img, .hide-comment-buttons #singleCommentHeader .formContainer >.title, .hide-comment-buttons #loginButtonContainer display: none; /* Expandable MPU fix */ #side .x300 overflow: visible!important; /* Collapsing Skyscraper fix */ .ad div.skyscraper height:auto!important;padding:0px!important; .ad div#mpu.skyscraper height:600px!important; Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English … 50 years on – Features – Books – The Independent Sunday 22 March 2015
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Placenta Smoothies Breastfeeding & IQ Wet Wipes George Osborne Greece Michael Gove Arts + Ents >Books >Features Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English … 50 years on The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom was written in 1962 by an eccentric Dutchwoman and has sold a million copies. Will it, ponders Simon Usborne, herald a new publishing era? Simon Usborne Simon Usborne Simon Usborne is a features writer at The Independent and i.
More articles from this journalist Follow Simon Usborne Wednesday 29 October 2014
Print Your friend’s email address Your email address Note: We do not store your email address(es) but your IP address will be logged to prevent abuse of this feature. Please read our Legal Terms & Policies A A A Email A burglary confirmed Adam Freudenheim’s suspicion that he was in possession of something valuable. The publisher and his wife, Victoria, had been asleep at a seaside cottage in Scotland when, at first light, an intruder crept unnoticed into their bedroom and removed a sheaf of paper from a drawer. It contained the last chapters of De brief voor de Koning (“The Letter for the King”), a coming-of-age adventure about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom.
For months last year, Freudenheim had been receiving pages as quickly as his translator could produce them. The urgency was partly commercial. The book had already sold more than a million copies since it held rapt the first of generations of Dutch children in 1962. Yet, despite a pile of awards and fans in 15 languages, it had not yet been translated into English. Freudenheim hoped that the new edition would spearhead the children’s list he had just launched at Pushkin Press.
But there were domestic pressures, too. “I was reading it to my kids and I’d get to the end and they’d say, ‘We want more!'” he recalls. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any more,’ and I would have to get back in touch with the translator.”
Max and Susanna, then aged eight and nine, were captivated by the fate of Tiuri, a 16-year-old boy and son of a revered knight. Interrupted as he waits inside a chapel that he has been instructed not to leave under any circumstances before he is to be made a knight himself the next morning, Tiuri is compelled to break the rules by an urgent knock at the door. The future of the medieval realm depends on the safe delivery of the book’s titular letter, he learns. But he must not read it. The mission serves as a moral test as Tiuri starts a perilous journey towards adulthood.
In Scotland, Freudenheim finally had the last of the book’s 500 pages. He would only become aware of the theft and its perpetrator the next evening, when Max seemed to be impossibly familiar with the story’s ending. Desperate for more, he had been unable to sleep and, sitting alone in his room soon after 4am, he wrestled with his own morals. As the sun came up, he decided to embark, on tiptoes, on a rule-breaking mission.
“As a father it doesn’t get much better than that,” a forgiving Freudenheim says. “And as a publisher it was wonderful. I knew I was on to something good.”
A year after its belated publication in English, The Letter for the King has hooked thousands more children and adults. Written more than 50 years ago by Tonke Dragt, an eccentric former prisoner of war, the book is next week being republished in a new, winter edition. Last week, it appeared on the shortlist for the Marsh Award for the best children’s book in translation. Several critics named it among their books of 2013, comparing it to the works of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling. There are now plans – secret for now – for a big-budget TV adaptation.
The book’s own long journey from the once-imprisoned, yet rich, mind of Dragt, who still inhabits the mythical worlds she wrote and drew, reveals much about the author’s enduring appeal, as well as our linguistic neglect of so much foreign fiction. Because in the Netherlands, where, in 2004, The Letter for the King won the “Griffel der Griffels” award for the best children’s book of the previous 50 years, the story needs no introduction.
“Everyone I speak to who has grown up here says that it’s their favourite book and can’t believe it hadn’t been translated,” says Laura Watkinson, the translator who sent the story in chunks to an insatiable Freudenheim and his children, who are now 10 and nine. Watkinson had recommended the book in a meeting with Freudenheim after the publisher appealed for undiscovered children’s fiction. “The name of the main character is not Dutch but there are now children here called Tiuri, it’s huge,” the translator adds from her home in Amsterdam.
Watkinson, who is now immersed in Dragt’s 1965 sequel, Geheimen van het Wilde Woud (“Secrets of the Wild Woods”), had already produced a short excerpt in English and sent it to Freudenheim. “I was immediately captivated and knew right away we had to buy the rights to this book,” he says.
Freudenheim, a Baltimore-born Londoner and former bigwig at Penguin Classics, bought Pushkin in 2012, and continues its mission to unearth books buried in their own languages. The children’s list followed last year. “I think people still don’t realise just how little there is that gets translated,” he says. “There are obvious classics such as Asterix and Tintin but, once you get past picture books, and particularly in the aged six to 12 range, you just didn’t find much at all.”
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