Read Sarah Ardizzone's account of translating a 100-year-old graphic novel adaption of a soldier's WWI diary.
Translating On Les Aura! Carnet de Guerre d'un Poilu was a humbling, scary and multi-layered process.
Humbling, because it felt a tall order for me – a British woman, with no direct experience of war, and whose knowledge of military terms was rudimentary before researching this book – to do justice to the words of an anonymous soldier. Our Frenchman’s name has long since vanished from the cover of his war diary, due to the ink fading over the course of a century while the brown cover of the journal stained darker. But his words live on, written painstakingly in their sepia copperplate, without a single spelling mistake. It has been my privilege to pick up the pen – or keyboard – and keep those words alive for an English-speaking readership, in an era he could never have guessed at.
And so it was that I found myself translating the words of someone I would never meet (my translating process usually benefits from the relationships and correspondences I have with my living authors). Someone about whom, despite the intimate act of my reading his private diary, I could only ever know comparatively little. As I began my translation in August 2013, I was conscious that it was ninety-nine years, almost to the day, since our “poilu” had put his life on the line, departing from Paris to fight for his country. (The word “poilu” literally means “shaggy” or “hairy”, because the ordinary French WW1 soldiers didn't shave: it is an equivalent term to the English “Tommy”.) Now, a hundred years after his first journal entry, Line of Fire has been published and English-speaking readers can discover his ordinary depiction of the extraordinary: his unique, everyday experience of what it meant to be a French foot soldier in the opening months of the ‘Great War’.
Scary, because as a translator I worry that I may somehow take away from the original: failing to capture the voice in its entirety, to conjure the man fairly, to evoke his acts of bravery and solidarity accurately, to tease out all the resonance of his telling details, the authentic echo in his humdrum search for a bottle of wine, or somewhere to lay his head. And I know that if I am wide of the mark, this man has no recourse against me. But then I remind myself that so much stands to be gained from rather than lost in translation. And that I have an astonishing collaborator on this project, an artist who is very much alive: Barroux.
Multi-layered, because Barroux's illustrations add brilliantly to the dusty words, found by the artist himself in a cardboard box “among smiles turned yellow with time”. Barroux’s thick pencil line drawings, sometimes spliced with collage, are subtle enough never to impose, always prompting us to guess at the life of our “poilu”. They offer us a glimpse both of an everyman figure and an historical individual. My challenge is to complement this process and, in doing so, serve two masters: the writer, long since vanished, and the illustrator who has brought that writer back to life. Of course, I must translate the words, but – and this is less obvious – my own words must also respond to the pictures. There is, if you like, a three-way conversation happening here, across two different time zones.
Luckily, I have been in this situation before, albeit in a very different context. A few years’ back, I translated a graphic novel version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic text The Little Prince. Joann Sfar, the radically inspiring artist responsible for this version (you may be familiar with his work from The Rabbi’s Cat), showed great respect for the original writing: keeping the words he used verbatim (exactly as Saint-Exupéry had written them), while abridging the whole book to roughly half the length. So I was dealing with a radically “shrunk” set of words, alongside pictures that daringly – iconoclastically – re-imagined the world of the little prince. The words I was translating belonged to Saint-Exupéry; but the world they inhabited was born out of Sfar’s visionary derring-do.
I was fascinating by having to look in two directions at once: left (to the text and the past), and right (to the pictures and the future). Once I’d produced a manuscript, I went through a detailed line-by-line edit with my editor. Next, came the surprising bit. I joined forces with the designer. While I stared at his screen – considering words not just for their meaning but as visual entities in their own right, in other words how they looked in the space – the designer dropped words into speech bubbles and took them out again, with a click of his Wacom tablet. If a speech bubble wasn’t quite working, he might adjust the font to suit the space better, or make sure there was enough ‘air’ (or gap around the edge); meanwhile, I suggested alternative vocabulary as I responded to the visual stimuli. We both knew when we’d hit on the right choice: cartoon language that read and sounded and looked like fresh poetic speech. For me, considering words in terms of the way they looked (as much as for their sound and meaning) was a revelation.
So, in the case of The Little Prince, the “register” or tone I was seeking to strike became a graphic question – literally. The same is true of Line of Fire.
