The 2013 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was awarded to Howard Curtis for his translation of In the Sea there are Crocodiles, by Fabio Geda. The award was presented by Daniel Hahn, who took the opportunity to give an insider’s view on the art of translation. An edited version of his speech is reproduced here.
Once upon a time – is a good place to start a story. You know you’re in safe hands with “Once upon a time” – the hands of a storyteller, a writer, perhaps a translator. Good stories start with a “Once upon a time”. In English, at least.
There was, and there was not… – that’s how my story would begin if I were in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey… These are neighbouring countries, with unconnected language groups, with entrenched hostility along their borders, battle-lines defended by heroes who will not live happily ever after – in all these places, so defiantly different, in all these places they start their stories like this. There was, and there was not.
Once upon a time there was a writer, a translator, a publisher, and a child. The writer wrote, the translator translated, the publisher published, and the child read what they had made, and they all lived happily ever after. The end.
If only. If only it were so simple.
It is, and it is not.
Translation is a strange thing. Translators are strange people, too.
A translator is a consumer of one language, producer of another. Translators are hybrids – a particularly strange kind of reader, with a particularly strange kind of writer. They read through a film of words to that thing that lies behind them – and they write that thing. They read Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse – and beyond that veil of words, they find… a princess, and a pea. And they tell that story.
Es war einmal… Once upon a time…
But that’s the easy part.
The stock phrases, the formulaic opening – that, to a translator, is, like any cliché, money for old rope. (Or “Easy bread”, we might say if we were in Warsaw.) Good stories might start “Once upon a time”, and they might end with a “happy ever after” (just so your audience knows you’ve finished), but it’s the bit in between that sets the translator, and the reader, alight. Good writing is the new, the unlikely, replacing cliché and formula with something altogether fresh, brightly lit and alive.
Which is why translators, too, need to be alive, to get the job done properly. Google Translate is excellent at a certain kind of thing – but it doesn’t do voice. It creates translations based on probability – it examines its massive data resource and calculates what is most likely intended. But yes, if good writing is about the unlikely, the freshly re-imagined, the inspired, about doing things without common precedent, then Google – bless it – Google cannot do good writing – it can’t do interesting texture, sound, taste, poise. It cannot, simply cannot do voice. Writers do voice. And it’s the voice that does the enchantment. It’s the story, yes, but also the story’s telling.
And so we come to writing. Gregory Rabassa has described translating as “the purest form of writing” – the “purest” in the sense that as translators our concern is exclusively with the writing, with – if you like – the delivery mechanism. We translators don’t have to fret about structure and plot and themes and trivial stuff like that. It’s just the words – that texture, that poise, that rhythm, that sound – that voice.
Hard to define – but you sure as hell know it when you see it.
Translators read, and then they write. They read creatively, then write creatively. Inhale… exhale. Il était une fois… Once upon a time
We inhale – but then something happens inside us that means you can never quite predict what’ll come out as we… exhale.
That’s the bit that’s too interesting for Google.
Dessine-moi un mouton – draw me a lamb – or, draw a lamb for me? or, draw me a little lamb? Or draw me a sheep?
We translators know it well, we’ve done the experiment often enough: give two of us the same non-English text, we’ll come up with entirely different sets of English words, every sentence different. At last year’s IBBY congress, which had translation as one of its themes, we tried this with a passage from a children’s book – the same happened.
Now the fact that in such experiments there are more variances than consistencies tells you something about literary translation – that translators are interpretative readers and creative writers, rather than just collections of algorithms – but it tells you something about children’s books, too. I don’t need to persuade anyone here that, once you get past your once-upon-a-time, children’s books can be every bit as precise and sophisticated, every bit as demanding of a writer as books for adults. Which is why translating them can be every bit the same delight, and the same challenge. Or rather a quite different, but equal challenge.
If the translation process is a two-part thing – reading, writing (inhaling, exhaling) – then working for children seems to me to make the first easier, the second harder. The reading is easier – entering the original text and ascertaining what it’s doing. What it means, what it wants, where it’s going.
So, the reading: “Je m’appelle Arthur. J’ai sept ans et, l’autre jour, derrière la maison de mes grands-parents, j’ai trouvé un œuf. Un œuf tout blanc…”
(If you will excuse my French. Which is not the same as to say, “Pardon my French”. Try explaining that to a non-Anglophone.)
But even with my schoolboy French, that’s easily read.
