Prospection isn’t always the most gratifying part of my job as an independent translator. But sometimes, it can be incredibly exciting. It was the case when I visited a narrative game conference which took place in London on November 4-5: AdventureX.
AdventureX is an event organized by passionate people, for passionate people. Since 2011, they have gathered each year the big names in game narrative, for talks on a variety of topics. For instance, those I attended this year were about, amongst other things, the use of history as a source of inspiration (Sagar Beroshi), the representation of medical conditions in video games (Marina Sciberras), or “making games for real”, that is how to infuse games with reality without doing so artificially (Chella Ramanan). I went out of every talk with way too many notes, and a new perspective on things.
But AdventureX isn’t simply a conference: it’s also an exhibition with many games on display. I made great discoveries over there, like Underground Blossom (from Rusty Lake studio), which I had a hard time letting go of, or Windrush Tales. This game tries to tell a personal history of the Windrush generation, these African-Caribbeans who arrived in Britain after the war to help rebuild a country which didn’t welcome them as they deserved. Unlike what happens at bigger events, I didn’t only try these games and listen to a marketing spiel: I was able to talk at length with the writers and developers. Although they were all quite tired (some having come from quite far), they were all very interested in my questions, and very interesting themselves.
And since we were in England, this already packed days ended, of course, at the pub. There, we were able to continue conversations we had started earlier. When you’re so busy talking that you forget about handing out business cards (I’m very good at networking, obviously), it’s a rather good sign.
Long story short, my first time at AdventureX was a resounding success: insightful talks, attendants who were both engaging and welcoming, and many games which I know eagerly await the release. All of it presented by the debonair Alasdair Beckett-King, whose Youtube channel I invite you to check out if you want a laugh. Besides, all the talks from the previous years are available on AdventureX’s own channel. Those from this year should be uploaded before long. Something to watch while we wait for AdventureX 2024, which I will definitely attend. Can’t wait!
At the beginning of the year, I told myself “come on, try and write one post a month about your daily life as a translator, it’ll be interesting and it shouldn’t take too long”. Well, that didn’t happen. So here are some jumbled news, taken from the aforementioned daily life, which has been busier than I’d planned:
1/ I’ve handed in my very first novel translation! I can’t say anything about it, which is horribly frustrating (see picture below), but I’m happy with my work. Now, I’m waiting for the publisher’s feedback. And I’m… not entirely relaxed about it.
2/ My other big project, a video game, now has a release date! Under the Waves (Parallel Studio) releases on 29 August 2023, and I can’t wait to hear the texts I’ve translated voiced by the various actors and actresses. Here, too, I’ll have to be patient.
3/ Since February, I’ve been working for Jordan Mechner. Yes, THE Jordan Mechner, who created Prince of Persia in 1989, that is the very first video game I’ve ever played. I was thus extremely proud to translate the annex to his fantastic autobiographical graphic novel, Replay (Delcourt, 2023). As funny as it is touching, this tale will be enjoyed by those who find interesting the links between History and our personal stories. If you want to know more about its creation, you can find the annex here.
4/ My work for the éditions Skira is turning into a regular collaboration. After contributing to a splendid book on photographer Michael Kenna last year, I’ve translated two articles for the catalogue of the exhibition entitled “Leonardo Da Vinci and Anatomy, the Mechanics of Life”, running from 9 June to 17 September at the Clos Lucé. I’m not sure if I’ll some day get used to receiving free author copies, but for the moment it hasn’t ceased to amaze me.
And that’s it for today! I’ve been busy since the beginning of this year, which is often good news as a freelancer, but I’ll try not to get buried in the job; my goal: writing more than a single post every six months. Fingers crossed!
It’s been three months since I’ve finished this book, and I only bring myself to write this post today. I am awed by it. Not that it is unapproachable, like some of the great translation classics (Benjamin’s “The Translator’s Task“, for instance). On the contrary, Grunenwald’s essay is written in a quite simple, even welcoming language. But it is certainly not without depth, and it is doing something important. This short post will surely not do it justice, but I hope you’ll come out of it wanting to take a look at this book.
