A few months ago, someone asked on this blog about translations. I did mean to write a proper reply at some point, but you know how it is… there were books, there were lanterns, explosive and otherwise, there was the sock crisis of the moment…
But at the end of all this, and in a moment of blissful relaxation, I figured I’d take this chance to talk translations.
I love foreign translations of my books. I loved them more, in fact, when I got the income directly – which is, I know, a tawdry reason to be thrilled, but it is a sad truth of the universe that those baked beans aren’t going to buy themselves… however, times have changed and now I’m lucky if I see a penny from my own foreign rights translations and I am a little miffed about it, because frankly, a girl’s gotta eat. But that’s a different rant, one which runs the serious risk of straying into questions of copyright, e-books, the future of publishing, literature and the universal nature of art, none of which I intend to cover now, because… well… it’s kinda big…
Leaving aside the question of how it all works commercially, then, let’s talk pure and simple translation. First thing to clear up is this – I do not translate a word of my own works. I just don’t. My linguistic skills wouldn’t fill a postit note. I can say ‘banana’ in Arabic, offer you my passport in Mandarin, apologise in Spanish and can just about ask if you know the way to the cathedral in German, and there, more or less, my skills end. When a publishing company in another part of the world buys the rights to my books, they also hire a translator, and what that translator does to the words is, for the most part, an absolute mystery to me. In fact, I’ve only ever encountered the translator of my works twice in my life. The first time was when, aged 15, I went to the Troyes Literary Festival, just outside Paris, and the translator of the book was also my French interpreter while there. A very lovely man, whose patience and talents put me to shame, he was also clearly far better acquainted with my works than I was, informing me during one Q and A session that he might not translate one part of one of my answers, as it opened up the whole issue of how death was represented in my works and he wasn’t sure we had time. Which surprised me, who hadn’t realised that death was represented in any conscious, literary way in my works. I mean… it happens… but I didn’t realise there were interpretations at work…
The second time I encountered a translator was only a few weeks ago, when another French translator emailed me about the Midnight Mayor, asking for advice on whether to translate some of the foreign-language graffiti that crops up in the early stages of the book. I must admit, this slightly surprised me, and it turned out after a few emails that this particular translator’s method was to just directly translate the work, without having read it through once, in order to keep it, and the voice, fresh. I have no idea if this will work – and I fear my French is probably not up to the standard where I’ll ever find out – but I can definitely see the appeal. The only downside of course being that the recurring phrases which were the source of my translator’s query, made far, far less sense to him as a first-time reader than they might have on the second stab.
This does kinda highlight one of the problems of a translation, which is that as the English-language author, I have no idea if what’s been translated into, say, Turkish or Polish, in any way resembles whatsoever the initial words I wrote. I’m not exactly a purist about these things – in theatre, everything is about an interpretation, after all – but you did sometimes hear horror stories from the not-that-ancient past of works being translated not merely badly, but with additions to your own work that bordered on the ludicrous. My favourite story was of Polish translations from a few decades ago, where whole chunks of text would occasionally be interspersed with a bit of product placement, as thus:
Robin Hood was walking through the forest with all his Merry Men. He smiled at the light through the trees, boyed up by his morning’s breakfast of Prolst Porridge Oats – the Only Porridge for a Working Man – and the thought of how last night he had bested the Sherriff.
Happily, I hear that this is happening less and less. But then again… how would I know?
The other big unknown of foreign translations are cover jackets. I rarely get any kind of say in my jacket proofs anyway, and am sometimes surprised by more than the art, but at least in English I get a bit of a say or, at the very least, a polite heads-up before the big event. With translations, there’s really no advanced warning, just a moment of truth when the author copies land on the desk. I have had some truly beautiful foreign editions turn up – the Japanese Mirror Dreams and Mirror Wakes will always stick in my mind as genuinely beautiful covers – I’ve also had some right duffers hit my desk. It’s not that the art itself is bad – though sometimes it is – but more often than not you’ll find yourself with a jacket cover that in no way whatsoever resembles the text itself. Mermaids will swim across the covers of books that are not only non-aquatic in content, they’re set mostly in a desert. Mysterious symbolic bees will huddle around titles that, while you’re not sure if your language skills are up to a direct translation, you’re pretty sure don’t resemble the original in any way, shape or form. My personal favourite was the jacket proof for an edition of Mirror Dreams. This was the first book I ever wrote, and the main character spent a good few paragraphs of his introductory ramble explaining that really, as a wizard, he found pointy hats to be bloody annoying things that always got lost in high winds, and big beards to be fire hazards. With this fairly strong opening statement, you can imagine my surprise when I was presented with the foreign edition of this book to find, on the cover, striking a thoroughly manly pose, in white floppy shirt, holding a staff and sporting… you guessed it… a huge beard and great pointy hat.
Make no mistake, foreign translations are great things. And despite the curious covers and the occasionally precarious interpretation, there really are no down-sides. Seeing them on my shelves in any way shape or form, makes me happy.