Sarah Ardizzone translates illustrated children’s books from French into English ©Simon Ardizzone

We all spend time reading, hearing and telling different stories, but what if we could unlock a whole world of new ones? Sarah Ardizzone’s job is to do just that. As a literary translator, Sarah spends her time converting stories from all corners of the world into English, making them accessible and available to readers that may otherwise never hear them.

What’s it like to bring characters, ideas and narratives to life for a completely new audience? Let’s read on…

Why is it important to translate children’s books?

In the UK and America, only 1-3% of what’s published in a year has been translated from another language. In Europe, it’s more like 20-40%. That’s partly because we have fantastic, homegrown talent, but it’s also because we’re not good at importing extraordinary stories from around the world. We need to celebrate books from all sorts of countries, in all different languages, and not just Harry Potter (fantastic as that is)!

What children’s titles have you translated?

Probably the most famous is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince in English). One of my favourite children’s authors is a man called Daniel Pennac. I translated a book by him called Eye of the Wolf, which is about a wolf from the wastelands of Alaska, encountering a young boy in a city zoo. I was 14 when that book was published in France, and 34 when it came out in the UK. Another favourite is April the Red Goldfish, a picture book by Marjolaine Leray. Picture books are like dealing with poetry – there are so few words, each one is really important!

The cover of one of Sarah’s translated books © Marjolaine Leray, Little Red Hood (Actes Sud/Phoenix Yard Books)

Tell us a little bit about your typical day

I translate all kinds of French texts into my mother tongue, which is English. There will always be the ‘current book’, the book that I’m translating or editing. Then there’ll be new books on the horizon that publishers ask me to translate. And finally, there are books I’ve already translated, which are in bookshops and on bedroom bookshelves in the English-speaking world. I often attend events that feature my books too. I do a lot of work to promote translation; at the moment I’m working on a project called ‘In Other Words’, where we ask publishers around the world to say what books they’d most like to see translated into another language!

Where did you learn to speak French?

I didn’t study French at university, which is unusual. But I am a parrot; I soak up languages wherever I am! I was born in Brussels in Belgium and lived there until I was three – my parents would speak to me in French as well as English, so I grew up bilingual.

Sarah at Edinburgh International Book Festival with author Barroux ©Emma Langley

What other hurdles do you encounter when translating from one language to another?

A common one is translating rhyme, as a rhyme in one language might not work in another. Pictures are also challenging – sometimes the choice of what word to translate into will come down to how it looks next to the pictures! You also have to consider how the translated words look in the font that will be used in the book, as children’s books often use handwritten and stylised fonts. French handwriting might not always be the easiest for an English child to understand.

What if a book has ‘made-up’ language? How do you translate that?

You have to get really imaginative and creative! I translated a wonderful book like that called My House by Delphine Durand, where the characters’ names were written in nonsense. I couldn’t believe I was being paid to have that much fun – I was creating a new universe! Sometimes there was an easy solution, for example, in My House there was a character that had the messiest hair you’ve ever seen, spread all over the page. In French his name meant ‘ruined hair’, and in English I went for ‘Bad Hair Day’. Sometimes though it’s just about the sounds and rhythms of the language.

Some of the books Sarah has translated: Aurélia Fronty (Phoenix Yard Books)/François Place (Walker Books)/Joann Sfar (Walker Books)/Quentin Blake (Walker Books)/Guy McKinley (Walker Books)/Emmanuelle Houssais (Phoenix Yard Books)

How did you become a translator?

After uni, where I studied English Literature, I studied theatre in Paris. To make extra money whilst I was there, I did a bit of teaching, and also got taken on by a publisher. I wrote reports for publishers on French books, indicating whether or not a book could work for an English-speaking audience. Eventually I was asked if I’d like to try translating a book, and that’s where it all began!

What one piece of advice would you give someone who’d love to work in translation?

You’ve got to love being a writer in your own language. Study your own language and how it works, as much as you study another.

Sarah with Marjolaine Leray, one of the authors whose book she has translated. ©Sarah Ardizzone

What is the coolest thing about your job?

I love bringing readers and authors from all over the world together, and not just through books! Live events can bring translation to life; I did a project with the British Centre for Literary Translation, Edinburgh International Book Festival and Southbank Centre in London, which now travels far and wide, called the Spectacular Translation Machine. We get the public to translate a graphic novel from scratch. It’s a collaborative event where we think about what we’re doing creatively when we translate.

I also love to champion the books I translate, as well as the authors. I am a ‘translation-activist’. My work sometimes involves translating slang and the language of young people, so some of my authors are also young and writing their first books. I see myself as a host for both the authors and their books, introducing them to a new country and new readership.

Want to start learning another language? Check out our First Words series – voila!