Many theoretical essays on translation are articulated to works of translation, their practical counterparts: Benjamin’s essay was thus the preface to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens. In many cases however, I find that, when faced with a theoretical text presented alongside the result of a specific practice of translation, I have a hard time linking theory and practice. It is definitely not the case here. Throughout the whole essay, Grunenwald associates thought and doing. What better example of it than her chapter headings, which are as many verbs pointing to a specific aspect of what translating is: abandoning oneself, improvising, submitting oneself, decentring (oneself), interpreting, correcting, widening, including?, learning, weaving, citing. [s’abandonner, improviser, se soumettre, (se) décentrer, interpréter, corriger, élargir, inclure ?, apprendre, tisser, citer.]
Translating is all that. Even before putting pen to paper, it is creating the material conditions of a translation by improvising and doing odd jobs. It is interpreting a text and making its author reflect upon the gender of “thinkers” in French, and making her text more precise by confronting it with another language. It is including by wondering what image you want to conjure when you translate “workers”: the manly union camaraderie of “travailleurs“, or a more exact view of history, in this specific case, of “travailleuses“. It is learning to find the right neologisms, getting things wrong sometimes, but always being willing to start over. It is citing, because one should never forget that translation is a collective practice. And it’s also, quite often, researching a bunch of things on Google or on the CRISCO’s dictionary of synonyms, trivial acts Grunenwald nevertheless featured in her essay because that too, when translating, constitutes your daily life.
Sur les bouts de la langue is a very intimate text, reminding us that translators are people who have a lived history. It’s also a very humble text: “No need for much talent, or for any particular inspiration, says Grunenwald. Only a few techniques of literary manipulation.” (p. 150) But it isn’t an apologetic text. Rather a militant one, telling us that Translating as a feminist doesn’t mean writing a new handbook, or creating new inclusive writing norms that will soon be appropriated by the dominant class to start excluding again. It means staying “constantly on the move, and fostering unease.” (p. 100)
There’s a lot more to say on this book: on how Grunenwald articulates the personal and the political, theory and practice, life and translation. On the richness of its bibliography, and how the author applies all she has learned from it. But I need more time to understand it, to process it. I’ll limit myself to concluding by saying that everyone should read it. It’s a text that’s made me want to read better, to think, to work better. Which reminded me of the beauty, the difficulty and the importance of this job. And which I won’t stop reading anytime soon, as long as I’ll be translating.
There are those authors you wish you could translate, and Stephen Graham Jones is one of them for me. I discovered his work during my internship at the éditions Rivages in 2021: they asked for my thoughts on The Only Good Indians, and whether we should translate it. I was both convinced and enthusiastic: this tribute to slasher movies dealing with what it means to be an Indian today is a gem, as raw in its tone as it is refined in its language. Roughly a year later, the deed is done: Un Bon indien est un indien mort has been published, and the French press loves it.
I wasn’t lucky enough to translate SGJ’s work. However, when I attended a conference he gave at the America book festival in Vincennes, near Paris, I was lucky enough to act as his interpreter for an interview with a crime fiction blog called Nyctalopes. Stephen proved to be both a very nice and interesting fellow in person and so, despite having spent more than enough on books for the month, I gave in to literary temptation and bought Galeux (La Volte, 2020), the French translation of Mongrels and his only other novel available in that language. I gobbled up this werewolf story, and I would like to take a quick look at a short passage of Mathilde Montier’s excellent translation. Be careful then, some minor spoilers below.
But first, some context: Darren, the teenage narrator, is here talking about werewolf/human hybrids which are abominations according to the werewolf tradition. Here is the original description in English:
Darren said that Grandpa’s name for them was Sad Eyes, but I’d always thought he heard wrong. They’re supposed to have these human-looking eyes, but “Sad Eyes” feels like a corruption of something Arabic. Like they’ve known these animals over there as well. If they are even animals.
And here is Mathilde Montier’s French translation:
Grandpa les appelait apparemment des Maussades, mais j’ai toujours été persuadé que Darren avait mal entendu. Ils avaient beau avoir ces yeux à l’expression si humaine, ce nom sonnait à mon oreille comme une corruption de l’hébreu. À croire qu’on connaissait aussi ces animaux, là-bas. Si on peut parler d’animaux.
