Six Things I Learned While Translating ‘A Friend in the Dark’

Last year, Emma Mandley’s translation of Pascal Ruter’s A Friend in The Dark came out. Six things she learned in the process:

By Emma Mandley

A Friend in the Dark, published by Walker Books in 2017, is the translation of Le coeur en braille by French author Pascal Ruter. The story is narrated by Victor, a twelve-year-old boy with a very distinctive world view who’s struggling at school. Against the odds, Victor becomes friends with Marie, the cleverest girl in the class and a talented cellist, who’s trying to conceal the fact that she’s losing her sight, so that she can get into a prestigious music school. Victor and Marie find that each has something to offer the other and their friendship blossoms into something more. In a dramatic finale, Victor discovers at last that “you never quite know how extraordinary you are.”

1) The voice is everything

Victor is a complex and engaging character: sensitive and thoughtful but often puzzled by life, funny without meaning to be, plucky but sometimes disheartened by events and expectations. And deep down, he has a quirky kind of wisdom, expressed in unexpected ways. The first question the (French-speaking) publisher asked me was “Do you think you’ll be able to find his voice?” It definitely felt like the translation would stand or fall on this issue. I hope I succeeded. In the process I certainly became very fond of Victor and felt for him as he gamely dealt with various challenges and setbacks.

2) For a child, it’s all about the story

An adult reading, say, Proust in translation wants to get a sense of the original writing, to feel that he or she is really experiencing the author. The translator must meet this expectation, and will usually attempt to follow the author as closely as possible, for example by replicating, within reason, sentence construction – as Lydia Davis describes in the latest issue of In Other Words. A child, however, doesn’t care about any of that. She or he simply wants a good story. The job of the translator is therefore slightly different, and may involve more adaptation. While it was important to preserve the very French flavour of the novel – that’s a significant part of its charm – some references would have meant so little to an English-speaking child that the right choice was to remove them altogether rather than risk bringing the reader up short and losing the pace of the narrative. For example, in a dreamlike sequence where Victor and his father drive through the night to Paris, the author lists the (difficult to pronounce) names of the suburbs they pass through. I took them all out, with the author’s blessing. In the end, this is a new book that has to work for a new readership. We were lucky that the author absolutely understood the need for a few such minor adaptations.

3) Different countries have different tolerances

Swear words seem to be more acceptable for this age group (9 -11) in France than in the UK. When Victor is having an angry exchange with the school bully, he calls him a trou de cul. My editor certainly wasn’t going to accept ‘arsehole’ so we found a less crude insult. There was also some alarm at the notion of a school teacher, who is also an enthusiastic cyclist, doping a flu-struck Marie with an injection to get her through an important audition. With the author’s agreement, we substituted unspecified ‘supplements’, given in pill form. If a book is to be published in the US, I understand that you need to tread more carefully still …

4) Wrestling with word play has its rewards

This book is full of word play, often centring on Victor’s many malapropisms and misunderstandings. Trundling along happily, I’d suddenly be knocked sideways by some fiendish puzzle. For example, over dinner at Marie’s house, Victor thinks her parents (fine art auctioneers) are talking about boudin – black pudding – when in fact they’re discussing Boudin the artist. This looked pretty intractable until I finally hit on pollock, the fish, and (Jackson) Pollock the artist – although it meant restructuring three pages of conversation to make the replacement work. I get the biggest thrill from finding solutions to problems like this.

5) Sometimes you just have to get help

There are two threads running through the story that were completely outside my sphere of knowledge. Firstly Haisam, Victor’s best friend, is obsessed with chess and turns to chess competition strategies to provide guidance for life. Secondly, Victor’s eccentric father has a temperamental vintage Panhard car, and both father and son are absorbed by the need to keep it going. Now I know nothing about either chess or vintage car maintenance. Salvation came in the form of the English Chess Federation who put me in touch with a bilingual Grandmaster, and he kindly checked all the chess references for me. Meanwhile a technical advisor from the Panhard et Levassor Club GB patiently helped me to arrive at the correct terminology for refitting an oil feed pipe and adjusting rocker arms. People can be incredibly generous with their time, especially when they have a passion for their subject.

6) Being edited is brilliant

I found it really valuable to have a skilled editor – Sarah Handley – who was experienced in children’s literature. Importantly, she didn’t read the novel in French. She was just looking at how well the story read, rather than how faithful it was to the original. This helped me to stand back a bit too, and look at it objectively. Having to justify some of my decisions to her was a very useful exercise, forcing me to be clear-sighted about my choices, and I learned a lot from her attention to detail.

Emma Mandley had a long career in broadcasting and the arts before becoming a literary, arts, and academic translator. She was born and lives in London, and translates from Italian as well as from French.

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