Translation, children’s books and John Nieuwenhuizen

Hawthorn bookseller Mike Shuttleworth reflects on translation, children’s books and the work of John Nieuwenhuizen.


In Australian young adult fiction circles, the name Agnes Nieuwenhuizen is quite well known. Agnes founded the Centre for Youth Literature in 1991, was awarded a Dromkeen Medal in 1994, created several guidebooks on teenage literature, and still writes book reviews for national publications today.

Perhaps less well known, her husband John Nieuwenhuizen is a distinguished translator of fiction from Holland and Belgium. Last week John was honoured as the very first Australian to receive an IBBY Honour Book certificate at an event hosted by Readings Hawthorn. He spoke with Text Publishing senior editor Penny Hueston, translator of Patrick Modiano and Marie Darrieussecq. John received the award for his English translation of Nine Open Arms by Dutch author Benny Lindelauf.

John has previously won the Mildred Batchelder Award, USA, for the best children’s book in translation, as well as the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize and PEN Medallion.

IBBY is the International Board on Books for the Young and their mission – to promote international understanding through children’s books – is as urgent today as it has ever been. Though overshadowed by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, IBBY has been here for over sixty years. For the biennial Honour list, National Sections of IBBY select one outstanding recent book for each of the three categories: writing, illustration and translation. IBBY Australia has selected Honour Books for Writing and for Illustration since the 1970s, but had not previously chosen one for Translation – until now.

The whole list of Honour Books can be viewed here.

Like many classic children’s stories, Nine Open Arms is a tale of a family living in poverty, and contains a story-within-a-story of past secrets. John’s translation evokes the chronotope of Limburg in the south-east of the Netherlands, with its gritty wind in the cornfields, and important cigar trade. The translator succeeded in making the story accessible while retaining specific dialect words for nicknames and some exclamations. (During the event, John demonstrated the correct pronunciation of kwatsj – Limburgish for nonsense.)

In July, Allen & Unwin will reissue John’s translation of Falling by Anne Provoost, the story of a young man who comes under the influence of neo-Nazis.

Where would we be without children’s books in translation? No Pippi Longstocking, no Finn Family Moomintroll, no Asterix, no Tintin. Translation is our way to escape the gilded cage of English. Bravo to John Nieuwenhuizen and all those translators quietly, steadily and so fruitfully working behind the scenes to enrich our experience of the world.


Mike Shuttleworth works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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Nine Open Arms

Nine Open Arms

Benny Lindelauf, John Nieuwenhuizen

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