Translators are the unsung superheroes of literature. Think of how many extraordinary books from childhood we’d never have had the joy of reading were it not for the skills of a translator - The Moomins, Pippi Longstocking, Mrs Pepperpot, The Little Prince, Babar, to name but a few. Then there are all those literary classics, not to mention more recent novels that have captured the English-reading public - Nordic noir thrillers, the novels of Elena Ferrante, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Olga Tokarczuk, Sylvie Germain, Haruki Murakami, Jonas Jonasson. We could go on (and on).

Unquestionably, book-lovers are indebted to accomplished translators for providing us with such enriching reading experiences. This struck home recently while reading Faïza Guène’s Men Don’t Cry, a Love Reading Star Book and Book Club Recommendation. Originally written in French, Sarah Ardizzone’s translation of the novel has a kind of alchemy (the way she’s rendered multiple, nuanced voices into English is nothing short of staggering), and we’re over the moon to have spoken to Sarah for this Industry Insights article. Read on to be swept away by Sarah’s infectious passion for literature, and to discover more about the art of translation.

Header Image Credit: Christopher Andreou

Was translation your first-choice career? Was yours a childhood suffused in words and books?

My background is in physical theatre. I trained in Paris with Jacques Lecoq (a decade after the founders of Complicité). As an audience member, Lecoq had zero tolerance for being bored. He would say ai ai ai! and kick us off stage. I hope that one of the legacies I’ve carried over into translating is a commitment to entertain my readers. The same goes for the kind of dialogue I love translating, which can only be served up alive and kicking.

Yes, I was a bookworm – or ‘library rat’ as they’re called in French. On childhood summer holidays, we’d cross France by car and I’d already have read most of the books I’d borrowed from the library by the time we’d reached our destination. I also started reviewing early, with a break in the Young Observer book reviewing competition. I was runner-up in 1984, and Sue Mathias, the editor, invited us to London for a celebration day. I got to meet Sue Townsend and see the inside of the Observer – coming from suburbia, this was life-changing. I was back the following summer for work experience.

Tell us, in three words, the skills required of a top translator.

Read. Out. Loud. 

What are your career highlights to date? 

Living on a tiny Greek island in the Minor Cyclades (and learning another language into the bargain). I survived a year on the money that would have vanished on three months’ rent in Brixton, and I made the transition into full-time literary translation (which was the point of this self-imposed ‘sabbatical’).

To be a successful translator means becoming an excellent editor of your own writing. The extraordinary Caz Royds at Walker Books taught me this, with superhuman patience and forbearance on her part. We learned so much together when editing Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader.

Meeting Faïza Guène for the first time, seventeen years ago – and continuing the conversation to this day. Spending a week with Alain Mabanckou on a boat perched atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre for Artangel’s A Room for London

Collaborating with Nick Barley and his team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on live adventures in translation – reimagining translated books as pop-up performances in words, music, images. These multilingual performances for new audiences include Bessora and Barroux’s Alpha, and Gaël Faye’s ‘Small Country, big performance’.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned through your career?

Early in my career, I was privileged to work with Daniel Pennac (Eye of the Wolf, The Rights of the Reader, School Blues) and Quentin Blake. Before one of our live events, I had a nightmare. In it, I was forced to choose between buying an ‘event’ dress I couldn’t afford using a stolen credit card; or walking on stage naked. That dream was part of my younger self learning that I needed to find alternative revenue streams to take some of the financial strain off literary translation! (Daniel Pennac is the greatest advocate of the rights of the translator, by the way, and insisted I earn royalties when this wasn’t yet common practice.)

My friend Nivek Amichund is Chief Exhibitor at Historic Royal Palaces and the first person of colour to become a resident at HM Tower of London as a Head of Household. We were on a Clore leadership course together and Nivek called me out for referring to Gaël Faye, the Burundian-born French-Rwandan hip-hop star and novelist, as “my” author (I had just translated Small Country). Nivek did so in the kindest, most understated and effective way, affording me dignity and the chance to revisit what I meant. Not only did I interrogate my own subconscious colonial undertones in using that pronoun, but I also witnessed how serious Nivek was about effecting change: he didn’t shame me, because he knew that would shut down the conversation.

