I’ve just submitted to one of my French publishers, Rageot, the full first draft of my translation of Sarah Crossan’s One, to be published next year. Yes, I’ve had the privilege (and the insane good luck) to translate that wonderful, beautiful, exceptionally moving book into French.
Neither of Sarah’s verse novels has been translated into French yet, which is easy to understand: verse novels aren’t an easy candidate for translation. Plus, verse novels for teenagers are virtually unknown in France - when my own verse novel, Songe à la douceur, came out in August, my publisher Sarbacane put together a press release explaining that the format is well-known and popular in the UK and the US, and giving examples, because they knew it wasn’t going to be an easy sell.
Having seen that I’d just published a verse novel, Rageot, who are also bringing to the French market my Sesame Seade series next year (ironically, not translated by me), contacted me one day to ask me if I knew Sarah’s work - they’d just read One and were considering acquiring it. I replied immediately: ‘Of course I know it! Please acquire it! And can I please translate it?’ I’m generally not pushy with publishers, so that was very out of character, and possibly the brashest thing I’ve ever done. Amazingly, they said yes.
Translating One has been a scary experience, not just because it was the first time I’d translated a verse novel, but because it was also the first time I’d translated a novel, full stop (apart from my own translation into English of one of my French novels). I was acutely aware that I wasn’t a professional translator and that drawing from my experience of writing in two languages wasn’t enough; I got as much reading done on the matter as I could, talked to translator friends, and studied various theories of translation.
But of course, translating children’s literature has its own theories; translating poetry, yet more theories; translating novels, more so; etc. The answers just weren’t solely theoretical, and most of what I learned I learned on the go. Here are some of the most interesting challenges and difficulties I ran into while translating Sarah’s text.
An intriguing characteristic of One is that it’s a verse novel with only very few, very strategically-used rhymes. At the beginning, I was extremely keen to stick to what I interpreted as the ‘wishes’ of the text in that respect. But I found that it was actually very hard in French. French has many categories of words that end similarly - adjectives, past participles, verbs in the infinitive, etc. - so it was often tricky not to make two lines rhyme.
Not just tricky - unnatural. And, as I gradually decided, unnecessary. I warmed to the idea that rhyming would not be, as I’d first categorically ruled, an easy concession, a tacky poetic embellishment of a text that was, so to speak, ‘intentionally left blank’. I discovered that, in French, allowing rhymes to exist in their natural space rendered more accurately the fluidity of Sarah’s original text.
The occasional ‘new’ rhymes also compensated for something that I often had to lose in translation, namely the very alliterative quality of the English language. Non-Latinate English words tend to be short, evocative in sound, often even onomatopoeic, perfect for poetic effect in brief lines, often of one or two words, sometimes one-letter words.
In French, this isn’t so easy. Many words are long, overloaded with prefixes and suffixes, and opting for lighter or more sonorous alternatives, while often possible, isn’t always desirable - Grace and Tippi’s words in the original text sound very natural, simple, instinctive, and I couldn’t have my French Tippi and Grace resort to lighter, but weirder, synonyms.
The added rhymes therefore ‘displaced’, so to speak, the sound effects internal to the lines in Sarah’s original text to the end of the lines; they moved musicality to a different place.
Another difficulty in French was to render the minimalistic aesthetic of Sarah’s language. There is something haiku-like to Sarah’s style, which works in English to a great extent because the grammar is so lightweight, with many optional words (especially articles), and minimal machinery for stringing clauses together. Authors can occult words they don’t want; translators can’t.
In fact, that very sentence - ‘Authors can occult words they don’t want; translators can’t’ - is a good example: in French, a literal translation would have to be ‘Les auteurs peuvent occulter les mots dont ils ne veulent pas; pas les traducteurs’, totalling 5 more words than the original English sentence. Such inflation is a well-known phenomenon in translation; texts are expected to swell in size from English to French.
This is all very well for a ‘normal’ novel, so to speak, but for a verse novel, we couldn’t have Sarah’s small lines suddenly take up a paragraph. Plus, her discreet use of ‘that’, ‘who’, ‘since’, ‘why’, etc - soft sounds in English - would be disastrously unpoetic in French: ‘que’, ‘qui’, ‘jusque’, ‘pourquoi’, are harsh-sounding, chunky words you don’t want to overuse.
One of the tricks I found was to resort to verb-less sentences, which in French are relatively rare but have a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness quality that rendered, in some places, Grace’s reflections much more fluidly than the stolid French grammar would allow otherwise. I also very rarely fiddled with lines or enjambments, but I did when lines ended too clumsily on brick-like connectives like the ones listed above.
I can’t conceal that I’m a bit terrified, in part because it’s the first time and in part because I know that I’m not a professional translator. I’ve wrestled a lot with the nagging thought that I’m doing someone else’s work, and that I’ve come at it from a weird place. But I feel I’ve learned a lot, and worked and reworked again and changed my mind and fiddled and tweaked and rewritten; in other words, I’ve done my best. It’s now in my editors’ hands, and I look forward to reworking it, again, when it gets back to me.