Twerking Lizards, Wizards and Creative Writing: Translators in Schools 2

Back in the summer I wrote about the Translators in Schools training I’ve been doing, so after that it was a case of going off to work out my own workshop with a mentor and another translator, and then just the minor matter of going into school and delivering it. But I did that this morning, and not only survived but enjoyed it…

When I first heard about Translation Nation and other projects of that sort at ITD 2 years ago, my head began to buzz with ideas of doing something of that sort at Cavell. Then came the training, during all of which time I was hoping that the workshop could be something to celebrate fighting off Michael Gove and his academising minions. Sadly, that wasn’t to be (see past blog posts ad nauseam) but after a very hard year, I wanted to do something fun and positive at the school.

Kurz Nach Sechs Kommt die Echs by Nadia Budde

So what did we do? Well, after discussing what translation is, why we do it etc, and a warm-up exercise where they were given scrambled-up English sentences to unjumble, year 6 translated Nadia Budde’s Kurz Nach Sechs Kommt die Echs from German into English. Our session ran either side of the morning break, so in the first part we used glossaries to create a rough version of the text with each pair of children working on two lines. They soon saw that German and English have very different word orders so it was back to the skills from the jigsaw sentences to create something that made sense. They then read what they had done out to each other so that everybody had got the whole story.

welsh lost in translation roadsign funny

Photo by John Bullas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) . Click through for the story!

After break, we got back to thinking about translation by looking at examples of where it goes wrong due to over reliance on machines, or a lack of human proofreaders. As well as making them laugh, this led us up to thinking about what to do next with our story from the morning so far. The children then split into four groups, each taking a different approach to the story. One group focused on polishing up the rough version into a prose story, another group tried to make it rhyme – oh yes, I forgot to mention that this is a rhyming text. They were given “permission” to be pretty free with the text and, yes, some of them went pretty far off piste, inserting toilet jokes, wizards (to rhyme with lizard, obviously) and a lot of twerking (to rhyme with working). Then two more groups took the illustrations as their starting point. One table each took a picture and used it to inspire a piece of their own creative writing, and another did storyboarding – what happened next, for example. I was particularly impressed by one boy who managed to combine storyboarding AND a rhyming text.

More chinglish

Photo by dcmaster (CC BY-NC 2.0) All our translations were much better than this!

Finally, they came back together on the carpet and those who wanted to from each group read out what they had written or shared their pictures. They all seemed to enjoy themselves, to produce some really creative writing, and  to be proud of what they had done. I could see how the writing fitted in with the work on synonyms, connectives etc displayed on the walls, and the teachers were keen to keep their work to follow up on it, and use the images as writing prompts again.

It’s marvellous to see what the children come up with once their imaginations are fired and it was a really encouraging morning for me. I feel confident that this workshop could work with other schools too and that by stepping slightly out of my introverted translation comfort zone I can add new strings to my bow as well as inspiring (hopefully) a love of language in the next generation.

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Hermelin the Detective Mouse

Hermelin the Detective Mouse by Mini Grey (Jonathan Cape, 2014) was one of fils cadet‘s birthday present books. Initially greeted with excitement it was then cast aside because he decided it didn’t sound good. But after a little chat about not judging books by their covers, or indeed their titles, he agreed to let me read it to him… and then immediately demanded we read it again the moment we finished!

Hermelin is a mouse with unusual abilities – he can read and type, and write too, although his paws find a pencil hard to manage. Put together with his observational skills, these talents enable him to solve a spate of mysteries, reuniting the people of Offley Street with their lost property and saving the life of Baby McMumbo along the way. But when the people of Offley Street decide to throw a party to celebrate the efforts of their unknown hero, neither they nor Hermelin get quite what they bargained for. Screams of “Mouse!” send poor Hermelin off to a reference book where he learns that mice are dirty, disease-spreading pests. Sadly, he resolves to leave Offley Street forever. But fortunately, the journalist with whom Hermelin shares no. 33 is just as observant as he is, she tracks him down and they decide to open a detective agency together.

Fils cadet got quite indignant on Hermelin’s behalf and was very pleased with the happy ending. So as well as books/covers, he’s learnt not to be prejudiced about mice – and hopefully picked up the message about giving people a second chance when they’re not quite what you expect either.

As with Mini Grey’s Traction Man books, the story is told in comic book style with a huge amount of detail in the artwork and plenty more clues for the reader to pick up on. Examples can be seen on the author’s website here. It really is a beautiful book – good to look at, to read and to hone your observational skills all in one. Highly recommended.

