One of the most exciting things to happen to me as a writer, apart from getting published in the first place, was hearing that my first book had been sold for publication in another country. In fact, The Darkling sold in two, which while hardly spectacular was still very pleasing. In Danish it appeared as Skyggen Masker (which means, I think, “Shadow Masks”). Being a monoglot I can’t comment on how well the translation was done, although a Danish friend of mine claims to have enjoyed the result. Either way, I was not involved in the process at all, and that seems to be fairly typical for translations into foreign languages.
On the other hand, I was involved in translating The Darkling into American English for the US edition – very much so. I was quite surprised how many changes were requested or required by my American publisher. Most of these were minor. Changing “paper round” to “paper route”, for example, caused me few qualms, and there were scores of “translations” into American at that level of inconsequence. But there were trickier issues, too. One central scene was set at a Bonfire Night firework display. Could I change the setting to something more familiar to US children, they asked? Er, not really. Or at least add a few lines to explain Guy Fawkes to a US readership? Oh, okay, then. I added a few lines.
And what about money? Would it be all right to change “50p” to “a dollar”? No, it wouldn’t! But why not, I asked myself? Admittedly, it would be odd for my English heroine to be using American currency, but not that much odder than having her tell her story in American English, surely? I’m not certain I ever sorted this out satisfactorily in my own mind. My rule of thumb, in so far as I had one, was to keep to a minimum those occasions when readers would be forced to notice my word choice, rather than the story that the words were there to tell. I wasn’t very happy about that, though: after all, as a writer I rather like readers to notice my word choices – and to admire them!
I recalled this experience the other day, after hearing from a colleague about the long-running battle in Translation Studies (yes, it is an academic subject) between “domesticators” and “foreignizers”. In brief, domesticating translators are happy to change texts to make them familiar and easily comprehensible to their audience, leaving readers with as little work to do as possible. Publishers of children’s books are domesticators by instinct – as too are Hollywood producers, with their long record of taking books set in Britain and relocating them to California, and the like. Foreignizing translators, by contrast, want their readers to be aware of the alien nature of what they’re reading, and to appreciate it. Part of the pleasure of reading a book from another culture lies precisely in learning about that culture and the ways in which it differs from one’s own, they argue. Publishers, unsurprisingly, tend to consider this a risky commercial strategy, unless the foreignness takes the form of a cliché that is itself familiar. Harry Potter’s Britishness was acceptable, and could even be turned into a selling point, because it played into a set of ideas about Britain that were already current in American popular culture. (On the other hand, some early readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were bemused to read that Harry was wearing a jumper – which in US-ese is a sleeveless dress. In later editions I believe this was changed to “sweater”.)
Publishers will perhaps claim that their domesticating approach makes commercial sense, and that readers who relish the alien will always be in a small minority. I’d love to counter that they’re wrong, that they’ve sadly underestimated the curiosity and open-mindedness of US children – but since I have no evidence other than a general-belief-cum-pious-hope that people will be open-minded if their minds haven’t already been glued shut, I can’t say it with absolute conviction.
What I do feel I can grump about unreservedly are those clumsy translations that seem stuck in mid-Atlantic – in which children talk about baseball but deal in pounds and pence, or take a Greyhound bus to Scotland. Such books (no names, no pack-drill) are not authentically foreign, since they depict a place that has never existed, but they’re no more comfortingly domestic than Frankenstein’s monster.
Of course, all this happens in the reverse direction, too – with American books ineptly rendered for the British market. But my impression is that British publishers expect children here to be fairly familiar with American life anyway. And with good reason: on UK television, for example, there are far more television dramas set in American high schools than in British secondary schools. But that’s a rant for another day.