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A Quick Way to Die: Humor in Translation

by Julia Marshall

For humor to work, someone has to find it funny. There are many ways to kill a book, and trying to be funny and failing would be one of the quicker yet most painful. And that includes translated books.

At Gecko Press here in Wellington, we handpick children’s books by some of the best writers and illustrators in the world and translate and publish them in English — for sale in New Zealand, North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom. We choose books we consider excellent in story, illustration, and design, with a strong “heart” factor — books we think are “curiously good.” Often they are funny.

As Gecko Press founder, publisher, and sometimes-translator of sometimes-funny books, I know that the humor is all in the detail. A translation needs to capture the tone and spirit of the original, and also its rhythms. If the story is a good read-aloud in its original language, the translation must be, too. Comic timing is everything. And tone. The right word, and the right word left out. Just like in any good book! The translator must work with punch, take risks, be brave.

Some writers are without doubt easier to translate than others, funny or not — it is easier when the humor is to do with the narrative content, rather than wordplay or wit. It takes a better sometimes-translator than I to pull off a pun, for example. Or a poem. But if there are puns in the original, there must be puns in the translation. They may need to be different from those in the original, and it takes a brave and gifted translator to achieve that — or a brave and gifted editor. The fewer the words, the harder it is.

And picture books are often the hardest, because they are like little poems in which every word must work a seventy-five-hour week at least.

Gecko Press recently published a book of few words in which translating the humor was very challenging, according to translator Daniel Hahn. Written and illustrated by Éric Veillé and translated from the French, it is a “before and after” picture book for preschoolers called My Pictures After the Storm. The humor here is in the sound and rhythm of the words across the page — and up and down it — as well as in the content and how it relates to the pictures. Before Daniel began translating, he wrote about the trials ahead (in Asymptote, June 1, 2016):

I’m about to begin work on a picture book for very young children, in which each page has a set of words that gets repeated in a slightly distorted form on the page opposite. One left-hand page shows “un papa fâché” — a picture of dad looking angry — and on the right, this has become “un papa fourchette” — a picture of dad transformed into a fork. (I can think of plenty of plays on words involving lively things that sound like “fork,” and so can you, but none of them for a book for pre-schoolers.) On another page there’s a boy on a sailboat, and in the facing page the wind has blown his towel off and we’ve gone from “un bateau à voile” (sailing boat) to “un bateau à poil” (boat in the nude). It’s going to be exceptionally hard to make this book work in English — in proportion to the tiny number of words in the book, almost certainly the biggest challenge I’ve faced — and I just can’t wait to get started. Yeah, it’s true, we translators know how to have fun.

He did know how to have fun, and we do enjoy the result. On the page titled “After the hairdresser,” the “billy goat” has become a “silly goat” (with braids); the “lion-tamer unconcerned” becomes a “lion-tamer nicely permed” (with a new pink hairdo); the “wily dog” turns into a “woolly dog” (curled). On the second spread Daniel talks about above, he chose to translate the sailing boat pairing as “boy on a ship” and “boy in the nip.” Beautiful! And the “papa fâché”—“dad having a talk” (his finger wagging at us, his mouth shouting) — has become “un papa fourchette” or “dad being a fork.” Take that, Dad. And nicely solved, Daniel, without moving beyond age appropriateness.

The job of the editor is very important in the translation of a funny book. Meet Penelope Todd, editor of many Gecko Press books. Penelope (who is especially good at jokes, puns, and poems) is a crucial person in the translation of much of what we do. But her job is not the same as that of an editor developing original content or acquiring manuscripts. The book itself should be very good by default when it reaches her — as opposed to a manuscript reaching an editor and still needing editorial work — because the original publisher has done all the thinking about character development or plot, or any of the normal structural problems an editor can face. Instead, the editor of a translation needs to concentrate on voice and tone and fluidity; she must make sure the humor works and that there are no barriers between the story and the reader.

At Gecko Press we edit twice: once for voice and then again for Americanness (or Britishness, if we have worked with a U.S. translator), as it is important not to lose readers on either side of the Atlantic. Because we publish in many different markets, our translations must ideally be in international English that reaches the hearts of all our readers, and this adds another dimension to the work of the translator.

I have learned, however, that compromise is not always a bad thing. In I Am So Strong by the late Belgian author Mario Ramos, the French “misérable artichaut” was translated to “miserable gherkin” for the British English edition published by Gecko Press. A direct translation into American English would have been “miserable pickle,” but instead “miserable gizzard” was what we used for the American market — a translation that kept the right sounds and spirit but sidestepped the pickle: “miserable pickle” somehow has less panache than “miserable gizzard.” I love “miserable gizzard” even better than “miserable gherkin” — so this was a lesson to me that sometimes compromise can lead to better things.

For me, wearing my translator hat, the stories of Swedish author Ulf Nilsson, writer of the Detective Gordon books (a rather tired toad detective who loves cakes and fairness for all in his forest, in equal measure), are a pleasure to translate and much easier than the problems encountered in a picture book text. Nilsson is a master of understated humor. As a keen observer of human/animal nature, Detective Gordon is quick to spot weakness in character. Many times it is his own. He is not always at his best, though he tries hard to be. When we laugh at Detective Gordon, we are often laughing kindly at ourselves.

For a translator, Nilsson’s writing is a boon: it is down-to-earth and flows easily into English. Quite often the funny happens when we hear what Detective Gordon is thinking. Or it is in what is not being said, for the reader to enjoy in private. It is in the dialogue, the behavior of the characters.

In the most recent Detective Gordon book, A Case in Any Case, there are the small animals who run around the classroom calling out to the book they have lost as if it can hear them. There is Gordon reading aloud from a book, Funny Stories About Mice and Toads:

Gordon read a funny story. It was a little hard to hear what he was saying because he kept laughing to himself. His belly bounced and the bed shook.

There is the lovely scene in which tiny Elliot reprimands the large, retired Chief Detective Gordon and the very small Chief Detective Buffy (mouse):

Then the baby mole Elliot came forward and stood between them.

“This is not nursery school,” he said in his little voice. “Only old people call it that. It’s actually called kindergarten. And here in kindergarten we’re supposed to be friendly and kind to each other.”

“Hmph,” said both Gordon and Buffy.

“Here in kindergarten we say sorry when we’ve been silly.”

“Hmph,” they said again.

“And then we sing the sorry song.” Elliot held out his hands…

Though Gordon occasionally succumbs to weakness, he is always of high character and is a role model for his forest community. A police officer should be kind and good and also proper. A strong sense of fairness and justice runs through the Detective Gordon books as counterpoint to the humor of human nature being what it is. (My father says: “Human nature! There’s a lot of it around.”) And there is a lot of human nature — albeit in animal guise — in the stories of Detective Gordon.

For the translator, everything is there in the Swedish text, simple and good. There are no acrobatics or conniptions required, just a good translation and a solid edit.

There is much in the stories of Detective Gordon that might usefully be applied to the adult world, politically and otherwise. Perhaps it is the Swedish sense of fairness and justice coming through. Even the police realize they should investigate themselves if necessary. Is it funny that the children know better how to behave than those who are running the show?

For the adult reader, that is less than funny. But it does translate.

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Humor.

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