Describe a typical working day in the life of Sarah Ardizzone.

My best creative headspace is first thing – I wish I could bottle that and use it for the entire day. I might be translating in the morning and editing in the afternoon; juggling virtual workshops or events; checking in with authors, agents and publishers; being a sounding board for literature organisations such as English PEN, where I co-chaired for PEN Translates; trying to carve out time to read for prospective translation projects or work up a pitch. I might also check in with my former mentee, Rosie Eyre, from the National Centre for Writing Emerging Translators scheme. I keep in touch with the Stephen Spender Trust’s Translators in Schools, which I’m proud to have co-founded; likewise, it’s always interesting to see what WorldKidLit is up to. 

What’s the best aspect of your job? What’s the most challenging?

Collaborating with great international writers and being humbled to join in extraordinary conversations. Translating is, by definition, writing with four hands; but it can also be quite solitary, and sometimes you risk feeling too far down the food chain. 

Do you usually have direct contact with the authors whose work you’re translating? How does the process work?

Absolutely. The ongoing conversations I have with Daniel Pennac, Faïza Guène, Gaël Faye are my creative lifeblood. As for the process, that’s a delicate balancing act: build trust without being too much of a nerdy anorak who endlessly pesters the author with questions. Depending on the relationship, I might save up all the questions I can’t not ask (and which nobody else can answer), presenting these to the author towards the end of the translation process; or there might be a more organic to-and-fro where the Q&A evolves bilaterally.

What sets your translator’s heart a-fluttering? Do editors have a clear idea of your tastes and expertise? E.g. when it comes to fiction for adult readers, do you have a passion for certain genres?

Discovering a new writing voice so alive I forget to get off the bus. Figuring the imaginative leaps to make a writer feel welcome in the English language – translation is an act of hospitality that is humble and bold. 

I served a broad apprenticeship, including Proustian reminiscences, travel memoirs and film scripts. My stint in Marseille (where I was translating a diverse children’s adventure series for Walker Books) led to me spending time with artists in the Algerian and diasporic communities there; this triggered a keen interest in sharp dialogue and multi-heritage slang. I started writing about translating backslang for the Guardian; Michael Rosen’s Word of Mouth picked up on this for a radio package; then Random House approached me to translate Faïza. Other specialisms include picture books, graphic novels, character-driven fiction.

Photo Credit: Christopher Andreou

Your recently published translation of Faïza Guène’s Men Don’t Cry is an absolute triumph (it’s a Love Reading Star Book, and was selected as a Book Club Recommendation). How did that commission come about? What particular joys and challenges did translating the novel present?

Un Homme Ça Ne Pleure Pas was published in France in 2014. I’ll spare you the detail, but it’s been on some journey before the visionary Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of Cassava Republic published it as Men Don’t Cry in 2021. She edited us from Abuja under lockdown. It’s the fourth novel on which Faïza and I have collaborated, and it was always going to happen – for a while, things beyond our control got in the way. In the interim, it’s as if the world has caught up with Faïza. She has this talent for capturing the zeitgeist with her trailblazing wit and, more poignantly, through her lived experience. Some of the themes she addresses – about identity and assimilation, the paradox of being French Muslim, the burden of inherited trauma for those born to parents who immigrated for a better life – were considered outliers by the ‘mainstream’ back in 2014. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic murder and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, these issues are the conversation.

I have an early draft of (some of) Men Don’t Cry going back to 2015. It’s intriguing, as a translator, to be in conversation with a younger version of yourself – just as it was fascinating for Faïza to revisit her writing. I think it cut us some creative slack. 

I used to collaborate with the young ‘slangstas’ of Live Magazine, Brixton, to finetune the slang, but Live Magazine is no longer. Similarly, lurking with a notebook and intent on the top deck of the No. 2 bus, to catch how young peeps speak, was impossible under lockdown. So, I was happy to reconnect with Rohan Ayinde, my neighbour in Brixton, who’s been advising me on slang since he was a young teenager. Now he’s an established performance poet and artist in his own right. If Rohan was key to finding Mehdi’s voice, Bel Parker, a young French and Maghrebi Arabic expert, also injected her sassy energy as the translation’s first close reader.

