Last month saw the publication of the French and German editions of Bitterwood. The french translator, Clémentine Curie, contacted me a few months back and I took the opportunity to ask if she'd agree to an interview about the translation process. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions. So, I've you've ever wondered what goes into translating a novel, read on:
JM: A few years back, my short story "Final Flight of the Blue Bee" was published in a Russian magazine. I ran some of the Russian manuscript through an online translation service and what I got back bordered on gibberish. Do you think human translators have anything to fear from computer translators?
CC: As your experience well shows, computer translators are unlikely to ever be a threat, for the simple reason that translation isn't about matching one word with another, but about rendering in another language the concepts and ideas that are behind the words. This requires autonomous thinking, which only a human brain is capable of. Computers are just pre-programmed machines, after all, and thus very limited. Translation isn't an exact science which you can codify. For one given text, there will be as many different translations as there are translators. Depending on the way you understand the text, with your subjectivity and personal background, you'll word your translation differently.
JM: Do you think translating science fiction and fantasy poses any additional challenges that you might not encounter in translating, say, a murder mystery?
CC: I wouldn’t say there's any major difference in that particular case. When translating literature, the main challenge is to recreate the author's style in your own language. It’s also important to gather as much knowledge as possible on the subject of the book, but this applies to pretty much any type of translation. One difference I can think about though is when it comes to made-up words in fantasy. It's a whole lot of fun coming up with translations for those. It allows the translator to be creative, and I really like that.
The difference is much greater between a literary text and a scientific one, for instance. The translating process isn't the same because when it comes to technical translating, every single domain you can think of has its own specific vocabulary and way of phrasing concepts which you can’t avoid using – what you call ‘jargon’. What I like with literary translation is that you're much freer, in a sense.
JM: Does fantasy literature have a big following in France?
Not really to be honest, unfortunately. It's still limited to a specific audience of – thankfully – faithful readers. The success of books such as Harry Potter has helped of course, but there's still a long way to go. France has always disregarded fantasy and stigmatized it as a second-rate genre essentially targeted at children and young adults. I'm confident this will change in the long run though, thanks to publishing houses such as Le Pré aux Clercs. And it certainly won't keep me from translating what I like!
CC: How did you get involved in the translation end of the book industry? And how did you get selected for the Bitterwood translation?
Ever since high-school, I’ve been set on becoming a translator. Admittedly, my living five years in the United States helped a lot; I basically always had an easy time with English at school so it was only natural to take advantage of that. Nearly two years ago I started attending ESIT, a renowned school for translation. The course focuses mainly on technical translating, and since I've always been more of a literary person, I decided to try my luck and find an internship at a publishing house. That's how I ended working for three months at Le Pré aux Clercs, and how editor Carola Strang offered me to have a go at translating Bitterwood. I was thrilled to have the opportunity of translating a novel, and fantasy too! After that, everything went very fast, and before I knew it the contract was signed. I feel very grateful.
JM: Did you come away from Bitterwood with any favorite characters?
CC: After those many hours spent in their company, I've become quite acquainted with the characters and can say I love them almost as much as if they were my own! I'm rather fond of Blasphet, he's the kind of character you just love to hate. I also like that Bitterwood isn't your typical hero, and the fact that you gave equal share to male and female characters in the story.
JM: If you liked Blasphet, you’ll be happy to know he continues to play a major role in Dragonforge. Are you going to be translating this as well?
CC: Yes I'm translating Dragonforge right now actually. I do enjoy the way your characters are evolving and am curious to see how they will do in the last book. I hope I will get to translate that one too!
JM: Great! I'm happy to hear it. The book's in good hands.