Post by Samantha Christie, MALT student
In the Case Studies module of the MA Literary Translation, we have recently been examining children’s fiction and its translation. Focussing on examples of children’s literature in its original and translated versions, and the theories about both writing and translating children’s fiction, we have analysed the genre with specific attention paid to the practicalities of translating it. Amongst other things, we have considered different features of children’s fiction, intra- and extra-textual aspects which might influence its translation, challenges and problems a translator might face in translating this genre, and possible strategies a translator of children’s literature may employ.
Typical, then, that the text I chose for my first practice translation of children’s literature doesn’t contain any of the more prominent challenges for which I have a helpful list of strategies. The text is not written in dialectal language, it contains no slang, there are no ethical issues raised by racist or offensive terms, no songs or limericks, no neologisms…
L’Hirondelle (The Swallow) is a short children’s story, written originally in French by Claude Simon in 1977 and accompanied by Martine Fiere’s colourful, rather abstract images. It follows the journey of a swallow who, whilst flying over a town square, loses a feather, becomes disoriented and starts to fall. In the nick of time, she plucks a feather from the hat of a lady sitting in the square, regains her equilibrium and flies away. It’s a beautiful tale, especially when paired with the illustrations, and I think its beauty lies in the fact it reads so simply. But does a simple story mean a simple translation?
Before starting to translate, I reflected on the text and noted some general aspects to consider. Despite its apparent simplicity, the structure is, in terms of translating, rather complex. The story, at just 16 pages, is very short. As such, the author hasn’t actually used very many words, but doesn’t that mean that the ones he has used are all the more important? So a careful choice of vocabulary was required, particularly with the target audience – children – in mind. The language used is lyrical and there is some rhyme and repetition of words and themes throughout the text. Some passages of text have a certain rhythm to them, although it is not a poem and it doesn’t have a meter. I wanted to keep as much of this rhyme, repetition and rhythm as possible, as it really makes the original flow and the author clearly used that style for a reason.
I hadn’t translated a picture book before, and as the images appear over various parts of the pages, so the text itself has an irregular layout. I needed to make sure my words and pictures were synchronised. I wondered whether the images would have an effect on my translation, whether an image would subconsciously influence my lexical choice. The story also has an iconic element; the movement of the swallow’s flight is mirrored in the text which starts off distanced from the action and zooms in for a close-up before pulling back and returning to where it started.
I’ll give two examples of linguistic areas which I found particularly tricky to translate.
The first line of the text is “Dans un pays il y avait une ville”. ‘Dans un pays’ translates directly as ‘in a country’, which isn’t a very natural thing to say in English. We would normally qualify it in some way: in a different country, in a foreign country, in some country or other. However, the author didn’t need to do that and doesn’t necessarily mean a place that is not ‘this’ country, he just means any country. Introducing a qualifying adjective could technically mislead the reader. On the other hand, the location of the country has no bearing on the tale overall and is non-specific throughout, so the likelihood of this negatively affecting the reader’s understanding is minimal. A further difficulty is by introducing an extra word, the balance and rhythm of the rest of the passage on the first page is upset. This passage is repeated in reverse at the end of the story, so whatever I chose for the beginning needed to fit at the end, too.
Later in the story, when the swallow takes the feather from the hat, she does so “d’un coup d’aile”. Directly, this means ‘with a flap of the wing’, but it also calls to mind another frequently used French expression which sounds similar, ‘d’un coup d’oeil’, meaning ‘at a glance’, ‘a quick look’, and this suggestion of speed in turn calls to mind ‘in the blink of an eye’. I don’t believe the author’s use of “d’un coup d’aile” was entirely coincidental, so needed to find an expression in English that combined the two meanings of ‘with a flap of the wing’ and ‘in the blink of an eye’, which would also fit the rhythm and layout of the text.
Samantha Christie is a translator from French and Spanish into English and is currently working on the MA in Literary Translation at UEA. Special interests include translation in the areas of detective fiction and music, and the relationship between author and translator.