Curiously Good Publishing

Bill Nagelkerke interviews Julia Marshall of Gecko Press

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 from Sweden.

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 the original. 

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 first-hand interaction. 

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 direction.

Julia has also built up relationships with other publishers who specialize in translated books, for example, Wilkins Farago in Melbourne. 

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 or Australia.

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."




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