Thursday, May 13, 2010

Interview with Don Bartlett, translator of the Garmann books

This e-mail interview with Don Bartlett, who has translated three of the Garmann novels by Stian Hole from Norwegian, was recently published in the Montreal Gazette. I hadn’t heard of the books before, but this article and an interview with the author have piqued my interest.

Bartlett talks about his work translating novels, translating children’s books, illustrations, idioms, translating for UK vs. North American readers, and localization vs. maintaining otherness. Here are some particularly interesting excerpts from the interview:
Gazette: Most people would assume that translating a picture-book text must be a piece of cake when compared with a full-length novel. Is that so? Or does it pose its own challenges? (I’d be inclined to think it would be right up there with translating a poem – shorter than a novel, but possibly trickier.)

Bartlett: Well, novels vary in their levels of difficulty. Some are close to poetry and, hence, very time-consuming and energy-sapping to translate; some are straightforward narratives and it just flows; most are a combination and pose a variety of challenges. With picture books, I suppose it is the same.

In the case of Garmann, I worked more slowly than with a novel, taking more time with individual word selection. Maybe the meaning isn’t as compressed as with poetry, but you still have to find the right tone, establish characters, consider your readership and so on. And, of course, you have to match the pictures with the text. I was very lucky with the X-ray picture of butterflies in Garmann’s Summer. At least we have the same expression as the Norwegians: to have butterflies in your stomach! I thought about other translators then. [The Garmann books have been translated into 10 other languages.]

Gazette: Many, many years ago, I heard British author/illustrator Charles Keeping talk about his book Joseph’s Yard, and the difficulties he encountered with its American publisher. Keeping’s text referred to his young protagonist feeling ashamed and the American publisher balked at that, claiming no child would understand the word and no child should have to feel shame; instead, the American version described the boy as feeling sad. Have you had any disputes with Eerdmans about your translation of the Garmann books?

Bartlett: Ah, I was going to mention this in answer to your last question. I do my translations thinking about a young British reader. Then the translation is sent to Eerdmans and they Americanize it, which means not just changing the spelling and possibly vocabulary, but also editing to exclude/adapt items which they feel would not go down well with American readers. They are more sensitive to issues of the market than I am. And judging from what I have read of American reviews of the Garmann books, I think they have made the right calls.

For me, however, this domesticating – adapting a text to the home market – means a bit of a loss. I like all the features of Norwegian life – place names, street names, currency, lifestyles, degrees of frankness, etc. – to shine out so that readers are aware of something different. […] Yes, there is definitely a Norwegian-ness that comes through – mostly Garmann’s way of thinking, the practical and concrete approach he has, the knowledge and awareness of nature. Can you feel that when you read it?

Gazette: “It takes the flame at least seven years to reach his fingertips.” I loved that line! Is it translated verbatim, or did you have to reach into your poet’s soul?

Bartlett:
Much as I might like to claim a poet’s soul, that’s a direct translation.

Gazette:
About that dewdrop on the tip of the old man’s nose: Was it a dewdrop in Norwegian as well, or the result of an old man’s runny nose?

Bartlett: In the Norwegian book, it is a “shiny drop hanging from the tip of his nose.” However, I remember my mother always laughing at me and saying I had a dewdrop hanging from my nose. So I used that.

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