Saturday, 17 December 2016

Alpha in translation - part 2, Sarah Ardizzone

Yesterday, author Bessora chatted a bit about herself and writing Alpha. Today, in part 2, translator Sarah Ardizzone goes behind the scenes to tell us about Alpha's artistic and cultural development. her answers are really fascinating. 

Sarah Ardizzone and Bessora on BBC Authors Live

WSD: I think I've gathered that you were the person championing the idea of translating Alpha into English? Why? 

Sarah Ardizzone: Alpha was published in France just before the great wave of desperate migration or what we think of as the ‘migrant crisis’ (which you could say began in the summer of 2015). It stemmed from an encounter that Barroux had with Togola, a migrant who spent time at the artists’ squat in Paris where Barroux had his studio space. It came into artistic life thanks to the creative collaboration between Barroux and Bessora (they’d met at a book fair, where Barroux had sensed that Bessora, with her research background as an anthropologist, was the right person to ‘write’ Alpha’s story). This is important, because the story is not a deliberately ‘timely’ response to world events (although it turned out to be uncomfortably prescient). Rather, it is an organic tale that two artists at the top of their game felt compelled to tell. Barroux was moved by a personal encounter; Bessora became immersed in the research aspect, in order to be sufficiently informed for her fiction to work its truth.

 Translator, Sarah Ardizzone
For me, reading the French version for the first time at home in Brixton (South London) in 2014, it chimed on every level. Firstly, it rendered the excruciating journey that so many people embark on – out of sheer desperation, when they have no option left but to leave their country behind - very concrete and palpable. Whereas the term ‘migrants’ tends to ‘translate’ these people into faceless statistics.

Secondly, it was incredibly exciting to witness the development of Barroux’s artistic style as he tackled a very different topic from the last project on which we had collaborated: the found diary of a WW1 soldier ( Barroux always enjoys a challenge with every new book, and this time it was about creating a diary in transit by an Ivorian man using the kinds of materials (cheap notebooks, and a packet of felt-tips) he might have been able to access.

Thirdly, and perhaps for me most intriguing of all, was being introduced to a writer whose work I didn’t know, but in whose presence I instantly felt comfortable: Bessora brilliantly performs the high-wire act of plotting her searing tale without the characters ever becoming ciphers; of investing in crucial research but ensuring that her text wears it lightly; of politicizing her readers without telling them what to think. Her prose is stripped back, so that it can be a true partner to Barroux’s images – she makes the space for words and pictures to co-exist. And yet her humanity, her humour, her affection for her characters is never far from reach.

All of which to say, what I knew I had in my hands in Brixton was a book that mattered, had been impeccably served by two great artists, and that it was going to be my job to get it out into the English speaking world. Barroux’s and my long-term publisher had changed careers, so we needed to find a new publisher. The children’s publishers I spoke to felt the subject-matter was too tough for their readers, while my concern with the grown-up publishers was whether they’d truly invest in and make all the noise around this book that it deserved. Enter the brand new YA imprint, The Bucket List, at Barrington Stoke!

WSD: You run a variety of interactive translation projects. Do you see performance (and maybe iteration) as being part of a translation process?

SA: Well, one of those interactive translation projects was literally what catapulted ALPHA into securing a UK publisher. At London’s Southbank Centre, I’d been involved in curating something called The Spectacular Translation Machine (scroll down to find out more). This was about getting translation into public spaces, making it visible, encouraging people to engage with it and… oh yes, asking the general public to translate Line of Fire from scratch across two weekends, no matter how much or little French they had – starting with the images. 

When the Edinburgh International Book Festival invited myself and co-curator, Daniel Hahn, to create a Spectacular Translation Machine in their Author’s Retreat tent, I knew I wanted to see how ALPHA would fare up there. And, within moments of Mairi Kidd, MD of Barrington Stoke, walking into the tent, it seemed we’d interested a prospective publisher. So, in that sense, ‘performance’ – turning Alpha into a public spectacle – is precisely what led to it being translated.

We then went on to create Alpha The Spectacle (apologies for the confusing double use of ‘spectacle’) which is a staging of the book, with Barroux drawing live (his work projected onto a big screen by a visualiser), a wonderful actor called Thierry Lawson playing the part of Alpha, and a kick-ass musical soundtrack supervised by Carole Mendy, whose musical roots lie in Marseille.

All these stages are performative and acts of translation – getting a story out to a different audience in a different way.

And, on a personal note, hearing the text of Alpha spoken as actor’s lines of course focused my attention back onto the quality and lexical choices of my translation. We were freely able to change those lines for the live performance. If Alpha is lucky enough to have a second print-run, I would hope that some of those changes would also make it into the printed text.

WSD: And, to end on a humorous note, what's your favourite pun (only because you probably have at least one or two)?

SA: I was being ‘auditioned’ once to translate the children’s writer Timothee de Fombelle. His book, Toby Alone, is an eco-novel about people as tall as a grain of rice who live in a tree containing all sorts of warring factors. I was asked, off the cuff, how I’d translate Con-seil (conseil meant    council or gathering in the context, but the characters were emphasizing the prefix ‘con’             meaning ‘stupid’, to put it politely. I offered ass-embly. It got me the gig, so I’m always fond of       that one.

WSD: Haha, that IS funny! I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more               collaborations from you and Bessora.


To find out more about Alpha, go here:


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