Mariette Robbes is the translator of A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna, a picture book that transports readers to Paris via the whimsical character of a lion. He ambles through the cityscape including a few iconic landmarks, before finding the perfect spot to settle down. An English translation was published last year by Katha Publishing in India.
UK: Mariette, how did you come to translate this book for Katha?
MR: I first came to know about Katha as a publishing house and a non profit organization while settling down in India for a few months, to volunteer with them. The project that many Indian publishers have of combining both quality publishing and a social program, is very rare in France, and surprising.
My main task was to assist them in a research program regarding early childhood education perspectives in India, especially in the context of urban poverty. I am not a professional translator. I was helped in this task by Anupama, then Katha's children's book editor.
UK: Writing, even writing short text, involves revision. How about translation?
MR: I suppose any kind of writing does need revision, to be the most accurate possible. For short texts, every word counts, and translation needs to give that back. I think the difficulty of it depends a lot of the initial text. Beatrice Alemagna, the writer of A lion in Paris uses a rhythmic language, with short and sharp sentences. It helped a lot.
UK: You have some beautiful lines here: Here's a snippet I loved: "All the people below looked like ants. This pleased him very much." So simple and direct and yet reading them out loud, I can see how those words would directly channel a young reader's consciousness into the visual image on that spread: a dizzying aerial view of streets and traffic and those tiny people dotted everywhere. How do you pick the perfect words when you're working between languages that may share common roots but often have very different idioms.
MR: While listening to a story children react very strongly to the words chosen, and to the picture paired with them. They have a very strong capacity of empathy ; if the story awakens emotions in them, then it's working. While translating, I think you have to be mindful to choose a word that have the same power as the original.
The difficulty is to feel as many nuances in one language as in the other, to be able to bridge gaps between words. In a way, the translator has to make his own map of the languages to bring closer.
UK: A picture book has such brief text. Every word counts. What did you aim to preserve in working with such spare source material?
MR: I tried to preserve the writer's choices and her specific use of French language, by respecting the ternary rhythm she keeps in the book, and to keep the lightness of it.
UK: Were there any particularly daunting moments?
MR: Yes. When the Lion discover the Beaubourg museum in Paris (the one he thinks is a big factory) and suddenly the sun lights up behind the glass building, chasing away the grey Parisian sky that depressed him earlier. I had a difficult time translating this one !
UK: Thank you Mariette! And good luck with future projects.