Recently, I picked up a thriller set in Paris simply because it was set in Paris — what can I say, I’m hooked on the city. What surprised me though was how much I enjoyed the book. It was one of those impetutous decisions that resulted in opening up a whole new avenue of thrillers for me: foreign language ones translated into English.
It’s feels slightly ridiculous typing this, because a good book is a good book, no matter if it’s translated from a different language or not. I’ve been trying to figure out why I avoided translations, but I haven’t figured it out yet. All I know is, I’m incredibly grateful and pleased I finally did start paying attention to these books.
While reading another novel, that I’ll review later, I got to thinking about the quirks of translating, about those phrases that work and don’t and what exactly can a translator say in regards to something that just does not work the same in English than it does in a novel’s original language. To that end, I interviewed Anne Trager, founder and president of Le French book.
This publishing house brings mysteries and thrillers from France to new readers across the English-speaking world – this month, they are releasing The City of Blood, a police procedural in the best-selling Paris Homicide series. Anne comes from a background in translation and publishing and has an irrational love for France, good food, and crime fiction. She has translated several of Le French Book’s titles. Here she discusses translation.
What book are you working on translating right now?
Shh… it’s a secret. In addition to managing Le French Book, I’ve got two translations in the pipeline. I’ll be announcing them later in the year.
What prompted you to become a translator?
I come from a family of linguists, so language has always been my thing. I moved to France in 1985 out of a love for… well, fine food, actually, and I ended up translating to make my way. I liked it, I was good at it, and so I continued, perfecting my writing skills and my French. I then started working in publishing and communication, and finally brought it all together when I founded the publishing house Le French Book.
It’s actually a New York publishing house. I’m basically obsessed with mysteries and thrillers, and have been since I encountered Nancy Drew, Dorothy Sayers, and Ian Fleming all at about the same time when I was a kid. So, there I was living in France, reading a bunch of French mysteries and thrillers I couldn’t share with my English-reading friends and family, because so few French titles are ever translated. I realized that I could do just that, that I had the skills and drive to make introduce readers to these voices. So I did.
What sort of study did you do as a translator?
I studied French, but what I needed to translate with any accuracy was full immersion in French culture. And I had
to learn how to write as well.
What are the essential things anyone should know about translating – in terms of becoming a translator as well as the books that are in effect translated?
As I just said, you need to know the language and the culture of what we call the “source” language, and you need solid writing skills in the “target” language. A translator needs to put themselves in the shoes of the reader, who does not have the same exposure to that source language and culture, and provide it for them. When that is done, what comes through is the story, and there are good stories everywhere.
There is a lot involved in translating a book, starting with figuring out what books could actually appeal to readers in the target language. Then there’s acquiring rights, the actual translation, the editing of the translation, and any adaptations that may be necessary for those readers. I always work with the original authors. I love that part. It is their work, and it is my job to make sure their story comes through in another language. After that comes the marketing. This is a real challenge because the authors themselves don’t speak the target language, so translators have a role to play in this aspect as well.
Do you as a translator, point out any phrases, that may not work in English or may not appeal to an intended audience? I’m reading something right now, that’s absolutely compelling, but every so often there are odd, older phrases that just don’t work in the context of a crime thriller, which is why I wondered what translators can or cannot do.
Ultimately, there are any set rules as to what translators can and cannot do. Translators need to respect the original work, but how you define what that actually means can vary—some translators take it very literally, others take more liberties. Like I said, I like to work with the authors to adapt the work to the target audience so that the story is not lost in cultural incomprehension. At the same time, it is crucial to have a good editor in the target language, just as it is key not to lose the original voice and cultural feel. It’s a balancing act.
What’s next for Le French Book in 2015?
We’re very excited about 2015, as we continue some series and introduce some new authors. We start with The City of Blood, by Frédérique Molay, another Paris police procedural in the Paris Homicide series. In February, we bring out Cognac Conspiracies, by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, which is in the Winemaker Detective series. Then in March, we introduce Eric Giacometti and Jacques Ravenne, international bestselling authors who have sold 2 million books worldwide. They make their U.S. debut with Shadow Ritual, an electrifying thriller about the rise of extremism. In April, we’ll have David Khara’s The Morgenstern Project. That’s just what we have in store for the beginning of the year. There are several more books planned for later in the year.