In this series, I interview a selection of people working in the publishing industry. First up: translator, Serge Cuilleron. He turned The Honey Guide (UK) into L’empreinte Massaï (France).
How did you first get involved in translating my novel?
Alice Monéger from Le Masque Éditions —with whom I had worked before—contacted me to let me know she had a book to translate. I read it, we had a discussion about the novel, and I was asked to translate the first chapter. Alice liked my work, I liked the book… that’s how it happened.
What were the particular challenges of this text?
This is a very hard question to answer. If I were to pick three, I would say the setting, the dialogues and the title.
First, the setting, because the novel takes place in Nairobi, a city I’ve never been to. It meant I had to conduct research. I watched documentary films and often visited the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris to read about the Maasais and their legends. I also found an “informant”—a good friend of my wife’s parents who used to be the director of IFRA (The French Institute for Research in Africa) in Nairobi—who kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Second, the dialogue, because the French that is spoken by people who live, say, in the Ivory Coast, differs from the French that is spoken in France, so at first I wondered whether I should find a way to make the characters speak like them. I eventually gave up the idea; it would have been too great a distortion of the original text.
And then there was the title. When you translate a book you are expected to propose a title and I must admit that I was at a loss there. The French translation of honeyguide is l’indicatoridae or oiseau indicateur (in French, un indicateur is a snitch). It wasn’t a good title. I had a couple of other ideas, none of which pleased me sufficiently. In the end, it was Camille from Le Masque Éditions, who came up with L’empreinte Massaï, and I thank her for that.
How much feedback did you have with me as an author, and how did this compare to other authors?
On the whole, authors have always been keen to answer my questions, but I must say that I really do appreciate being given the opportunity to express myself on your blog. Perhaps the best way to show how much feed back I got from you is to give an example. Here’s a cut and paste of one of our exchanges:
"According to the stories, there are a few – a very select few –who see the world as it truly is: ravelling slowly back towards creation"
My dictionary gives me two contradictory meanings for ravelling, 1- to confuse or to complicate 2- to untangle or unravel something. There is no such word in French, so I have to choose, and I’d rather use the one you want. […]
[…]Ravelling - indeed I chose this verb because of its ambiguity. Perhaps you could use "détisser"?[…]
What kind of other translations have you done, and do you have a favourite genre?
How long does it take you to translate a novel and do you have much room for your own creativity?
It usually takes me a few months, between three and six. Some people work faster. I like to take my time, I re-read and re-write a lot.
As a translator you are responsible for creating the feel of the book. While some theoreticians like Walter Benjamin claim that the translator should let his own language be transformed by the language he translates, others argue that in doing so, you make the translated books unreadable. In any case, because the linguistic tools are different from one language to another, you have to develop a certain form of creativity.
How did you become a translator?
Four years ago I undertook post-graduate studies in literary translation at L’institut Charles V in Paris, which is part of the Université Paris Diderot—the best place in France for people who want to become literary translators. It is selective, but if you pass the tests you get to learn from the best university professors and the best literary translators. You also do a three month internship in a publishing company. I did mine at JC-Lattès éditions under the supervision of Joan Schlottenmeier.
Do you prefer to translate classic or contemporary work?
Both, of course. But If I were forced to chose, I would definitely go for contemporary fiction. I find it more exciting. I would also love to translate plays because you get to work with actors and theatre directors.