Lost in Translation: L’arbre aux fées
Updated: Aug 8, 2020
I’ve been thinking about translations today, having just finished reading Isabelle Troin’s remarkable translation of B. Michael Radburn’s debut novel, The Crossing (Pantera Press, 2011) or L’Arbre Aux Fées (The Fairy Tree) as it is named in the 2019 Éditions du Seuil version. I’ve had the book on my nightstand for a month or two, putting off reading it—partly because my life has been crazy lately and reading for the pure joy of it seemed too much of an indulgence, and partly because I was nervous. Yes, nervous. Because I’ve read Radburn’s work before and thoroughly enjoyed it. And he’s a colleague and a friend. Would the translation do the work justice? Would Troin's interpretation be as bleak and spare as Radburn’s original text, and as richly nuanced? Would Radburn’s hero, park ranger Taylor Bridges, be revealed as the flawed yet dogged everyman, doing his best in spite of the demons persecuting him, or would the character lose some of his authenticity, some lustre, in translation? Would the French tendency for formality, their aversion to fragments and less orthodox narrative styles, slow the pacing and render the work stilted? And what would I tell my colleague if it did?
In L’Arbre Aux Fées (The Crossing), Taylor Bridges takes up a position as the park ranger at Glory Crossing in Tasmania, fleeing a crumbling marriage in Melbourne, and the nightmares which have haunted him since the loss of his eight-year-old daughter, Claire, who went missing in a storm a year ago. But Glory Crossing has its own problems: the town slowly submerging under the lake due to the construction of a nearby dam. Soon enough, there won’t be a town at all. And while the townsfolk aren’t openly hostile, they’re not exactly friendly either. Taylor barely knows anyone’s name, when a girl of eight, a child Taylor met only a day earlier, goes missing. Seeing the parallels with his own daughter’s disappearance, Taylor steps up to help, but the local police sergeant takes exception. So, the ranger undertakes his own investigation, uncovering a long history of missing girls and a town full of secrets…
I sat on my deck in the sun and read the translation in half a day. Troin is not an author in her own right that I can tell, but I note no less than six pages (180 titles) on Goodreads of works she has translated, including books by such superb genre writers as Christopher Golden, Yvonne Navarro, Trudi Canavan, Nancy Holder, David Eddings, and James Rollins. Clearly, Troin has served her apprenticeship; Radburn is in excellent company. Her translation is impeccable. I could not separate it from Radburn’s own writing. I didn’t grimace once. Not a single word choice grated. Which made me wonder if Troin has visited Tasmania herself, since Radburn’s novels are all about place, his beloved Australia depicted with vibrancy and verve, and entirely without pretence: Glory Crossing’s small-town insularity and prejudice kept centre-stage throughout the book. Radburn doesn’t wince at unsavoury themes either, The Crossing tackling head on issues of abuse, loss, loneliness, and despair. It’s a cracking novel, a well-paced gritty thriller which thrives in its Australian setting. And especially remarkable is that The Crossing was Radburn’s first novel; he’s since written several more to add to the numerous short stories already on his bibliography, so there is plenty for readers still to enjoy. The Crossing, soon to be a feature film, is definitely worth a read—in English or in translation.
But reading L’Arbre Aux Fées got me thinking about translations because currently my middle grade title Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse (IFWG) is being translated into Spanish for the North American marketplace by the original publisher of the work. Typically, foreign language rights are licenced to other publishing houses, and writers have little or no say in the translator, and, if they don’t speak the language themselves, little or no visibility on the final text. It’s not the case for Zombies which is being translated by writer-poet Silvia Brown of Telltale Literary Translation who writes in both English and Spanish and who has been working closely with IFWG. I’ve had the opportunity to read some of Brown’s English language work, which incorporates body horror, magical realism, and urbanism, and which captures her immigrant perspective with a clarity that is startling. Her story Melbourne Calling in IFWG’s Cthulhu Deep Down Under is a good example (see my review HERE). The fact that Brown is a poet also counted heavily in her favour. But mostly, I knew that she would treat the manuscript as if it were her own, labouring over word choices, and how to capture the true sense of expressions and wordplay which had no equivalent in her native language. A skype session with her convinced me this was the case: “I’m going to check with a colleague, another linguist,” she said more than once. “To be sure.” I don’t speak Spanish, and the Duolingo app loses patience and stops reminding me after a few days, so it is unlikely I’ll ever read the Spanish text myself, but I am confident the eventual translation will be true to the original, and hopefully even a little better.
Disclaimer: I consider B. Michael Radburn a colleague and a friend, so readers should consider everything I write about his work to be wholly biased. The only way you’ll know for sure if my appraisal is accurate is to purchase a copy and read it yourself. I highly recommend that you do.