Take the distinctive noses that Barroux gives his characters. These look more like masks than actual noses, and yet there is something clumsily, endearingly human about them. Barroux has told me that the aesthetic of the noses was a product of his rough sketches, where the noses were correct in their proportions, but deliberately token instead of realistic. Barroux expected to change the noses. As he worked up his sketches into final pictures for the book, however, he found himself retaining the abstract shape, which almost makes them look as if they’ve been strapped onto the faces. Partly, because there is an undeniable mystery and power to these nose-masks. And partly because he was reminded that the scale and volume of facial injuries incurred in the First World War led to the first wave of reconstructive surgery, which has today become known as plastic or cosmetic surgery. In its early days, the solutions were comparatively crude – sometimes little more than a piece of leather strapped over a hole; and the “surgeon” was more of a sculptor, as you can see in this video of Red Cross workers treating the war-injured in Paris in 1918: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8epVBKiMmns
Survivors of facial injuries were known as the “gueules cassés” (the men with ‘broken faces), which was an affectionate and respectful term, not a pejorative one.
Personally, I think the noses represent an artistic masterstroke by Barroux: they are true to the times he is depicting; they afford his figures an everyman or universal status; and they are his signature as a contemporary artist. He has set the bar very high indeed for the translation to jump over!
Still on the subject of tone and register, there is a profound difference between translating The Little Prince and Line of Fire. Which is that our “poilu” never intended his words to be read by anyone, let alone complete strangers, and certainly not YOU, the general reading public, across the Channel, a century into the future. What does this mean for my translation? Well, I must be sensitive to the fact that this kind of writing is not trying to show off, or be LOUD – these are someone’s quiet thoughts, written as a means of recording what is happening to him in extraordinary and frightening circumstances. I found it surprising how much such a deceptively “plain style” text changed radically with each re-drafting. I was fascinated by the way in which an anonymous but coherent voice gradually emerged in the process of translation - rather like the developing process in photography.
Next, I needed think about the kind of readership we were aiming to reach, since the author had no intentions of his own on that front. I was also aware that Phoenix Yard Books is mainly a children’s publisher, but that with Line of Fire we were aiming both for a young and a grown up readership – so I needed to choose my words with that in mind. Our intention was to publish war diaries that speak to our times and to new readers, as opposed to serving up a facsimile in translation.
So, while resisting the urge to “improve” the text, there were rare instances where I, or my editor, wanted to tidy it up a little in order to make it read more smoothly for our English readership, or in relation to Barroux’s illustrations (yes, we’re back to how the words look in the space!) For instance, the entry for Friday 21st August 2014 reads: By the side of the road, a pair of modest crosses marks the spot where two soldiers died. In the French, our poilu wrote “two” both times – whereas I’m lightly ‘touching up’ here, by introducing the synonym of “a pair”. Similarly, a very small amount of extra punctuation was introduced.
For the record, our soldier seems to have been reasonably well educated, and he writes in plain-style correct French. While he is an ordinary soldier keeping a diary, as opposed to an officer or someone with “literary” aspirations, issues of dialect and vernacular don’t particularly apply. His preferred tense is the emphatic dramatic present. His recurrent use of “nous voilà” (here we are) conveys a sense of him penning his diary almost in the heat of action. I tried to strike a balance between using reasonably “correct” or formal language, written out in full (which is largely how the diary is expressed), and occasional contractions, to reflect the actual diary “tone” and to avoid the words sounding over-stilted in English.
Reading out loud is often the true test of a translation – are there any false notes? This is particularly relevant here, both for a young readership, and since we might loosely describe this book as an oral history. In this spirit, I conducted some oral research. I sat for many hours with my father, himself a keen French and German speaker, and the last reluctant intake of compulsory National Service in Britain (he served in post-war Germany in the 1950’s). Together, we worked through the text and talked about what equivalent English military terms might be. Not necessarily the official terms recorded in military and history books, but the lay, spoken version of those terms amongst enlisted men.
As I tried to strike the right tone for Line of Fire – period-specific "chipper", but no silly rip-off of Blackadder in the trenches – I realised that the challenges I faced weren’t dissimilar to those I tackle when trying to recreate youth slang from the tough streets of the Paris suburbs in my translations of the young French/Algerian novelist Faïza Guène (where I must avoid serving up an Ali G hybrid).
You could argue that my anxiety about how to make our “poilu” leap fresh from the page, in the English version, is something that underpins every translation. Whether working on fiction or an illustrated verbatim account, whether translating someone with whom I share plenty in common or else whose life experiences are worlds apart from mine, I must make the imaginative leap that allows me to bring their words alive in English. The next leap of imagination is your own. After the translator, comes the reader.
Sarah Ardizzone, February 2014