la maison de mes grands-parents, j’ai trouvé un œuf. Un œuf tout blanc…’
Even with 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.
In the decade or so I’ve spent working with children’s writers, and admiring what they do, I’m don’t think I appreciated just how hard it can be till I lately started writing the English translations for children’s books. I can read the originals – 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. Unthinkable now, somehow, that Tintin’s dog should be called anything but Snowy…
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 Books for Keeps No.198 January 2013 11
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. Writing translated from other languages makes you see things differently.
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. But it’s hard.
And I haven’t even mentioned pictures. Well, in a sense from a translator’s point of view they just make things worse. Pictures make the work of the translator, at least, even more constrained, demanding even more ingenuity and nimbleness.
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. n
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.
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