Friday, August 18, 2006

INTERVIEW: Anthea Bell, Part 1

Cornelia Funke's children's books are the very definition of enchanting. Whether you're considering her works for younger children (e.g. Dragon Rider) or older ones (e.g. Inkheart, Inkspell), her storylines are unique and absorbing. But it's her voice that we find particularly noteworthy for all its fluid grace, its hint of poetry. So what a shocker when we first learned Cornelia, a German author, didn't produce the English version of her books. Who then was the voice behind the English works, and how--if at all--did this mysterious person affect the voice? Inquiring minds had to know, and so we discovered Anthea Bell, a translator living in the UK, and asked her for this interview; she agreed. Read on to learn about the translation process from the ever-delightful Ms. Bell (and learn more about Cornelia Funke's upcoming books as well)!

Part 1: Interview with Anthea Bell

Q: How did you become a translator for Cornelia Funke’s novels?

A: I started translating Cornelia Funke’s splendid fantasy novels after Barry Cunningham of Chicken House in the UK came to see me about them. (The publishing house is now merged with Scholastic UK, and as you know Scholastic US is Cornelia’s American publisher.) I’ve translated a good many books for children and young people, although for a while in around the 1980s and 1990s I translated only adult books, because publishers in the English-speaking world were reluctant even to consider children’s literature from other languages. The situation is better now, and I think Cornelia herself has done a lot to make publishers realize that a book from a foreign language really can catch the imagination of young people. I especially value that part of my work. The more widely children read, the more open-minded they will surely get to be.

Anyway, after he had published The Thief Lord Barry came along with Dragon Rider, and I was enchanted. In fact Cornelia was writing Inkheart at the time – and I was if anything even more enchanted when I read it – and publication in English (after The Thief Lord) began with Inkheart, followed by Dragon Rider, followed by Inkspell.

This year, while Cornelia finishes revising the third in the Inkworld trilogy, there will still be a new Cornelia Funke novel in English, for slightly younger readers than the trilogy (Dragon Rider readers, I’d say), but enjoyable by anyone of any age. It is a chivalric Arthurian fantasy with a strong strand of humor in it, called in German Igraine Ohnefurcht – working title Igraine the Fearless. I delivered the translation a few weeks ago, and we all love the story.

Q: Inkheart, Inkspell, Dragon Rider and The Thief Lord contain plenty of fluid passages laced with rich, beautiful language. The work truly sings. Is the voice as poetic in German?

A: Oh, it is all there in the German. All I am doing is, I hope, to echo Cornelia’s own voice in English. A translator is always trying to turn into the author he or she is translating. It’s a bit like being an actor: you have to think yourself into the author’s part. Cornelia is wonderful to work with; any comments she makes on the translation are pure gold.

Q: Can you give us an example of some of this back-and-forth throughout during translation process?

A: Working with Cornelia and her publishers, both English-speaking and German: I think in particular of all the correspondence we had about the way a watermill for grinding flour actually works. The chapter in Inkspell where a mill is the scene of a dramatic confrontation depends on it. There’s an old flour mill in the grounds of a stately home near where I live in the east of England; it’s been preserved and even goes into action once a month – you can buy the flour, and I do; it makes lovely bread. We all wrote to each other at some length about watermills and the way they operated, Cornelia too did some revision, and in the end everyone was satisfied that the action in and around the mill in her story rang true.

Q: Do you think there’s a unique element that foreign authors bring to English-speaking readers? What?

A: The element brought to English-speaking readers by foreign writers varies from country to country … in fact the north European fantasy tradition is very like our own in English (Tolkien wove a great many Germanic and Scandinavian as well as Celtic themes into The Lord of the Rings), but just because we have such a strong tradition of imaginative literature for young people in English, it has been quite difficult for writers in other languages to break into it and be published in English too.

Q: Can you tell us more about Igraine the Fearless? What makes this book unique from her other stories? What is Igraine’s problem throughout the story?

A: Cornelia tells us that one of her favorite books as a child was T.H. White’s tetralogy The Once and Future King. It was also one of my own favorites, and people who specially enjoyed the first volume of the four, The Sword in the Stone, will like Igraine too for its mixture of humor and traditional themes.

Igraine’s problem is that she doesn’t want to be a magician, like her father Sir Lamorak, her mother the Fair Melisande, and her elder brother Albert. She wants to be a knight instead … and as you can imagine, though she’s really good at riding and swordplay, this isn’t seen as an acceptable ambition for a girl. But just as she’s celebrating her twelfth birthday, something happens to send her out on her adventures in order to save her whole family and their castle.

Q: These books are such a pleasure to read. Do you enjoy working on them? Do you wait eagerly for new copy just as her fans do?