But then there’s the writing.
I’ve grappled with some difficult writers in my time – awkward, tricksy, famously tangled-up European novelists with Nobel prizes, say – but I’m not sure I’ve ever been back and forth quite so many times trying to get the words right as I have for that deceptively uncomplicated little opening introducing young Arthur.
I can read the original – easy as falling off a, um, you know, cliché. But writing my own seven-year-old voice… My admiration for people who can do that so seemingly effortlessly is – well, put it like this: there was a point yesterday when I was making these notes, and I thought I might entitle this talk “Dear Martin Amis…”
It’s a skill our best children’s writers have. The Marsh Award recognises that some of the people with that extraordinary and peculiar writerly skill are translators.
If translations are to work – if they are to find a voice for the story, the voice that weaves the enchantment, they must be the work not of a mechanical mind, a mind that applies a mechanism to a text – but an individual, creative mind.
Anthea Bell’s Asterix is not only a wonderful creation, it’s also a wonderful creation that only Anthea could have produced. Not merely because it’s hard to imagine anyone managing the dexterity she displays – though that’s certainly the case – but because even if they could, they would do things differently, as any two writers will.
Translators read, and then they write – and every translator will read differently, interpret, select, notice differently; and no two writers write the same.
Asterix is an extreme example, of course – we always say that there are only two standard works whose translations into English surpass their originals in literary quality: Asterix and the King James Bible.
But it’s true across the board.
Once upon a time, Georges Remi created a fox terrier called Milou, and a Professor called Professeur Tournesol, and a pair of twins named Dupont and Dupond. Then, once upon another time, Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner re-created them as Snowy, and Professor Calculus, and Thomson and Thompson. Of course they did. And yet other translators would have chosen differently. Tintin’s first translators, in fact, chose to keep the dog as Milou in English. How unthinkable it seems now.
Imagine a parallel universe in which I am standing here reminiscing about the translations that meant so much to me as a child – the stories of Tintin and Rover, the delightful Pippi Longsocks, the irreplaceable Small Prince.
It’s hard to imagine. Not least because the books we grow up with, wherever they come from, crystallise within us like nothing we encounter later, and we can’t conceive of them being other. They enter us, and stay there. And the good ones – great stories in great translations – enter our collective cultural domains, also, and put down new roots, and before you know it they are English books, too.
We have some bad habits in the English-speaking world. We may be better than anyone at cultural export, but where import is concerned we are a disgrace. In the world of children’s books, despite the great work of many in this room, things remain worse even than in the world of adult publishing.
I’m not talking about quality – tonight’s shortlist shows that when we do these books we can do them fantastically well. But these fine examples of what everyone else in the world is writing – the stories of those 6.7 billion people whose first language isn’t English – these fine examples are only the tip of the iceberg. Or as they say, wonderfully, in Afrikaans – they’re only the ears of the hippopotamus.
(At this point I had two full pages of notes ranting about our shocking neglect of everything outside the Anglo-sphere, but I’ve cut those two pages because they’re too depressing for a celebratory event like this. But please imagine I’ve ranted and consider yourselves suitably disheartened. Thank you.)
Writing translated from other languages makes you see things differently.
(I say again: the ears of the hippopotamus!)
It isn’t less important for children, but more. How could it not be vital for readers who are uniquely open to explorations of their own language; how can it not be essential for readers who, just now, are beginning to define the horizons of their experiences of the world.
Writers and publishers are responsible for opening out those horizons. And translators, of course – opening out horizons is what Tiggers do best.
Translators are the ultimate communicators; they are literary ventriloquists, the builders of creative bridges between people and peoples and a cross-cultural handshake between imaginative sensibilities and something or other or whatever your favourite metaphor happens to be. All very grand. But really. Translators are writers. They are writers working within uncommon constraints, but writers all the same. And great translators, are great writers. Writers of novels, and plays, and picture books, and essays, and poems. Writers with multiple simultaneous and divergent careers, who can write technicolour, and pastel, and sepia, and charcoal, as the writer of the day happens to require. As the books on tonight’s shortlist make clear, good translation can hum and crackle, it can breathe and flex muscle and sinew like any captivating writing will.
Who wouldn’t want more of that?
And they all lived happily ever after. The end.
Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator and national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is currently
assembling a new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.His translations of the Arthur books by Johanne Mercier will be published by Phoenix Yard Books in February.