Emma Page describes the plaisir of translating the French graphic novel adaptations of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
Blyton is a household name in the UK, where a fourth generation of young readers are now discovering her beloved Famous Five stories. The adventures of Julian, Dick and Anne, their cousin George and her dog Timmy at Kirrin Cottage in Dorset have long captured the imagination of British children, with their wholesome hijinks, endless school holidays and sumptuous picnics washed down with lashings of ginger beer. UK audiences might be surprised to learn that for nearly as long as the Famous Five have been visiting Kirrin Cottage in Dorset, a set of doppelgangers known as the Club des Cinq have been spending their holidays at the Villa des Mouettes in Brittany, France. In the 1950s George(ina), Julian, Dick and Anne crossed the Channel to become Claude(ine), Francois, Mick, and Annie, where they starred in hugely popular French translations of Blyton’s books published by Hachette Livre.
In this post-Harry Potter era, global children’s book phenomena are not unheard of. What makes Blyton in France unusual is the extent to which the Club des Cinq have been integrated into French children’s book culture. The original French translations heavily adapted both the text and the visual identity of the Famous Five books. Settings, character names and food and drink, all iconic elements of Blyton’s writing, were given a French feel. Where Julian and Dick were digging into ham and boiled eggs, Francois and Mick were salivating over crepes and brioches. More abstract cover designs emphasized the mystery and adventure elements of the story, steering away from the bright, busy look of the original British covers. When Blyton died in 1968, Claude Voilier, one of her French translators, continued the Club des Cinq series directly in French. These later stories were eventually translated into English by iconic Asterix translator Anthea Bell, making the Famous Five that we know and love today a genuine cross-Channel cultural creation.
Recently, I was lucky enough to experience the French love of Blyton first-hand when I was asked to translate graphic novel adaptations of the first two Famous Five books, Five on a Treasure Island and Five Go Adventuring Again. The adaptations, originally produced in French by father-and-son duo Béja and Nataël and published by Hachette Livre in 2017, are the first graphic novel versions of Blyton stories to appear in English. To anyone familiar with Tintin or Asterix, it should come as no surprise that graphic versions of classic children’s novels are relatively common in France. In the UK, Hachette was initially unsure whether they would appeal to a market where comics are a less-established element of children’s mainstream reading culture. The massive popularity in recent years of graphic-driven series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and imported genres such as Japanese manga, as well as an increasing awareness among parents and teachers of the importance of visual literacy and expanding the accessibility of literature, eventually convinced them that the time was right to bring the Club des Cinq home to the UK in graphic novel format.
As a translator, this was an exciting and unusual project with plenty of unique challenges. I had to balance replacing the Club des Cinq elements with the familiar, British world of the Famous Five while also respecting the various plot and prose adaptations that had to do more with the graphic format than with the French setting. Blyton’s prose is heavy on description, while the graphic format is almost all dialogue. Certain plot elements from each book had disappeared, while others had been expanded or even created from scratch. Ultimately, my aim was to produce a translation that would both appeal to the nostalgic parents and grandparents who are part of Blyton’s British audience, while preserving the exciting, contemporary feel of Béja and Nataël’s sparkling adaptations of these familiar stories.
Beyond the names of people and places, certain French plot elements had to be changed back to reflect the originals. The French version explains that the children’s wealthy ancestor, who once owned all the land around Kirrin Island, lost his fortune ‘in the Revolution’. That detail doesn’t make sense in a British setting, so I translated it with Blyton’s less-exciting original explanation for the family’s reduced circumstances (just bad luck). The Treasure Island graphic novel includes an extended historical flashback about pirates and the trans-Atlantic bean trade that turns on a French pun about haricot beans and gold ingots. This doesn’t feature at all in the original books, and the pun sadly dissolves when translated into English, so my translation of that section is quite different in content (although not in spirit) from the French version. A local farmer couple who have a strong dialect and use a colourful variety of religious exclamations in the French gain a traditional West Country accent. Crepes and brioches became pancakes and muffins, although astute readers may notice the illustrations feature distinctly un-British bowls of coffee. The illustrations in general are quintessentially French, strongly echoing the bold outlines and bright colours of Tintin and featuring clothing, food and architecture that would be found in Brittany rather than Dorset. Rather than try to explain or change this, the editors at Hachette and I chose to let it speak for itself. Like a film or TV adaptation, these joyful graphic representations of deeply familiar characters will be just one more element contributing to the images of George, Timmy, Aunt Fanny, Uncle Quentin and all the rest that exist in the mind’s eye of so many readers around the world, young and old alike.
Five on a Treasure Island: Book 1 (Famous Five Graphic Novel), 978-1444963670, Hodder Children’s Books, £7.99 pbk
Five Go Adventuring Again: Book 2 (Famous Five Graphic Novel), 978-1444963687, Hodder Children’s Books, £7.99 pbk