I don’t think “Sad Eyes” points to any specific word in Arabic. But even if it were the case, you would be hard put to find a nickname for these hybrids that would sound close in French (the /ɑɪz/ ending being non-existent in French). Rather than translating this bit out, Montier has had an idea for a semantic shift that is very clever in several ways.
First, by replacing Arabic with Hebrew, she keeps a Semitic language, and thus the perceived distance from the daily life of an American teenager. Then, “Maussade”, which could translate as “sullen”, keeps the idea of sadness pertaining to the tragic condition of these hunted hybrids. Finally, this word is an homophone of the Hebrew “Mossad”, shorthand for the Israeli special forces which the reader might have encountered before. In a way, the Middle-East is referred to in an even clearer way than in the original, which is almost improved upon.
I love these excerpts you pay little attention to when reading, but which must have been a bona fide translation problem. I’m willing to bet that Montier pulled her hair out at least for a bit before she finally found her (very elegant) solution. Kudos to her!
As for you, go read yourself some Stephen Graham Jones if you haven’t already. In English, in French, doesn’t matter as long as you do.
It’s back to school time! And for only the second time in over thirty years, I’m not part of it. Indeed, I’m wrapping up my first year as an independent translator, and it’s time to take stock (and for some quite good news.)
First, and most importantly: I love this job. Despite the rhythm changes (some weeks are packed, others utterly chill), the uncertainty (switching from a reliable teacher job to “hmm, how much am I going to earn next month?”), and a financial downturn (caviar days are over!), I wouldn’t go back for all the gold in the world. Getting up in the morning with no more serious professional issues (apart from having my invoices paid…) than finding how to translate such and such particularly tricky phrase… it’s pure joy. At least it is to me.
Secondly, and quite importantly: I’ve had more than enough work. After a lull which lasted from October to December 2021, during which nobody seemed to need my services (except from actezéro, thanks to them, I’ll come back to that), I was lucky enough to be hired by the Warlocs, a collective of game localisers. Since then, probably because the more you work, the more you work, I’ve had my hands full. Here are the main projects I’ve worked on:
Tombstar (Steam, with the Warlocs), a twin stick shooter with rogue-like elements, in a space-western absurd setting. Many stupid puns, and a very funny game I’ve translated in collaboration with Killian Nari.
Lord Winklebottom Investigates (Steam, with the Warlocs), a point’n’click in which a giraffe and an hippo troublingly reminiscent of Sherlock & Watson investigate the death of an axolotl. A very weird and resolutely British tone that I quite liked. I’ve only translated a part of it, the rest having been done by Christophe Pallarès, a.k.a. “boss” (he loves when I call him that).
Sunshine Manor (Steam, with the Warlocs), a horrific hommage to 8-bit Japanese RPGs, in which you explore a haunted manor and try to help its denizens. A nostalgic trip for those who love pixelated horror.
Under the Waves (Steam, for actezéro), a submarine narrative adventure game developed by the French of Parallel Studio, with actezéro at the narrative helm. They entrusted me with translating Rik Godwin’s prose, and let’s just say I cannot wait for you to get your hands on the game (not before 2023, as far as I know).
Outside of localisation work, I’ve also translated the preface of a book on Michael Kenna‘s tree photographs, to be published by Skira. It’s allowed me to discover the fabulous work of an artist I only knew by name. I’ve also translated the subtitles for two short documentaries featured in the next exhibition at the EPFL, Cosmos Archeology (16.9.2022–5.2.2023).
Last but not least, and it might not for you but it means a lot to me: I was hired to translate my first novel! I can’t say much more than that, except that it’ll be published by Payot & Rivages, and more precisely by Rivages Noir since it is crime fiction… Which means that someday, in bookshops, there’ll be a book in which you’ll be able to read “Translated by Clément Martin”… which is crazy.
To wrap it all up, I feel infinitely lucky, and I’m starting this new (school) year with a lot of enthusiasm for all the projects to come — and with a book to translate! What a life. Who would’ve thought?
This cryptic title is the abbreviation used for the activity I’ve been busy with for the past months: localisation (L + 10 letters (count them!) + n — clever, innit?) But what is localisation? Mainly, it is the name given to software, videogame and website translation. Why a different name? Because although localisation is a form of translation, with all the cultural adaptation it entails, it has technical specificities which I will discuss briefly.
