The French writer reveals the secrets of translating a great novel

The French translator of one of America’s most acclaimed novels in 2022 talked about how her work sheds light on subtle cultural differences.

Translated by Pauline Loquin Night crawl Leile Mottley, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Prix Médicis Etranger in France.

The award is a recognition of authors in translation “whose fame does not yet match their talent”, and in the end it was won by the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov for gray bees.

Ms. Loquin says that translation “reveals the workings of a society, how its people interact with each other.”

She adds: “One of the aspects of translation that I find most fascinating is the way language reflects the way speakers think.

The British and the French communicate differently

“The British and the French do not communicate in exactly the same way in their languages.”

Read more: Five French words we use in English…and vice versa

Night crawling (Arpenter la nuit in French) is an example, she says.

It offers a window into the mind of 17-year-old protagonist Kiara as she navigates the marginalized spaces of Oakland, California in search of work.

As her rent rises due to gentrification, she tries to care for a little boy whose drug-addicted mother has disappeared, while “begging for shifts at the liquor store and counting how many crackers are left in the cupboard.”

Ms. Loquin was drawn to translation after acting in numerous French and English plays.

While performing in them, she says, she began to notice the different translations that existed and how they compared to the original.

“That’s how I started doing my first amateur translations. “I have always been fascinated by JRR Tolkien, so I translated some of his texts for my non-English speaking friends.

I developed a taste for it and decided to train to make it my profession

I developed a taste for it and decided to study to make it my profession.” After completing her studies, Mrs. Loquin participated in the translation of Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earthand has also revised other translations of Tolkien-related texts.

While those projects required an appreciation of the otherworldly intricacies of Middle Earth, Nightcrawling presented a different challenge in replicating the colloquial style and poetic rhythm of its narrative.

The novel’s author, Leila Mottley, is also a published poet, and her writing is full of lines like “the way her cheekbones jiggle like apples” and “adult playgrounds masquerading as street corners.”

This lyric sits within a conversational cadence, as if Kiara is speaking directly to the reader, and Ms. Loquin says that producing something grammatically correct while retaining Leila’s poetry was not easy.

“Kiara is an intelligent girl. Even though she doesn’t go to school anymore, she thinks about things, she’s interested in things, and we shouldn’t think differently just because her speech isn’t perfectly correct.”

After writing the first few chapters, Ms. Loquin sent them to the publisher for approval, who then allowed her to go ahead and finish the book.

However, she was in email contact with the author throughout the translation process and was able to ask any questions – for example about nuances of phrasing.

She describes the whole process as “collaborative”. Mrs. Loquin was also guided by the author’s poetic creativity.

“Before I started translating, I read some of her poems so that I could direct the language in that direction,” she says.

“Another thing I decided with my editor was the need to adapt the language to our audience.

“The word ‘je** appears frequently in the original, but I have not always replaced it with the French equivalent, as it would seem extremely rude in French.

‘It’s bad in English, but it’s even worse in French’

“You have to find tricks to reflect that natural language of the street, but avoid caricature and keep the lyricism.”

Translation is not just a mechanical transfer of the meaning of words into another language – Ms. Loquin was also eager to evoke an “immersive” sense of how Kiara’s surroundings shape the atmosphere of the novel.

“You really need to immerse yourself in the Oakland universe, which I’ve never been to,” she says.

“Leila grew up there, so the city is almost like a character in itself.

I spent many hours on Google Street View so that I could follow Kiara’s movements and give much more tangible descriptions of the building or street and absorb the sense of the characters’ lives.

“Also, in Night crawl the emphasis is on music, so I listened a lot, especially to the artists mentioned in the novel, to give myself a rhythm and to guide me.”

Ms Loquin says she was “extremely touched” by the discovery Arpenter la nuit he was chosen as one of the finalists of the Prix Médicis, and he delighted Leila Mottley as well.

Read more: English-language titles rank highly among France’s top 50 books

“I was so happy for Leila because she wrote this novel with such honesty.

I think she spoke wholeheartedly about Kiara’s life, which is a reflection of some people’s reality.

“As for the first novel, I think it’s really beautiful and that both he and Leila deserve to be introduced to the whole literary world.

She wrote this at the age of 17, with such maturity.”

As to whether Ms Loquin has any aspirations of her own to write a novel – watch this space.

“I’ve often felt ambitious,” she admits, “and there are some recent attempts, but I’ve never completed them.

One day maybe!”

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