erlbruch, (see review on the page for Duck, Death and the Tulip)
is not a typical picture book. It deals with the weighty issues of life
and death and is aimed at older readers. Julia’s called it a “picture
book form of The Book Thief.” And, like that very fine,
extraordinary novel, it certainly is a brilliant, thought-provoking book
featuring Death as a main character. I asked Julia if she considers it
risky to have translated and published it?
Yes, I think it is! But it is a very powerful book and invokes such a
strong reaction in people, that I believe it will be fine. It is
beautiful as well and it is very wise and strong; two very strong
characters in only a few words. It is very warm and many people get a
lump in their throat when they read it.
This optimism looks likely to pay off. In the same Radio New Zealand
interview referred to earlier, interviewer Kim Hill said: "Duck, Death
and the Tulip is now my favourite book of all time. I love it. [It’s]
worth reading again and again."