By Olivia Snaije
“I believe this is the first time, in my admittedly varied career as a translator, that I’ve been expected to render a Shakespeare quoting, pun-spouting, trans-gender goldfish with suicidal tendencies,” Sarah Ardizzone wrote in the Guardian in an article explaining the process of translating French children’s book author Marjolaine Leray’s Avril le poisson rouge (April the Red Goldfish).
London-based Ardizzone has translated writers such as Daniel Pennac, Alain Mabanckou (a finalist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize), and Faïza Guène, the latter requiring a confirmed knowledge of urban slang — in both French and English of course.
Although Ardizzone says she couldn’t make a living translating only children’s books, she has been increasingly doing so, even if she recently took on the very serious project of translating a new edition of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Nutcracker” for Vintage Classics.
“There’s a lot about working on children’s books that I love,” said Ardizzone. “If you’ve been working on hard and lengthy adult stuff, you need a breath of air and need to flex different muscles. Another aspect that I enjoy is that there is an immediate sense of your readership and a greater accountability — there tends to be a more palpable wrestling with what we are going to do to make this stand up with Anglophone children. This isn’t always applied in more literary publishing scenarios. I enjoy that, the audience matters to me. And children’s book publishers put so much into events.”
Being on stage and participating in events is not for all translators but Ardizzone, who comes from a performance background, thrives on happenings where she communicates with a live audience or participates in translation slams at literary festivals.
“I really enjoy the live aspect as well as locking myself in my study. You need character and appetite to go with it. What is really appealing to me is that you have instant feedback, and kids ask questions. The translation strand is increasingly developing at literary festivals, and it’s trickling down to children’s festivals as well.”
Ardizzone is also active on the educational circuit wherever translation can fit in — she curated the Translation Nation program, which brought together literary translators with students and parents whose mother tongues were a language other than English to produce new translations of stories for children from around the world. She has lately been working actively with Pop Up Projects, which uses books, stories and the people involved in the publishing process to engage the diverse communities of northeastern London.
“I’m their translation person,” said Ardizzone, who described a recent pop up festival that included 100 workshops over three weeks involving authors, illustrators and translators.
Part of Ardizzone’s increase in translating children’s books developed from her very strong affinity with Emma Langley, co-founder of the UK Phoenix Yard Books, one of the most innovative Anglo-Saxon publishers working with translated literature for children today. Ardizzone also cites Walker Books, Pushkin, Tate books, and New Zealand’s Gecko, and Book Island.
“I’ve had an intense working relationship with Emma Langley for four and a half years. She had a model that 40% of what she was publishing was to be in translation. It was a sort of alchemy, and I had a child during this time, which made the work even more rewarding.”
Furthermore, Ardizzone says her contracts with children’s book publishers have been better than with publishers for adults.
“At Phoenix Yard Books I was so involved in promotion and live events that I was treated much more like an author and got royalties from the get go. I wasn’t paid by word count, but more for my time. But this was a best-case scenario. And Phoenix Yard have had bestsellers and have proved their model is a viable one.”
She has also enjoyed working with Walker where “some books are very commercial and there’s a big investment in them. Walker has historically always had a good constitution to treat all creative collaborators well and their terms are very good.”
Innovation via The Little Prince
Several years ago Ardizzone translated Joann Sfar’s graphic novel version of “The Little Prince”, which was chosen as one of the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2010. While she was grappling with fitting the translated words into the bubbles, she had a revelation.
“We jettisoned some words on visual grounds as opposed to semantics. It needed to look right. You need something that’s the same length as original. The way it looked in the space determined the words sometimes. It was amazing. I loved the three dimensionality of it. It feels like there’s a journey going on there. As a translator you have to serve many masters — the reader, the writer, the publisher. And here there was the physicality of translating something with illustration.”
The choice of which books to translate comes down to where an individual’s strengths lie, says Ardizzone. “My strengths are dialogue and something that feels contemporary and alive. It’s a good match with children’s books. And children read books, so on the morale level it’s great because you know this book will get read.”
In the end, says Ardizzone, it’s refreshing to move between adult and children’s literature in translation. “Anthea Bell is very interesting — she has translated Asterix but also [W.G.] Sebald. And David Colmer who translates from Dutch is increasingly enjoying short and beautiful texts including poetry. He values the brevity.”