First, a bit of context: last January, Warlocs, an independent collective of translators, were kind enough to entrust me with the translation of Not Tonight 2. In this game, you play three friends travelling across dystopian United States to save a fourth one who was captured by a group of quasi-Trumpian extremists. To fund their journey, they work as bouncers: the core gameplay is time-limited document verification, inspired by the most excellent Papers, Please.
So I enthusiastically dived in the pages… or rather the files. As usual in this field, some 70000 words were sent to me as spreadsheets, where each line can represent a bit of the interface, a narration paragraph, a dialogue line, etc. It is a bit daunting at first, but you get used to it. During the translation, I encountered three main difficulties that were specific to localisation.
First, the character limits. The expansion rate, well-known to book publishers, must be watched very closely when localising. For instance, a book in English usually grows by 10 to 20% when translated into French. Although it is acceptable for dialogue lines, it can be absolutely impossible for UI elements which have only limited space (see for example how many letters there are in the French translations of “run”). That’s why in the picture above, there are three columns on the right side which I use to count the number of characters in English, in French, and the expansion rate, which turns red when it goes above 10%. I was always watching it when translating.
Next, the problems with spreadsheets themselves. Translating a text is usually quite linear, but it’s not necessarily the case here: the authors’ texts, often written with other tools, may appear in an arbitrary order once converted to spreadsheet format. Some dialogues must then be translated out of order, which makes any form of consistency and flow hard to achieve. Another issue: the identifiers of each line (Who is speaking? In what scene?) can lack clarity or contain errors, which means you have to be extra watchful. Thankfully, the developers had given us a beta version of the game to help us evaluate the context of each line, but it is a luxury that most localisers are not given.
Finally, you can’t always translate everything. Although the spreadsheets contain most of the game’s texts, it’s sometimes not the case for words appearing in background pictures. Let’s take an example from Not Tonight 2: there is a cult called “the Creed cult”, which you could translate by “la secte du crédo” (“crédo” is “creed” in French). However, the word “Creed” was present in the level background, and not translatable, so I’ve had to keep it and work around it. My translation then became “la secte Creed”, while its members, the “Creedsmen” in the original, became… “les Creediens”. I like this translation because it has religious overtones — “Creediens” sounds like Chrétien (=Christian) in French — but I might not have used it if I could have translated everything.
There are ways to prepare all the game’s elements for them to be translatable (this process is known as internationalisation, or i18n — i + 18 letters + n — can’t get enough of this). It is not always possible, however, or even desirable, and it can represent an unwelcome cost for a small studio.
Localisation implies quite a few more constraints: one among these (which I didn’t have to deal with in this case) is translating lines that will be recorded by actors, which entails all sorts of problems that audiovisual translators know well. In the end, although all these parameters sometimes feel like you were given an impossible mission, localisation is a fascinating job, and one I really love. I will have more occasions to write about it, and to dive deeper, because I will work with the Warlocs on several more projects. In any case, if these few words allowed you to have a quick look behind the scenes, be sure to be indulgent next time a localisation seems a bit off: the translator has surely done everything they could!
Although I have worked in the publishing industry and I know that a book is a product like any other, I still have some reverence for the physical object. The Lexinomicon, a one-page RPG by Grant Howitt and Becky Annison, lets us desacrate said object once and for all.
What’s the goal, you say? To reveal the truths and entities hidden behind the words by doing all sorts of things to a paperback: blacking out some words, cutting out some others, introducing new characters in the margins themselves, burning and other unholy treatments. Translating it was very fun: recreating the layout was tricky (the original having been scissored & glued together), but the main challenge was to render the vaguely ominous tone of the English version.
Disclaimer: I had lots of fun translating this, but I still haven’t brought myself to play it… Maybe you’ll be braver than I have been! You will find my French translation here and the original there.
On this blog, I would like to write about the translations I’m working on, both to show how the sausage is made and to bring myself to explain my translation decisions. This way, I’ll be able to further convince myself — and maybe you too — that they are relevant. (At a given time, of course: you always find fault with a translation you come back to later on.)
