Apr 302017

I recently came across an article in a magazine that discussed an academic who grew up in France, moved to Israel, and thence to the United States where he lectures at a leading university. He has written two books of memoirs, both originally in French. The first was professionally translated into English, but he decided to translate the most recent book himself. Being a university professor, he considers himself to be omniscient so he thinks that – even though English is not his first language – he is able to translate into English. The result is terrible! Standard translations of place names are mistranslated (as with so many French-speakers, he cannot distinguish between “town” and “city”) and there are many other gaffes. It is typical of academics to over-estimate their abilities in this respect. Even famous authors who wrote in languages that were not their mother tongue, such as Conrad and Nabokov, had their work heavily edited and corrected by other people.

The truth is that there is no such thing as true bilingualism. However fluent one is in another language, the culture and thought processes of one’s mother tongue will always prevail. This is particularly true of languages such as English, French and German whose grammar and syntax are so complex and sophisticated that it is impossible for people who are not mother tongue to write in them correctly. As someone who was educated at a French school in London, where many of the pupils were “virtually” bilingual, I have observed this phenomenon at first hand. It could be argued that in the case of a language with which one has grown up, or if one lived in a bilingual household, this does not apply. It may be true, indeed, in the case of Hebrew and Yiddish. In the case of Yiddish, no one is monolingual in Yiddish and few ever were, Jews had to learn the language of the host country, like it or not. The same, to some extent, is true of Hebrew. Israel’s national poets, Bialik and Tchernikovsky were not mother-tongue Hebrew. This is a unique situation, however, and does not apply to many people who consider themselves to be “bilingual”.

Another point to make in this respect is that having a good accent in the foreign language is no indication of fluency and accuracy in it. A schoolmate of mine did very badly in the French oral GCSE examination because she spoke French exactly as if it were English with a terrible accent. In fact, she had grown up in France (her father was a British diplomat stationed there) and her essays in French were extremely good. On the other hand, one hears many fluent English-speakers, with good English accents and pronunciation, on radio and television but if one analyses what they are saying one finds all kinds of classic mistakes (such as “arrive to” instead of “arrive at”, etc.).

Apr 182017

I have anglicised American children’s books before but never had to translate one until now. The book I am currently translating is a particularly difficult one because it is about a subject that is totally foreign to the UK market, for which it is being translated, namely wine-making. It is all the more difficult because children are not supposed to drink wine, at least not in England! Fortunately, the book makes that point quite strongly, although in France and Italy even little children can be seen drinking wine, even in restaurants, and in other countries religious ritual allows them to drink wine, for Holy Communion, for example, and for Jewish rituals (although in all cases grape juice is allowed).
A children’s book translator is not so much a translator as an interpreter and transcreator. “Transcreation” is a term used to describe the translation and adaptation of culture-specific material such as advertisements, which need to appeal to different cultures and mentalities. But advertising and marketing translations are not nearly as difficult as translating children’s books! For one thing, the culture is completely different in the various English-speaking countries and particularly between the United Kingdom and the United States. Apart from spelling, grammar, punctuation and various colloquialisms, children play different sports, eat different foods and their whole lifestyle is different. It is a major problem explaining all this to people who are used to a very uniform culture – that of the French-speaking world, for instance. In the case of this book, even in parts of the French-speaking world in which there is little or no wine-making (Belgium, for instance) there is a consciousness of wine and the terminology used is well understood but it is almost untranslatable into English (words such as ‘chai’, ‘hotte’ and ‘rafle’ have no direct Couv_GP_2equivalent in English). Translating children’s books requires a lot of creativity, something that most of the people commissioning translations do not understand. For example, in this book the flavour of the fresh grape is compared to that of blackcurrant jam. If the book is being translated for the United States that comparison cannot be used. Blackcurrants are members of the ribes family whose cultivation is forbidden in all but a small corner in the northeastern United States because the plants are subject to a fungus disease that has another host on white fir trees and could destroy whole plantations. For this reason redcurrants, blackcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries are almost unknown in the USA. There are lots of substitutes of course. The same is true of barberries whose cultivation has been banned in the UK for a long time, but they are used extensively in Persian cooking.
Some of the adaptations would not occur to the original author or publisher of the book, such as how a child would address a parent or grandparent. In the UK, there are so many class-related nuances. For instance only a middle class or upper middle class child would call their parents “mummy” or “daddy” and even then, it is now most usual to talk of “mum” or “dad”. As for grandparents, only working class English children would address their grandmother as “nanny” or “nan”, “grandma” is upper or middle class, “gran” is used by most classes at some time (only for grandmothers, however) “grandpa” is upper or middle class but “granddad” is used nowadays by most classes. Similar distinctions exist in the United States but between speakers in the northern or southern states.
Dialogue in general is very different in children’s books, one absolutely has to be a native speaker in order to capture the flavour of a child’s turn of phrase and vocabulary.
So that is why translation of children’s books is the hardest form of translation.

A general remark about book translation
One of the problems of book translation is that a) you have to have a lot of good connections to get to translate a prestigious book, and b) whether a the publisher commissioning the translation will not actually know whether the book is any good or not. I was cheated out of payment for a large book translation a few years ago by an American publisher who hired an editor who rubbished my translation. I had translated many books for this publisher on similar subjects, without a hitch. There were two problems with the book in question: a) it was on a subject that had been dealt with only recently in another book published by the same publisher (!) (why they wanted this one translated is beyond me) and b) The text was really poor! The book was originally written in German and was very tedious and heavy and was then translated into French which is where I came in. The truth is that the original text would not have appealed to English-language readers and was cumbersome and heavy.

I had a similar experience with another publisher a few years’ previously. He wanted three books translated from French that were originally in German. The trouble is that the books, which were histories, contained masses of inaccuracies! It was only when he read them in English that he realised this, but it was hardly my fault!