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Literary ventriloquism

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.


nce 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. An uncontroversial view in this company, perhaps.

Google Translate is excellent… 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.

10 Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013

It’s the story, yes, but also the story’s telling.

And so we come to writing. Writing – I think it was the eminent translator Gregory Rabassa who 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?

That’s from The Little Prince, of course, on tonight’s shortlist in a new translation by Ros and Chloe Schwartz.

I think it was Ros who once described how some publishers, not understanding what it is we translators actually do, seem to think we simply, in her words, “photocopy a book out of French”.

But we translators know, 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.

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.

It is, and it is not.

I’ve worked in translation for six years or thereabouts; with children’s books – quite apart from that – for about ten. My own experiences of translating for children, though, are limited – but recent and fresh in memory. 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. (This is just me – others in the room might disagree.) 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

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