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Americanah and Reading What I Want To

I’ve been seeing quite a few posts lately from book bloggers about the pressure of TBR piles and books sent for review getting in the way of reading for pleasure, and it’s certainly a feeling I can relate to as well. Not to mention that the stresses of the last year have made me want lighter reading than a lot of the books that I feel I ought to read…  So I’m going to follow suit and cut myself some slack. If I don’t want to read a book, I won’t read it. If I don’t like it when I’ve started, I’ll stop, and I don’t have to review everything I read. There.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Now, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2013) is a book that I got a while back and wanted to read, but got distracted by oughts and things I needed to read for other reasons, but I finally got started on it this week and wow, it’s good.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face? Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, ‘Americanah’ is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

So says the blurb. What impressed me most about this book was the way it tackles huge sweeping themes such as race, immigration and corruption at the same time as offering keenly observed details of everyday life in three countries. Similarly I enjoyed, Adichie’s grasp of speech patterns of so many different nationalities in different countries and situations, and the ways they interact – the book has been translated into many different languages and I found myself pondering on what a challenge this must have been.

It’s not always comfortable to read – particularly for a white, middle class person in comfortable circumstances. Once Ifemelus moves to America, race is always there, always an issue: “I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America,” she says. Adichie  has a gift for skewering our hypocrisies and unconscious assumptions around the subject yet she doesn’t preach. I found this book eye-opening, entertaining and moving, and I will certainly be looking out for more by the author.

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The Peculiar Wonderfulness of Literary Translation: International Translation Day 2014


It’s that time of year again – 30 September is the Feast Day of St Jerome, patron saint of translators and librarians for his efforts translating the Bible into Greek, and now designated International Translation Day. And last Friday was my third year attending the ITD conference, held at the British Library again this year. While the emphasis was, as always, on literary translation, there was much more of a sense of worlds colliding this year with speakers from the ITI and IOL talking about translation matters from a non-literary point of view. There was discussion of continuing professional development, specialisation, professionalism and so on, both in the opening plenary session and in the afternoon seminar I attended with Anne de Freyman MITI and Sarah Patey of SfEP entitled New Directions, which was about commercial translation and proofreading/editing work. Both of them were crammed with good advice.


The other seminar I went to was on translating comics. Although my area of interest is far more in picture books than comics or graphic novels, there is a considerable overlap between them, as emphasised by Sarah Ardizzone, translator of Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray and Joann Sfar’s version of The Little Prince. In both there is already often an inbuilt acceptance of collaboration between writer and illustrator as writer, artist and illustrator Daniel Locke pointed out. Similarly, in both the meaning is not contained solely in the words, but also in the images, lettering and the space around them. (This is a good point that I’m storing up for my upcoming Translators in Schools workshop, but more on that once it’s happened!) For an example of how this might work out in practice see Sarah’s account of translating April the Red Goldfish, also by Marjolaine Leray, which she has written about for the Guardian.

The final session of the day followed what seems to have become a tradition of lightening the mood with something fun and dramatic. This time it was on Singing the Meaning: Words and Translation in Opera. Like a lot of people, I went in unsure of what to expect and a little anxious about the idea of being asked to participate. Being blasted with Wagner at the beginning certainly helped to ward off any sleepiness after a long airless day and it was an absolutely fascinating look at a particularly challenging area of translation. If opera lyrics are to be performed in translation, they must not only convey the meaning and fit the rhythm, but they must also have vowels in the right places to be sung and follow the shape of the music – so the important words and dramatic music come together.  Oh, and it also helps if the syntax isn’t tortured into incomprehensibility for reasons of rhyme, and singers prefer not being made to sound ridiculous, apparently… We were given examples of  places where this has worked successfully, and others that are less felicitous. As John Lloyd Davies said, opera translation can be more akin to an infinite and impossible crossword puzzle than to writing a text. It was a great way to round off the day and an unexpected bonus to pick up some tips on singing technique at the same time.


And in between all this, plenty of coffee, sandwiches, a glass of wine at the end – and a chance to meet and mingle with old friends and new. And the walk afterwards was nice even if train times didn’t permit staying to eat Etheopian food. There was much talk of the collaborative and generous nature of the literary translation community. It may be “peculiar” as the multi-hatted Daniel Hahn described it, but it is also rather wonderful and I’m already looking forward to next year.

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The Past Is a Foreign Country, or Musings on Paddington Bear

We’ve been working through quite a few of Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear stories with fils aîné recently and I’m frequently amazed by how dated they are, in the most literal sense. I don’t mean that they don’t stand the test of time because they most certainly do being well written and funny, but there is just so much that has changed since the 50s!

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

We’ve been reading this edition

There are social aspects – the children going to boarding school, having a housekeeper (“This is Mrs Bird, she looks after us.”), any amount of technological changes – there’s a story about the Browns getting their first television set, details about how the London Underground used to work which completely baffle me, things about laundrettes, shops, restaurants and so on that are quite unfamiliar. What’s an hor d’oeuvre trolley?! And then there’s the money… FA has quite a shaky grasp on money anyway, so it doesn’t necessarily bother him how much Paddington can buy for sixpence, but it throws me. We borrowed an audio book of A Bear Called Paddington from the library for long holiday drives in which the currency has been decimalised. Given that nothing else is changed, I’m not sure that it adds much to the comprehension, and inflation makes it a pointless task anyway but there you are.