I’ll start then with the translation I’ve worked on for my Master’s degree: The Breath of the Sun (Aqueduct Press, 2018), by Isaac Fellman. There were several difficult aspects to this book, and I wasn’t sure which part to present here. The short-lived (and dishonest) crusade against the French neutral pronoun “iel” (which you can read about here) helped me decide, since I did use the infamous pronoun in my translation.
First, some context: the narrator, Lamat, has recently met Disaine, a scientist and former priestess. Disaine wants to hire Lamat as a guide to climb the mountain sitting atop of their world, the top of which, legend has it, goes beyond the stratosphere. Lamat belongs to the Holoh people: this mountain is a god to them, and they can’t climb it without respecting some complex ceremonies. Disaine implies that Lamat hasn’t had much trouble breaking her people’s taboos.
Here is her answer:
The original (p. 14):
“It wasn’t that,” I said, and looked over the basket at the side of the mountain, with its billion footholds in the snow. Snow on God’s body, dry and fine. “It wasn’t easy to break at all. But I thought — and I still think, even though it was such a disaster, even though people died and marriages ended…” “Yes?” “I grew up being told that God doesn’t want us to climb. That we wound Them with our feet, that we blood Them with our fingernails. And that I’m not sure it’s true. The Holoh are the only people who are visible to God. Why would They choose us, if not so that we could someday see Them face to face?”
– Ce n’est pas ça », ai-je répondu en regardant, derrière la nacelle, la montagne et ses milliards de points d’appui dans la neige. De la neige sur le corps de Dieu, sèche et fine. « Ça n’a pas été facile du tout. Mais je me suis dit – et je me dis encore, malgré le désastre, même s’il y a eu des morts et des mariages brisés… – Oui ? – On m’a toujours dit que Dieu ne voulait pas qu’on grimpe. Que nos pieds Læ blessaient, que nos ongles L’écorchaient. Et je ne suis pas sûre que ce soit vrai. Les Holohs sont le seul peuple visible aux yeux de Dieu. Pourquoi nous choisirait-Iel, sinon pour que nous puissions un jour Læ voir en face ? »
Lamat uses the singular “They” to talk about God/the mountain, and the capital T reinforces the divine character of that being. Her using it is all the more interesting since Disaine uses “He”, the male singular pronoun, to talk about that same god. Theological discussions are frequent in the book, and it is important to render them in all their nuances. There is thus no way I could neutralise this difference in French and have both characters use the masculine singular pronoun il, all the more since gender is a central theme of the book.
At this stage, the translator worries. How are you supposed to translate this, in a language supposedly so hostile to gender-neutral terms? If using the singular they is perfectly appropriate in English (since at least 1375, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us), French is sorely lacking in the neutral pronoun department… at least that’s what I thought. Further research in the matter brought me to iel, of course, but I’ve also encountered ael, al, el, ol, ul, yel and even ille. Some of these are regionalisms, some already existing in Middle or Old French while some others are more recent creations, but there are many possibilities.
However, these are pronouns that few French readers are used to encountering. My translation would then automatically feel unfamiliar in a way that the original doesn’t, which is why I decided to use “iel” so as to make that discomfort minimal: a French reader understands it is a mix of il and elle, and it sounds common enough in French to not sound too alien.
That being settled, I still had to deal with “Them”. Again, the translator worries. It would indeed be regrettable to use the gender-neutral pronoun iel only to then pick the gendered objet pronouns le or la which would bring back Lamat’s neutral god to a male or female gender. More research led to more discoveries: I had at my disposal object pronouns such as Lo, Lea, Lu or even Lae. Lamat’s people feeling tradition-oriented and speaking a language that is somewhat archaic, I opted for using Lae and adding a ligature to get Læ (rather rare in French, tied letters mainly appear in borrowings from Latin, which gives this pronoun a more historical feel).
This aren’t necessarily pronouns I use on a daily basis. I seldom read them, and hear them even less frequently, but I felt they would be the most appropriate option for this text. Of course, a reader who has never come across them will probably stumble at first: they will wonder briefly what iel is referring to, how to pronounce læ… But they will also perceive another aspect of what differentiates the two main characters, and it is my hope that they will understand better the book and its world because of this decision.