I’ve started translating a great children’s book for Zuntold, and I’ve met a few interesting difficulties along the way. Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.
First of all, names. It’s easy enough to transcribe Théophile to the shorter Theo. But what do you do with the West Indian name Bonaventure, which means “a good adventure”? Find an equivalent West Indian name that’s easier to pronounce for English speakers? And what happens when Bonaventure and bon appétit are played together? It’s not that easy to keep the idea of adventure, the similar sounding bon appétit and a consistent West Indian name all in one.
After the names, you have concepts – especially food concepts – which don’t exist. How do you translate saucisson, which carries a wealth of cultural connotations in France? It’s possible to find equivalent foods, but sometimes it’s an issue to do so and keep the feeling of being displaced. After all, one of the pleasures of translation and travel books is to introduce the reader to another culture. You always need to strive for balance between what the original piece said and what your readership will understand.
And then you have puns. How do you translate a play on words between Nicolas Flamel (the alchemist) and lumignon, a term which doesn’t exist in English, to mean a small flame inside a candle? Do you settle for a pun on flame, although flame and Flamel aren’t pronounced the same? Do you look for similar-sounding puns along the same lines, like Flamel and Candel (for Candle?)
Cultural references can also be a challenge – what to do with mentions of Les Contes du Chat Perché, a French fairytale book which isn’t well-known in the UK? As if being a cultural literary reference wasn’t enough, the title is a pun between Le Conte du Chat Botté (Puss in Boots) and Chat Perché (a French variant of tag). The only way to find alternatives is to hunt for clues around the original story. Titles for the tales in English include “The Magic Pictures” and “The Wonderful Farm” – although my personal choice might have been “Puss in Wellies”, if we’re going for Puss in Boots in a rural setting.
There are solutions to every translation problem, one of them being to trust the children to hang on in there, even if the story sometimes brings them out of their comfort zone. After all, novels are there to help our young readers discover worlds and cultures beyond them. A small note at the bottom of the page can go a long way – and if not, there are always Candels and home-made sausages to fill in the gaps!
Writing is full of challenges, but it’s always a pleasure. Hopefully you’ll see this manuscript amongst Zuntold’s titles, if I ever work out what the Mancunian chat perché would be!