A good translation can turn a foreign tour de force into an English language masterpiece. Which is where Sarah Adams comes in. Elaine Williams talks to the winner of this year's Marsh Award
Rohan Smith might only be 13, but he's the touchstone for Sarah Adams, Oxford graduate and award-winning translator, when it comes to navigating the nuances of street language. Last night Ms Adams picked up the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation for her translation from the French of Eye of the Wolf, Daniel Pennac's novel set at the Paris zoo.
Today she's back at work on her latest project, to transform a series of streetwise French thrillers for the UK children's market, with Rohan as her consultant and ideas man.
The Golem books (the first two are published this month) are reworkings with a virtual reality theme of the Jewish myth about creating monsters that get the better of you. The original five tales by the Murail siblings (Marie-Aude, Elvire and Lorris) are set in the north African quarter of a French urban ghetto. Ms Adams has given the books an English inner-city setting that resonates with humour, urban violence and cultural insight.
The need to get a feel for the street culture encapsulated by Golem has sent the translator down various paths, including a four-month stint in the Algerian quarter of Marseille. But she has also found inspiration for authentic slang near her home in Brixton, south London, where she lives.
Rohan, her neighbour on the Tulse Hill estate, has been invaluable, steering her through the quagmire of current lingo: what's a definite no-no, what jars, what will have a shelf-life beyond the brief intensity of the street's newest words and resonate for young readers in the long term.
"He reads a lot, he's very articulate, but he's also living the street every day," says Ms Adams, "so I have been able to try ideas out on him, testing the characters."
Translation is so much more than a transcription of words. It forms a bridge between cultures. Good translators are creators in their own right, poets, conjurers of the feelings of other countrymen, painters of landscapes different from our own. Much is to be gained from rather than lost in translation. This at least is the sentiment behind the biennial Marsh Award (which alternates prizes for biography and children's literature).
The lengths to which Ms Adams goes to make a French narrative sing in our language and speak to our cultural mindset, was acclaimed in her translation of Eye of the Wolf. Daniel Pennac's novel is a beautifully lyrical but simple tale of the friendship between a wolf in a zoo and a refugee boy known as Africa. Ms Adams has captured Pennac's poetic, spiritual simplicity "flawlessly", according to the Marsh Award judges. Her translation of Pennac's Kamo's Escape, part of a hugely popular series about a young Parisian boy, was also shortlisted for the award, and her translations of dialogue have attracted particular praise.
"Collaboration is important, especially with dialogue and humour, and I immediately connected with Pennac," she says. "He lives in Belleville, a multicultural area of Paris, and I live in Brixton. I have a passion for travel and lived on Skinoussa, a Greek island, for a year, where Pennac also has friends, and I have been interested to convey a sense of his imagination, his dignity, his curiosity, the modesty of his world vision.
Eye of the Wolf is as simple as a story can get and yet it is so profound.
"The translator has to convey the vitality of another language, another culture; it is a balance between being faithful to the words but also sometimes getting right away from the text. Translation is about finding a voice."
Ms Adams's French-speaking parents worked in Brussels, and she grew up fluent in French. After Oxford University she trained with the Jacques Lecoq physical theatre school in Paris - the birthplace of Theatre de Complicite - and set up her own company, Livestock, which ran workshops in London schools. She believes her performance background is invaluable in her work as a translator. "I always read the text aloud to see if it works, to see if the dialogue is right."
To supplement her income, she started reading French books for English publishers. Geraldine D'Amico, the former cultural attache at the French Institute, introduced her to Pennac, formerly best known to UK teachers for his key text about children's reading, Reads Like a Novel. The breakthrough came when Walker Books, which is also publishing the Golem series, became interested in both author and translator.
The Marsh Award was established in 1996 to celebrate the "unsung" work of translators in Britain. Without them, it is argued, we would be unaware of Heidi, The Diary of Anne Frank, Pinocchio, the Tintin and Asterix books and most fairy tales. Yet only 1 per cent of British children's books originate from other countries, compared with 40 per cent in Germany and the Netherlands.
Children's author David Almond, presenting the award in 2003, said that translation helped us "look beyond our horizons", drawing together "readers and writers from around the world". Ms Adams agrees. She says: "Books are the cheapest, most accessible cultural portal into another country."
Eye of the Wolf and the first two Golem novels, Magic Berber and Joke, are published by Walker Books. Three more Golem books will follow later this year. The Marsh Award is administered by the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton Institute, University of Surrey, sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust and subsidised by the Arts Council of England