4 – 7 December 2020
The Montreuil Children’s Book Fair (SLPJ) is a highlight in the French literary calendar for anyone who loves children’s and YA books. Last December, 200 writers and illustrators met young readers in schools, bookshops, and libraries (in line with local restrictions). The fair also broadcast interviews, readings and other activities on its dedicated TV channel and website. A network of 500 libraries and bookshops also showcased this year’s prize winners, the Pépites.
As I wrote in my first post (here), I made the most of the Professionals Days. The presentations by passionate authors and publishers definitely helped boost my TBR! One session I couldn’t miss of course was the panel hosted by the French association of literary translators, the Association des traducteurs littéraires en France (ATLF). The lively discussion between translators Lydia Waleryszak and Catherine Renaud and publisher Emmanuelle Beulque gave me so much food for thought I felt it deserved a blog post of its own.
D’une enfance à l’autre – parcours d’un texte
How do children’s books make their way into French from other cultures and languages? That was the first question ATLF moderator Irène Imart had for the panellists. How does a publisher find a book amidst the wealth of titles available? And what role do translators play in the process? Publisher Emmanuelle Beulque from Éditions Sarbacane stressed the importance of the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs, two key events where publishers buy and sell the foreign rights for their books. Beulque relies on relationships she has built up with editors over the years. These relationships are often mutual: she buys the rights to translate their books into French and they buy the rights to translate titles from her catalogue into other languages. When considering children’s books for translation, Beulque focuses more on the illustrations than the text, the images need to fit the Sarbacane catalogue. This approach is the opposite to what happens when books are commissioned in French when text takes priority over the images. Translator Catherine Renaud, who translates from Scandinavian languages, explained that whilst most translators probably have a list of books they would love to translate, it’s rare for translators to have the opportunity to make suggestions directly to publishers. Illustration styles in Danish books, for example, are often quite different to French tastes and won’t necessarily appeal to the French market. Renaud added, however, that translators are hired as expert readers by French publishers, especially if they can read so-called rarer languages. She draws up reader’s reports (fiche de lecture) to help publishers decide whether or not to buy a foreign title. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean she will be commissioned to translate the book if the publisher proceeds with publication in French. Polish-to-French translator Lydia Waleryszak added that she tries to keep up-to-date with the Polish market whilst also familiarising herself with the editorial approach taken by various French publishers. Fairs can be a good chance to connect with publishers, and small presses are often more open to suggestions, especially for the ‘rare’ languages.
Imart was keen to hear more about the practical aspects of translating children’s books into French and had quite a few questions for the panellists.
I was just as curious and couldn't wait to hear how Waleryszak and Renaud had tackled these challenges in their own work. Would there be differences between working into French and working into English?
Renaud began by noting that rhyme is very important in Scandinavian-language books for children. Translations into French, however, are generally expected to drop such rhymes at the end of phrases. Renaud always tries to keep the rhyme, arguing that children like it and noting that in some cases the rhyme is an integral part of the story itself. For example, in the Moomins, the basis of her PhD, rhyme indicates the turning of the page. Waleryszak explained how important rhyme was for the rhythm in a book she had translated about African percussion, Boum Boum Boum. Beulque on the other hand wasn’t a fan of rhyming language, saying it reminds her too much of Disney. She felt that rhyme and rhythm are used differently in French and English. Form should not take priority over the content she argued.
Names of characters often require special consideration in children’s books. Beulque took the example of Plouf et Nouille, translated from Steve Small’s original English title The duck who didn’t like water. New names were created for Duck and Frog who became Plouf and Nouille in the French version. The author didn’t want gendered characters, an obvious challenge for a naturally gendered language like French. The solution in the French translation was therefore to give Duck and Frog names to avoid using the nouns canard et grenouille and to choose adjectives that didn’t identify a gender either, such as aimable. Renaud then talked about her translation Déluge et Marmelade by Cecilia Heikklia. Scandinavian languages use a lot of impersonal adjectives and nouns. These words, however, need to take on a gender in a French translation. In this case, Renaud asked the author which characters in the story were male or female. The author’s daughter helped out by deciding who was a boy and who was a girl. Waleryszak added that she didn’t have a hard and fast rule about names, it depended primarily on the author’s intentions which she tries her best to reflect in the translation. She explained using the example of names that would have sounded unintentionally outdated if transferred directly into the French. She opted to change the names in that instance in order to retain the universal feel of the original.
All three panellists agreed that the language used in children’s books should not be automatically assumed to be simple or requiring simplification. Waleryszak translates a wide range of non-fiction books which are designed to give children the vocabulary and tools to name objects and talk about the world they see around them. The language we use in our daily lives is slowly becoming impoverished. Translators (and writers) shouldn’t be afraid therefore to encourage children to go and look in a dictionary if they don’t already know a word. Beulque added that such words also prompt children to ask their parents. Challenging language means that children are not alone with the books they read. Renaud briefly mentioned word play as a frequent consideration when translating children’s books, referring to one text where she needed to include rhyme, cultural references in songs, and make sure the translation fitted into the same space used by very small font in the original.
Illustrations and text
Time was almost up so unfortunately the panellists weren’t able to discuss this last point at length. Waleryszak agreed that picture books involved additional restraints because the space available for the translation was limited by the space used in the original alongside illustrations.
It was an enlightening session that I wished had lasted longer. Translators working into French and English face many similar challenges when it comes to children's books. I was particularly impressed at the solution found for Duck and Frog! Names of characters are often an integral part of the story in children’s books, so it’s fascinating to see how creative some solutions can be. I can’t say I envy the issues raised by a gendered language like French though!
Johanna McCalmont is a literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and has a particular passion for children's and YA books. She also enjoys interpreting at literary festivals. Read more of her reviews and author interviews at WorldKidLit.