Your translations of children’s fiction have won a host of awards (including Daniel Pennac’s Eye of the Wolf and Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone). Do you have a personal passion for children’s literature? In your experience, do they present different, or additional, challenges from translating adult fiction? Picture books, for example, might present challenges around rhythm, rhyme and reading level.

I guess I’ve never outgrown my love for children’s literature. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine why you’d want to write for anyone other than children and young people. The boon for me, when I’m translating children’s literature, is that publishers tend to have a very clear idea of who their readers are, and they pull out all the stops to target those readers – having such a clear sense of the audience makes translating a joyful performance. I love the visual and spatial considerations in translating picture books and graphic novels: word choices also become about aesthetics and semantics and sonics.

What are you most proud of translating?

The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac – what an opportunity to be taught, first-hand, about reading and writing by the maverick master of contemporary French literature. I think if I’d really understood at the time what this meant, I’d have frozen creatively; so, I’m grateful for youthful temerity. 

Just Like Tomorrow by Faïza Guène – it changed me as a person and as a translator.

Which classic novels do you wish you’d been the first to translate into English? Are there any classics you’d love to work on that haven’t yet been translated into English?

There are two doorstopper volumes of previously uncollected short stories in the classic children’s series, Le Petit Nicolas by Goscinny and Sempé; these have yet to be translated into English. The late great Anthea Bell translated several Nicholas collections, which my nine-year-old fell in love with under lockdown. I read them to him in Anthea’s translation every night, until we ran out; at which point I had to switch to simultaneously translating nearly a thousand pages from the French. It’s one of my most precious lockdown memories – my son, seemingly able to hold the entirety of Anthea’s nomenclature and taxonomy in his head, correcting me where necessary, and egging us on to the finishing line. A couple of years before her death, Anthea and I had an email conversation about whether we might persuade an English publisher to take on the remainder of Le Petit Nicolas.

When I was producing a ‘fast and loose’ translation of Dumas’s The Story of a Nutcracker for Vintage Classics, I tracked down the original 1847 English translation to the Renier Collection in the V&A archives at Blythe House. I was keen to see Bertall’s illlustrations, which were as iconic as Tenniel’s for Alice in Wonderland. The translation is unattributed, though it may be the work of Vizetelly Brothers & Co, who are acknowledged as the printers and engravers (and Henry Vizetelly became Émile Zola’s English translator). The translation is so fresh and takes such daring liberties it was very hard to un-engrave from my mind.

Which authors would you invite to your dream literary dinner party? 

Can I be greedy? All the authors I’ve had the privilege of translating, please!

Plus, in alphabetical order, and with no small amount of magical thinking: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alaa Al Aswany, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, Patrick Chamoiseau, Bernadine Evaristo, AM Holmes, Etgar Keret, Dany Laferrière, Deborah Levy, Audre Lorde, Johny Pitts, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.

Photo Credit: Christopher Andreou

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m collaborating with the Edinburgh International Book Festival on a bid to take a performance version of Faïza Guène’s latest novel Discretion (pub. Saqi Books May 2022) to Algeria to celebrate sixty years of independence from France; while also working closely with translated fiction go-to editor, Robina Pelham Burn, and publisher, Lyn Gaspard, on the manuscript of Discretion. It’s a super-exciting time for Faïza’s work and there’s such a dedicated creative team around her.

With an eye on the future, I’m reading and researching the work of an extraordinary writer and cineaste, recommended to me by Faïza. 

I’m also delivering sixth form writing development workshops for the Royal Literary Fund with and co-facilitator (and Sunday Times children’s book critic) Nicolette Jones

Tell us a secret about books.

As a physical object, a book offers a snapshot of a particular moment, capturing those memories associated with when you first read it. It also invites you to rediscover it, to gauge the journey you’ve been on since you last dived into its pages, to consider where you’re heading next. My father is eighty-two and I find it fascinating to trace some of his life story through the inscriptions in his books – usually, just the place and the date.

Follow Sarah Ardizzone's work using the hashtag: #sarahardizzone or @sarahtranslatorardizzone

Huge thanks to Sarah for taking the time to talk to us. Head here to read more of our Industry Insights interviews, and here to discover some translated fiction we’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.