Talking of the audio book, it is beautifully read by Stephen Fry and it wasn’t until I heard it that it even occurred to me that Paddington’s great friend Mr Gruber with his antique shop on the Portobello Road might have been a German refugee. I wonder if that name seemed more significant in the 1950s than it does now…

All this is just water off a duck’s back to the boys though. I suppose everything’s pretty much new and unfamiliar to them, and when you’re hearing about the adventures of a talking bear and his marmalade sandwiches perhaps it doesn’t matter too much whether you appreciate the nuances of societal change cast up by the books. They’re fun to read and worth it just to hear the occasional gurgle of laughter from the other end of the sofa.

Paddington station MMB 08

The statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station by Marcus Cornish. Photo by mattbuck [CC-BY-SA-2.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Foundling Boy

The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon is a modern classic of French literature published in France as Le Jeunne homme vert by Gallimard in 1975 but only recently finding its way into English. Déon is an immortel (a member of the Académie Française), has won all kinds of prestigious awards, published over 50 books, and been translated into many different languages – just not English, to our shame and despite the fact that he lives in Ireland. So thank heavens for Gallic Books and translator Julian Evans for starting to put that right!

The Foundling Boy by Michel Déon. tr. Julian EvansIt is 1919. On a summer’s night in Normandy, a new-born baby is left in a basket outside the home of Albert and Jeanne Arnaud. The childless couple take the foundling in, name him Jean, and decide to raise him as their own, though his parentage remains a mystery.

Though Jean’s life is never dull, he grows up knowing little of what lies beyond his local area. Until the day he sets off on his bicycle to discover the world, and encounters a Europe on the threshold of interesting times…

It took me a little while to get into this book and I found the author’s interruptions into the narrative rather irritating, but fortunately they become less frequent as it gets going. Jean is an intriguing and appealing character living in what are indeed interesting times, in every sense. I have studied the interwar years from both a British and a German perspective, so it was fascinating to have a French view of them – and also a French view of the English and Germans in that period via Jean’s travels and friendships. I particularly enjoyed the role played by Jean’s cycling, both in giving him freedom to travel and in the opportunities it affords the narrator to take side-swipes at those who just don’t get it.

The narrative is strong and the supporting characters are also vibrantly drawn, from lovable rogues to misguided but friendly Hitler Youths. There are tormented jealousies, unworldly artists, philanderers, con-men, lovers and mysterious princes. It’s sweeping in scale, entertaining to read and ends on a cliff-hanger. I am very much looking forward to the sequel The Foundling’s War when it comes out later in the year.

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The Business Of Literary Translation

This was the title of the Emerging Translators Network‘s first event – a day designed to be a practical guide for early career or beginning translators. Held at the Free Word Centre on Monday this week, it was jam-packed with discussions, workshops and networking time. Although I was already familiar with a lot of information, it is always useful to have it set out again as there’ll always be something new. There was also a chance to give an “elevator pitch” of a book to editors from Peirene Press and Harvill Secker – a chance I seized to plug a wonderful book that I’d love to be writing about on here as a work in progress…

So, what were the top tips? In no particular order:

  • Rights teams in the UK don’t acquire rights – you need the editorial department for that. (LB)
  • Publishers, or at any rate Geoff Mulligan of the Clerkenwell Press seek to publish only what is outstanding and to build a list that the public will trust. He also quoted a colleague that editors “buy good books and make them better”. (GM)
  • Editing a translated book should be a three-way collaboration between the author, the translator and the editor. In theory a lot of the hard work should already have been done by the original publisher. You’re looking for wrong notes. (GM)
  • When pitching a book, it can help to know how it has already travelled. Passion is crucial. (GI)
  • It is wise to translate books you really love – it shows. (GM)
  • Welcome the editing process – it’s not about some bastard murdering your prose! (GM)
  • When getting into translation, seek out competitions, collaboration opportunities, mentorships, summer schools etc (TB)
  • Submit to magazines and reviews to get publications under your belt. (TB)
  • Factor in time for editing after you’ve delivered the manuscript. (TB)

My own top tip from the book pitching session – when you pitch a book, it helps to include the title and the name of the author. Oops. Rectified that by email and in conversation later though. More seriously, as well as the things mentioned above, make sure your sample translation matches your pitch – if it’s a funny book, pick a funny bit; if you mention a writer of a similar style, make sure that’s evident in your sample, and so on. If there’s a likelihood of funding, via English PEN or national institutes, say so. Try to find a strong, memorable image to help the book stick in people’s minds. Thomas Bunstead also suggested reading 500 word reviews in literary supplements etc to learn how to be concise, which is advice I’ll definitely take up.

Huge thanks to Ruth Martin and Rosalind Harvey for organising a great day and, as I forgot to put it on my feedback form I’ll say so here: three cheers for a big space for notes in the back of the programme. I wish all conference organisers were so considerate!

LB = Lisa Baker, Rights Director Faber & Faber

GM = Geoff Mulligan,Publisher The Clerkenwell Press

GI = Gesche Ipsen, Editor Pushkin Press

TB = Thomas Bunstead, Translator

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