Chatting with Berlin Fang, a literary translator who has recently been working a lot on making Colm McCann's works accessible to Chinese readers, I was reminded of this piece I wrote for CBinfo a while ago on the topic of translating children's books. You've possibly read it before, but if not, here goes:
The Next Best Thing: Translating Children’s Books
There is no such thing as a blank page when you translate. That’s the beauty of it. The original might not be the best book ever written, but it is written and all you have to do as a translator is write it again; a piece of cake, when you have a plot, characters and everything nailed down, even the description of the hero’s favourite duvet cover. But there is a catch of course, as the real job of the translator is to find the right balance between maintaining the ‘exotic’ aspect of the original and making it accessible to the new reader. Here are a few pointers on how to achieve this:
• Do translate into your mother-tongue. No matter how brilliant you are in an adopted language, you’ll never be absolutely faultless and fluent, and that’s what you need for translating literature. This means that people whose mother-tongue isn’t English are potentially busier than those with English as their first language. Why? Because in the UK, only about 3% of children’s books are not originally written in English, whereas in France, for instance, 30-40% come from abroad. In their search for the next big thing, publishers in continental Europe appear on the whole a lot more open to foreign talent.
• Do not rewrite the original, however tempting. As a translator, you are allowed to correct mistakes (for example if the original contains a week of two Mondays or says John when it means Mary), but you can’t cut out a description that seems boring to you or edit out a scene which you feel is too violent or soapy. You can, however, manifest your feelings to the editor and make suggestions. He or she will then make the decision. Sometimes, the only solution is to leave out something: such as an untranslatable joke, or a cultural reference that will mean nothing to the new readers without extensive notes.
• Do work within the limits of the language you’re translating into. Not all languages are as rich as English when it comes to light or sound description, for example. And not all of them are as tolerant of repetition. So the glint of the gleaming moon that shone gently over the glistening roofs may have to go.
• Do compensate. It’s allowed! If you feel poetic effect was lost in one scene, maybe you can introduce more lyricism somewhere else. Humour, when it is based on puns (the bane of the translator), can be shuffled around in a similar manner.
• Do not be too faithful to the original. Imagine working on something like the Harry Potter series where all the names mean something (think of Grim/auld Place or Lavender Brown). If you leave them as they are, then you’re depriving your readers of some insight into a character or a location.
• Do not write an encyclopaedia when you’re translating a novel. Translation isn’t just about language; you’re also moving from one culture to another and you don’t want to lose anybody in the journey. Take a school story written, say, in Ireland. Chances are that the children from the next-door country will have no idea what age a fifth-class student is supposed to be or what assembly is or how come classes are over by 1.30pm and so on. The last thing you want to do is to over-burden the text with footnotes, glossaries or encyclopaedic appendixes on whatever educational system the characters have to put up with.
• Do translate for real-life readers. You’re not here to impress lecturers or fellow translators with a clever interpretation or daring linguistic acrobatics. The translator needs to convey meaning, yes, but also style, pace, suspense, humour, feeling and all the range of emotions the author intended. So the translator must be something of a writer him/herself. The translated text must flow as well as the original, with no strangeness in the language and all necessary extra information kept as unobtrusive as possible. In other words, the reader of a translation must feel as if the book was written for him or her in the first place. The first and last rule of translation is readability.
To me writing is something fragile as a soufflé. I know I can write only when I am actually writing. When I stop, the nice fluffy top of the soufflé collapses and I never have a guarantee that I can cook up another one. But translation is more like a Christmas cake: solid, essentially fool-proof, and feeding many more than the original recipe promised. So really, as a writer-translator, translating is the next best thing!