Thursday, 28 July 2016

My Summer of Self-Translating - Clementine Beauvais

I’m currently translating my own novel, and will be doing it most of the summer. It’s an incredibly strange experience.

The book is Les petites reines, a young adult comedy, which will come out next year in English, published by Pushkin Press. It’s my very first, and, let's be honest, probably only ever French-to-English import, and I’m translating it into English myself.

One should never do that, by the way. Number one rule of translation: the target language should be your mother tongue; so I should only be translating from English to French. Also, normally, one doesn’t just go from nothing to suddenly translating a whole novel. To be fair, I do have some experience of translation (but always into French), and I read quite a bit around the topic; also, of course, the situation is slightly different because I'm also an author in English. Still, it's a crazy endeavour. But circumstances have dictated that I should be the translator, so I'm translating it.

It's been... interesting.

Well, above all, it's been exhausting. I can't emphasize that enough. My goodness, translators don't joke when they tell you that you can only translate a tiny bit of text each day. It's nothing like writing; nothing like that huge burst of energy you get when you write something you love, and keep going until two in the morning, and forget about sleep. No. Translating means running quickly out of mental capacity. When I'm translating, I'm like a Sim with the gauge getting steadily emptier over my head. Translation fatigue happens - and it happens fast. Five pages in, and I'm drained of energy. I can't think anymore; I can't translate another line. Again, it's not like writing - it doesn't make you hyper, exhilarated, or high. It just makes you tired.

accurate Sim representation of me after 5 pages
However, it also makes you strangely satisfied, a kind of satisfaction I remember from my days of intense translating exercises in France, but which I also recognise from my academic research. It's the satisfaction that comes from miniature work, from slotting tiny things into just the right place. The correct word, the perfectly-shaped expression, the impeccable paragraph. Again, not the same as writing, for me at least; translation is about care, shrewdness and precision, it doesn't overflow in the way first drafts do - each sentence feels like going deep down a list of possibilities, inside the text and inside language, much unlike what is, to me, the outwards expansion of writing. It's a calculated sort of exploration; a speleology.

I'm not going to talk at length about the big questions of translation - the gaps, the puns, the names, the cultural references, etc. - many people have talked about it much better than I can, and I feel entirely illegitimate on the matter. But there are a number of things I can talk about here more confidently, that have to do with the idiosyncrasies of that strange exercise, self-translation for British young adults.

Firstly, self-translation. Of course, to me, this is not at all the same thing as writing something in English from scratch. I would never have written that particularly story in English, and I would never have written it that way. My English style is entirely different to my French - like all bilinguals, doubtlessly, I don't even think in the same way in both languages.

So what do I do? I'm free to do whatever I want, so I could have chosen to 'switch' my thinking to English entirely - convert the whole book to 'my English style', reinvent it - work on a new text. But I haven't done that; all the while, I've felt like I've needed to be faithful to my French style, making it very clear to myself and to the reader that yes, this is a French story, and the language reflects that because it's the only identity it can have. I want that ghostly French presence, that labyrinthine syntax, that excess of adverbs.

But of course I'm aware that I'm translating a text for a country and a slice of the population that is utterly unused to translated texts. The UK, as we all know and should be ten times more worried about, is legendarily lame at buying books from other countries, and YA and children's literature is no exception. Most of the time, books that do get translated are those that take place in culturally nonspecific places, or in fantasy lands. With Les petites reines, you can't get more culturally specific. It's in-your-face French provincial towns, French regional food, French traditions and French humour.

Given this, a lot of people (a surprisingly large amount of people, actually) have asked me if I was going to rewrite the text entirely - even to relocate it to the UK, with British teenagers. That's absolutely out of the question, of course - I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I did. That said, I've caught myself censoring some jokes that I know would be considered offensive here, and adding instances of British humour that weren't in the original.

It all gives rise to a strange uncodified negotiation; I have leeway than a translator wouldn't have, but at the same time I've imposed on myself some limits that I don't want to transgress (e.g. keep it a translation, not an adaptation), so my changes are perhaps more arbitrary than they should be. I've never done it before, and there are no clear rules; I'm playing it by ear.

Playing it by ear, and hoping not to make too much of a pig's ear of it (<-- subtle clue about the English title, which I'm not sure I'm allowed to reveal yet). I'll keep you updated...


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


Susan Price said...

Completely fascinating - wishing you luck. And strength!

Catherine Butler said...

I can't wait to find out what you called the book! (By the way, do you know Lawrence Venuti's The Translator's Invisibility?)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I love this post but then I love translated work. Another nuance is brought to a translated book, that we don't get if the book is written in English. Here I'm thinking particularly of Per Petersen's work as in 'Out Stealing Horses' and 'I Refuse'. The Norwegianess of the writing and the strangeness of the setting... comes through in the translation. It's not a weakness. It's wonderful. And intrinsic to the story. It seems this is exactly what you're doing and I look forward to the Frenchness of your story. Good luck!

Penny Dolan said...

What a wonderful glimpse into the art and work of translating - as well as the way that writing in French or English uses more than a whole other set of words. Excellent post!

Emma Barnes said...

I'm really curious to know - what are the jokes that would be considered offensive in the UK? Please do share!

Clementine B said...

Thank you for the comments! I agree, Diane, I like the feeling of strangeness/ foreignness that you get from a book when it's clear it wasn't written in English... And no, Cathy, I don't know that one, but it looks great...

And Emma, yes, sure! it's mostly because the book in French has a lot of sarcasm and dark humour surrounding body weight and appearance. Those are (I think) much touchier topics in Britain than they are in France. The whole story revolves around 3 girls who've 'won' an ugliness contest at their school - and even though the whole story is technically about them 'overcoming adversity', or whatever you want to call it, it's not always presented in a way that is directly acceptable from a British perspective. I can't say exactly why. It's funny. I guess I've lived here long enough that I can sense that many of the jokes and comments around that contest are very close to the line... but I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint what exactly 'the line' is! But it's interesting for me to see how much my British self finds my French self too offensive at times.

Penny Dolan said...

I particularly noted these lines:

"The UK, as we all know and should be ten times more worried about, is legendarily lame at buying books from other countries, and YA and children's literature is no exception. Most of the time, books that do get translated are those that take place in culturally nonspecific places, or in fantasy lands."

I'm sure our UK children are all the poorer and less-informed because of this limited pool of stories and cultures.

Emma Barnes said...

That's so interesting, Clementine. I'm really intrigued by the difference - and the idea of your British self being offended by your French self!