The gift of translation
I was chatting to the Hebrew translator of Nim’s Island today, because she’s about to start work on Nim at Sea – and it struck me what authors owe to their translators. It’s a strange relationship, because more often than not there’s no contact at all; the overseas publisher chooses the translator and I usually hear nothing in between receiving the contract and the arrival of the finished book. And of course, unless it’s in French, even when I’m holding it, I have no way of knowing what the words inside it actually say.
So what faith I need to have in that translator! Translating a story isn’t about replacing each English word with its Hungarian or Hebrew equivalent. It’s about hearing the voice of the story, the music and rhythm of the language that makes that story unique, and finding a way to retell that in her own language. It’s the gift that ensures that a Basque speaking child gains the same experience from the book as a child in Korea, and that they’re both reading the story I wrote.
It will never be exactly the same, of course – but then, no two readers ever read exactly the same book. We all bring our lives, moods and distractions to what we read; it’s coloured by all sorts of things that the author had nothing to do with. In fact every time I reread a book it seems slightly different. And of course the differences between one translation and the next will be more different from that.
But my friend in France, a girl I started kindergarten with (Jacqueline in Yasou Nikki) said that when she read L’ile de Nim (Nim’s Island in French) she could hear my voice. And to me, that describes exactly why I’m grateful to my translators.
Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio