Translating for Children Means Greater Responsibility

in Interviews/Views

An Interview with Filip Krajník, the Czech Translator of the Darcy Burdock Series

by Martina Krénová

edited by Blanka Šustrová


You are the translator of Laura Dockrill’s Darcy Burdock series. Why did you choose to translate a series for pre-teen girls? Tell us the backstory.

Actually, it wasn’t me who made the choice. I’d love to say that the book chose me or something like that to create a bit of cheap dramatic effect, but the truth is that I was chosen by the Czech publisher. More than two years ago, I stopped by the offices of Argo publishing house in Prague to discuss some translation I was doing for them at the time and decided to make use of the opportunity and say hi to Alena Pokorná, the editor in chief of Argo’s children’s department. She has an absolutely wonderful office in the attic of the building, with many bookshelves filled with children’s books – one of the most beautiful workplaces I’ve ever seen. I don’t actually remember what happened there, but I do recall myself leaving Alena’s office about half an hour later with a little blue book with some weird girl and a sheep on the cover which I promised to translate without actually having read a single word of it. When I arrived home, I opened the book and after a couple of pages my thoughts were like, “Oh my God! I’ve just made the biggest, fattest mistake in my life! I can’t translate this – this is a book for GIRLS. Narrated by a girl. Who is ten and paints her fingernails different colours. And yes, she’s totally CRAZY!” But then I learned that Darcy, the book’s eponymous narrator, hated mushrooms – which I despise as well – so I decided to give it a try. (Laughs.)

What is it like to translate books narrated by a young girl for young girls? Does it take you longer than translating books for adult readership?

It wasn’t too easy and I’m still not sure whether I’ve succeeded or failed. But, on the other hand, every book is difficult in one way or another and you always have to put some extra effort into your work in order to translate it properly. The aim is always to produce a piece of writing that looks as if it had been originally written in the language, not showing any signs of it being “just” a translation (although the readers, of course, know they’re not reading the original words by the author, which is part of the game). But, as I said, this particular book was not an easy one. I had to come up with a believable language for a ten-year-old girl, conveying her inner world and most private thoughts in a convincing way so that Czech girls could relate to her. But when reading Laura’s novel and trying to figure out how to achieve this, a miracle happened: I realised that Darcy Burdock cannot simply be labelled as a book solely for young girls. You know, Darcy doesn’t fight dragons or evil magicians in order to be a strong child protagonist with whom her readers could identify; instead, she faces very real, everyday dilemmas we have all struggled with at some point, no matter whether we were boys or girls or ten or twenty. The details might be different, but the big questions are always the same. They are of universal value. Darcy behaves like a real person, not an artificial construct: she copes with the world around her the best way she can and yes, she is often wrong and frequently makes mistakes. But that only makes her a human being like everyone else. I was surprised by how easily I myself could relate to Darcy’s – sometimes wholly confused, stubborn, mistaken or even selfish – thinking. For instance, there was a passage about friendship in book two which almost exactly reflected my thoughts about my own life at the point when I was translating it. When I realised who Darcy was and what she was trying to tell her readers, it became a sheer pleasure to me to be her interpreter for a Czech readership, despite all her oddities and my lack of first-hand experience of being a ten-year-old girl. (Laughs.)

Laura Dockrill’s Darcy Burdock writes short stories and poems. What are the translation perks you came across in this series?

Well, there were many both little and huge things. First of all, I had to decide how Darcy would speak: the codified, standard Czech, which would sound somewhat unnatural in the mouth of a child, or the colloquial, “common” form of the language, which some might consider odd when printed on paper? Not to mention all of Darcy’s “worserer” and “upsetted” words, as well as her neologisms (such as mermaid + marmalade = “mermalade”, of course). And what about all those references to particular brands of products, TV shows and VIPs, well-known in Britain but obscure or totally unknown here? (Darcy is a very British book, on both obvious and less obvious levels: this is just one example.) Should I have preserved numerous cases of alliteration, which is typical of Darcy’s playful language (and the English language and literature in general) but which 90% of Czech children probably won’t spot since Czechs are not used to it? Is the Head of Darcy’s school in the first book male or female? (I had to ask Laura in this case). And, of course, all those stories-within-the-story were a task of their own. When Darcy’s mum wipes her tears when she’s finished reading “The Invisible Link” story at the end of book two (which is a kind of mise-en-abyme of the whole novel), it simply HAS to be a bit naive, but most sincere and moving at the same time, otherwise the readers wouldn’t believe the emotion. I’d say that book two is getting really serious in comparison with book one: see, for instance, Darcy’s poem “You are More than a Lamb to Me”, which she writes when she has lost her pet lamb and, with her best friend having abandoned her, has no one to share her sadness with. You can’t, as a translator, approach these lines as children’s rhymes, but must make them a testimony of someone whose world is falling apart and who puts everything into her writing.

You translated the second book in the series in a tandem with Michaela Večerková. How did it influence the translation process?

Significantly. Michaela was a student of translation at the University of Olomouc back when I was teaching there in the English Department. I gave her the typescript of my translation of the first Darcy to read just before I submitted it to the publisher, and she suggested some last-minute changes and told me that Darcy was “her kind of girl”. So when Argo bought the second Darcy book, I asked her whether she would like to collaborate on it with me and she said yes. We took half of the chapters each and translated our parts, continuously giving each other our passages for comments and suggestions. Although I could tell you who originally translated which sections, we both copiously contributed to the other’s parts so I don’t think you can actually attribute any individual bit of the book to any of us. Plus there were cases when we collaborated from the very beginning: for instance, Michaela translated the “Dompy” story in Chapter Five, leaving the word “Dompy” itself to me to translate into Czech. However, a careful reader will see that Darcy’s language in book two is a bit different from that of book one: whereas when working on the first book on my own, I had no real system in terms of Darcy’s register and slang and mostly improvised, for book two, Michaela and I agreed on precise rules of how to render certain things into Czech, so I would say that the language of Hi So Much is somewhat more consistent. Plus, Michaela and I are from Silesia and Central Bohemia respectively, two very different regions in terms of their dialects, so we had to find a compromise about some things which we would both be comfortable with. But, most of all – although I tried to be as “girly” as possible in book one (actually, to my surprise, I received an e-mail from a reader praising precisely this aspect of my translation) – collaboration with a female translator, and such a talented one, brought a much needed feminine element both into the translation process and the final text.

Are there going to be translations of any other Laura Dockrill’s works?

That’s actually not my decision but I hope Darcy Burdock is a success on the Czech market and Czech readers will be given the opportunity to enjoy more of her adventures. So far, there are four books in the original series. A few weeks ago, I translated about twenty pages from an older book by Laura (not from the Darcy Burdock series) and sent it to the publisher, asking them to consider buying it, so we’ll see.

Krajník 2
With Matthew Nicholls at A Fistful of Cherries signing event; Photo Courtesy of David Konečný, 2010

What was the first children’s book you translated? What did you learn from it?

Actually, the first book for children I translated was Frindle by Andrew Clements. I was a huge Harry Potter fan in my late teens (the first Harry Potter was published in Czech when I was eighteen, and I spent the sabbatical week before my grammar school finals reading the first four books instead of studying), even briefly having my own Internet website devoted to the series, and I came across this little book which included a character – the strict, book-loving “Professor Granger” – who was said to have been one of the possible inspirations for Hermione Granger (which I really doubt). So when I was about twenty, I think, I translated the whole Frindle into Czech and submitted it as the final project at a translation seminar here at the department, where I was then an undergraduate student. Sadly, no publishing house was interested in the book as the genre of the school-story was not very strong here at the time. Perhaps I should try it again if I find the typescript in my old floppy disk collection. (Laughs.) The first children’s book translated by me that got published (actually, it was again in a tandem with another translator, this time my step-sister) was A Fistful of Cherries by Matthew Nicholls. Some years ago, Matthew taught at our department and, in 2005, he directed his own musical staged by the Gypsywood Players, in which I played the roles of a slightly (well, massively) demented director of NTSPAM (“Not The Secret Police Any More”) and secretary to the English Queen. After rehearsals, Matthew and a few “most faithful ones” usually stopped by a KFC restaurant (which is no longer there, by the way) and talked about various things, including literature. At one point Matthew mentioned that his children’s trilogy was better than most bestselling fantasy novels for children at the time, especially in terms of the delineation of the characters. I immediately asked him where I could buy it and he said that it hadn’t been published yet. So I asked whether I could translate it into Czech if I found a publisher. He said yes – probably assuming that I’d never manage to find one. But eventually I did, so I asked Matthew to send me the manuscript. But since, until the very last moment, he didn’t really believe that his book would actually get published, he never sent me the entire novel but always just two or three chapters or so. So for several months I was translating a story whose ending I did not know. And it’s a wonderful story, I have to say – about two sisters risking their lives to save the post-apocalyptic world from a disease caused by a global war. During their adventure, Carrie and Persephone have to fight real pirates, motorcycle gangs, flesh-eating batmen – but, most importantly, human maliciousness, greed, selfishness and their own prejudices (especially the older one, Carrie). Matthew did not manage to find an English publisher as he already lived in the Czech Republic when completing the story, so the translation is, in fact, the first and only edition of his work so far. I hope that the book gets published in England one day (it would deserve it) and that I get the opportunity to translate the sequel(s) as well. Although I would probably approach Cherries differently today, since I wasn’t really a mature translator when working on the novel (the book was published in 2009, but most of the actual work was done between 2005 and 2008), it was a wonderful experience, one of the milestones of my translating career.

Do you like translating books for children or do you prefer any other genre or particular author?

Children’s books are, sadly, a kind of literature’s poor stepchild in many respects. There are not as many translators willing to translate them as one might think, and even fewer of the translators are actually good. By which I’m not trying to say that I’m necessarily one of the latter, I’m just stating the facts. However, whenever I’m translating a story for children, I feel extra responsibility. I mean, every translation has to be done properly, but when you imagine a small child reading your text, you automatically try harder, which makes this work a bit special. Maybe I’m wrong but I think that an adult can overlook a small mistake or clumsiness from time to time, but children are much more demanding and unforgiving readers. But I also enjoy translating other genres, of course. The problem is that I’m not a full-time translator – my main job is teaching at the University and doing research – so sometimes I translate a book or two a year, but some years I don’t translate anything due to a lack of time. At the moment, I’m finishing a non-fiction book about the American secret services (which should have been finished a long time ago); at the beginning of next year, my translation of Philip K. Dick’s novel We Can Build You will be published with my afterword about women in Dick’s life and fiction. I’ve also started working on my second Chaucerian translation, The Legend of Good Women – a wonderful collection of nine stories about both historical and mythical virtuous women, perhaps written for Anne of Bohemia, the first wife of the English King Richard II. Plus there’re a couple of books which I would like to translate in the near future if I have time and if there’s a publisher for them. So translating children’s books is and will always be my pleasure, but admittedly not the only one.

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At King’s Cross Station; Photo Courtesy of Mgr. Filip Krajník, PhD., 2005

Filip Krajník (b. 1982) obtained his PhD at Durham University, UK in 2013 and has been a Lecturer in British Literature at the Department of English and American Studies in Brno since. He teaches courses on English medieval and Renaissance literature and literary translation; at the moment, he is working on an edited volume with the working title Reading and Writing Dreams and Visions in Medieval and Early Modern England. He translates both fiction and non-fiction books, as well as articles and short-stories for journals and magazines. His book translations mostly include works of the American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (e.g., The Divine Invasion, Deus Irae and The Penultimate Truth), but he also translates children’s novels (e.g., Matthew Nicholls’s A Fistful of Cherries and Laura Dockrill’s Darcy Burdock) and medieval poetry (Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls).