Monday, 20 April 2015

How do you say 'Alaspooryorick' in French? - Clementine Beauvais

One of the questions you always get when you write in two languages is whether you're 'going to translate your own books'. This is a very flattering question, as it implies that (1) everyone uncontroversially wants your books from the other country, and (2) you're de facto blessed with perfect translation skills.

Of course, (1) is painfully wrong: the UK has so far never wanted any of my French books, which are too everything and not enough anything, but I suspect are also by default unattractive because they don't come with world rights. And (2) highlights the eternal plight of professional translators, whom no one believes when they say that their skills set goes beyond just 'being fluent' in two languages.

I'm fascinated with translation and have been for a long time: in my young days as a Harry Potter fan, I would work hard to understand the translation choices of Jean-François Ménard, who changed in the French version a great quantity of names invented by Rowling. Hogwarts became Poudlard ('hog lice'), a funny and meaningful find that is also cleverly English-sounding to a French ear. 

'Tom Marvolo Riddle', who needed to work as an anagram, became 'Tom Elvis Jedusor'. Though it is a little bit hilarious, in retrospect, that Voldemort is called 'Elvis', the name's connotations weren't that strong for me as a child, and I very much admire the lovely 'Jedusor', which evokes a 'jeu du sort', a twist of fate. And 'sort' is also a magic spell... Can we say 'Jedusor' is actually better than 'Riddle'? I think so.

but the Hallows turned 'Relics'. Good choice?
Until now, paths hadn't crossed between my French books and my English series, but for the first time, this year, one of my British series is getting translated into French. I'm not translating it, for reason (2), but the French publisher, Hachette, is aware of my secret Gallic roots, so I'm allowed to okay the translations of the place and character names.

It's been quite a funny and interesting process. The Royal Babysitters series, illustrated by Becka Moor, are set in a magical and nonsensical world, but which in many ways corresponds closely to the 'real' world. Many of the place names - Francia, Daneland, Britland, etc - are relatively easy to translate into French (Francie, Danelandie, Brittonie). But what of the Independent Republic of Slough? Having a French city name there would make no sense, since it all happens in Britland. The translator decided to invent an imaginary city name.

We didn't have to change it to 'Les babysitters républicaines'
Similarly, the two heroines are called Holly and Anna Burnbright, which the translator first translated as 'Brillante' (Bright), but we felt after discussing it that the allusion to a poem should be kept. We're still working on it, but the suggestions involve cutting up bits of famous French nursery rhymes or fables. Not quite the same, yet faithful.

Alaspooryorick or Oroméoroméo?

'King Alaspooryorick', the villain, is a tricky one to translate. On the one hand, recognising the reference doesn't matter very much (if at all), but we might as well keep it; and it has to sound funny, which 'Alaspooryorick' or its French equivalent 'Hélaspauvreyorick' doesn't (at all). He could have been King 'Tobeornottobe' (roi Etrounepazettre), but again, it's not very funny. The translator came up with 'Oroméoroméo', which sounds very funny and is also a Shakespeare reference, arguably more famous to a French ear.

Of course, the reference is no longer to Hamlet, so the King being from 'Daneland' and having a special mermaid called Ophelia is no longer relevant. Does it matter? Frankly, not at all. 'Le roi Oroméoroméo' is just perfect for the role.

And what of the title? 'Les babysitters royales' would have sounded flat. We're going for an inversion of adjective and noun, 'Les royales babysitters', a rarer construction in French but which by the very fact of the inversion calls to mind the English language.

The Royal Babysitters is not by any stretch of the imagination a difficult book, but it's full of those little details that can make translation tricky - as many children's books are. Translators can't get away with footnotes in translations of children's books. And they have to be clever and good at languages, but they also have to be 'good at' children's literature.

Most often we don't notice the translation work, because it's well done, and because we might not speak the two languages in question, or simply because we don't stop to wonder what something or someone was called in the original language...

Toby Alone in the original French
I'd be curious to hear your stories of what got lost or found in the translations of your books, if you're able to read some of them, or if you've even contributed to them.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.


Emma Barnes said...

My book Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher has been translated into several languages, and I'm always intrigued that while nobody changes the name Jessica, they always change the name of her younger brother, Midge. So in the German version he is Mick, in the US version (not even a different language - quite) he is Nat, in the Italian version Bruscolo (Bruscolo Haggerthwaite - what a truly fantastic name!), in the Dutch version Machiel and so forth.

As anybody who has travelled in the Scottish Highlands will know, a midge is also a small, biting insect and the American version (Nat/gnat) has kept this connotation, and so, I've been told, by an Italian friend, has the Italian you say, impressive these translators!

Penny Dolan said...

Almost an aside here.With regard to Foreign Rights etc, it's worth recognising that a fat book will cost a publisher more to translate than a thinner book, ie may be a less attractive option financially.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sorry, my only translations have been of non fiction books, and those were into Chinese, which I can't read. ;-) But reading this post makes me think of the Asterix books being translated into English. Of course, Asterix and Obelix are the same, but the English versions of some of the others are hilarious, and really, you have to admire the translators for getting all those puns into English so well.

You do have to have the right person to translate; when I was in Israel, I got to see some Shakespeare plays in translation and as I recall, they were translated by one of the country's top poets. As I knew them well in English, I had little trouble following the translations and was impressed with their quality. Because he had, not only to get the words right but to keep the flavour of the original.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you! I LOVE Bruscolo Haggerthwaite - most unlikely character name I've seen in a while... As for the Asterix books, they are wonderfully translated in English, by the legendary Anthea Bell. Another amazing English/ French translator is Sarah Ardizzone.

Lily said...

Lovely post. I'm fascinated by translation too. There are at least two Russian translations of Harry Potter, one much better than the other - the poor one just transliterated 'privet drive', which meant it ended up as 'hello drive' in Russian.

My book Dream Land was written in English but set among Crimean Tatars, and was then translated into Crimean Tatar language. So it was translated into the original language that (some of) the characters in the book speak, which was a really interesting process.

Angela Barton said...

Fascinating and definitely food for thought!

Conversion Sussex said...

I must say that was totally amazing!

Nick Green said...

Years ago my book The Cat Kin was translated into German. One of the villains was described as having a slight German accent and occasionally lapses into German words. I've yet to pluck up the courage to look and see how the translator handled this paradox. I've got the book; I literally don't dare investigate.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes thats an interesting point Nick, when you actually use words in a foreign language (or use the accent) and then the book gets translated into that language.

My worst translation was for Zeraffa Giraffa. Every country did some wonderful variation of Zeraffa which were all delightful... with the exception of the Afrikaans translation which used – Langnek – unpoetic to say the least. It means Long Neck.