A: Well, you’ll have gathered that I love working on her books. I certainly wait eagerly for new copy, and I am especially privileged at the moment because I am seeing several chapters at a time of the last in the trilogy (its draft is now complete) as Cornelia polishes them up. It’s rather like the serials of the 19th century when, for instance, the latest instalments of The Old Curiosity Shop crossed the Atlantic by steamship to be greeted at the quayside by avid crowds of US readers waiting for them – except that I am an eager crowd of one, or only a very few, and email now gets everything from the States to the UK and vice versa at the touch of a key. (How Dickens would have envied us that!)

Q: Has the Internet affected your role as translator very much? How so?

A: Oh, it has affected my work as a translator a great deal, and is a wonderful tool. In a book which requires a bit of research, not in depth but for the kind of little detail that a translator’s magpie mind so often needs, it must have saved me hours of looking things up in a large academic library. For instance, I needed to find a poem by a nineteenth-century German called Victor von Scheffel, quoted in a touching real-life love story of the Nazi era which was tracked down by the author Reinhard Kaiser when he went to a stamp auction, bought a bundle of letters for their stamps, and found that they still contained letters from one of the lovers to his Swedish girlfriend (his book of literary detection about it all is just out in the States from Other Press, under the title Paper Kisses). Well, von Scheffel is not a household name these days, and I could have spent ages tracking down the poem about the joys of walking in Westphalia from which some lines were quoted – but a visit to a search engine brought up his short biography and the whole of the poem very quickly indeed. To study a subject in depth I would always go to books, but the Internet can give you a lead to those books. (“Google, the translator’s friend,” was a comment made by the eminent American translator Krishna Winston at a gathering that we both attended in Chicago last year.)

And the sheer convenience of being able to correspond by email and send manuscripts as attachments is wonderful. I used to have to send heavy parcels, and if they were going far abroad we could all have an anxious time waiting to be sure they arrived. Books themselves and proofs still have to travel by ordinary mail, of course, but today’s courier services are a great help. And US publishers are generally kind enough to let me charge them on their own courier accounts for returning proofs.

We feel now as if word-processing programs have been with us for ever, but they haven’t. I’m old enough to remember typewriters and carbon copies, where you had to correct, messily, on every separate carbon, and probably retype a final version entirely for clean copy. Years ago I was translating a book full of the word “meteorologist”, and I remember thinking what a horrible word it is to type – if you are a touch-typist, like me, the rhythm of it between your two hands on the Qwerty keyboard is uncomfortable – and how lovely it would be if a single key could bring it up. Now, of course, it can. Working in Word, I always make autotext short cuts for the names of characters in novels. For Inkspell I had almost the whole keyboard set up to produce the names of all the many characters with a single letter for each plus the F3 key. I generally use initials of names where I can, but Farid and Fenoglio are both prominent in the Inkworld trilogy. I gave the F key to Farid, and the N key to Fenoglio – and must admit that once or twice I hit the wrong one. I do try to keep a sharp eye out for that in reading through, but Cornelia picked up a couple of passages which mystifyingly mentioned the wrong character. I was very grateful to her, and explained how it happened.

Q: What has been your favorite work?

A: As with any author I really, really like, my favorite work is the one I’m on at the moment. I am not actually translating this third in the trilogy yet, although I did the first two chapters just to give Cornelia’s publishers both sides of the Atlantic a taste of the book, at her suggestion. But she may well be revising again; she is a very, very professional writer, and goes back carefully over everything she has written until she is sure she has it right. However, I can safely say that the third book looks like being even better than the first two.

Q: Can you offer us any tantalizing hints for Cornelia Funke’s upcoming books?

A: I'm allowed to tell you that the working title anyway for the last in the trilogy is Inkdawn. We are all so used to referring to it thus now that I guess it will finish up as the actual title - it is in German that they may have a problem. When I saw Cornelia in June she hadn't decided on the German title yet. It was to have been Tintentod, "Inkdeath". But already the English-language publishers would not have Inkblood (German Tintenblut) for the title of the second volume, hence Inkspell. And Cornelia said she would have to think of something different for Germany. After all, she has promised a happy ending in the closing sentence of Inkspell! Anyway, we're working with Inkdawn.

Come back next week for part 2 of WU's interview with Anthea Bell!


Blogger thea mcginnis said...

one thing this interview illuminates is the difficulty of foreign authors to ensure their wishes for their book are honored. it seems the publishers have no problem coming down on literal translations and changing even the titles. does the english speaking reader not get the complete essence of the book the german reader is? thank goodness they have a translator such as anthea bell to help maintain the integrity of the author's work.

9:39 PM  

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