In our series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. This month's interview is with the well-known translator Ros Schwartz. Her translation of The Little Prince is a new classic.

Cover of The Little Prince, drawings by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How did you become interested in French?

My love of languages comes from my parents, who instilled in me a love of French that became a lifelong passion. They were both ardent Francophiles, which was quite unusual for 1950s England. The songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand and Mistinguett. They sang me to sleep with En passant par la Lorraine and taught me sing Au Clair de la Lune before I knew my ABC. When they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about, my parents would speak to each other in French, so naturally I made it my business to decipher and master that language very quickly.

At school, an inspirational French teacher passed on to me her love of French literature, and I embarked on a French degree. But I wasn’t cut out for academia, and so the University of Kent at Canterbury and I parted company.

Photo of grape harvest by Willi Stengel on Pixabay

How did your French become so good?

In 1973, I dropped out of college and ran away to Paris where I spent eight years doing a variety of odd (and I mean odd!) jobs. During those years I steeped myself in every aspect of French life, from enrolling at the radical University of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence and working on a goat farm in the Cévennes, unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. My friends in Paris taught me street slang.

How did you become a translator?

My very first translation was accidental: Paris 1979. ‘I’ve brought you a book,’ said Jacques, awkwardly pressing a slim volume into my hands as he was leaving my apartment. On Friday evenings, I held an informal conversation class for a motley collection of friends who wanted to practice their English.  A couple of weeks earlier, a friend had arrived with Jacques, a shy student psychiatrist, in tow. 

Intrigued by the title, Je ne lui ai pas dit au revoir, I devoured the book that same evening. It comprised a series of interviews with Jewish men and women who had been very young children during World War II. Their parents had all perished in the concentration camps, but had somehow contrived to save their children by hastily finding a gentile family to take them in just before being rounded up. Now in their forties, these people spoke openly to the author, Claudine Vegh, herself a survivor, about the devastating effect not being able to say goodbye to their parents had had on their entire lives, and about the conflicting emotions of guilt, gratitude and anger they felt towards them. Until speaking to Claudine, they had never been able to talk about their feelings to anyone, not even to their spouse.

There are certain books that resonate deeply at a particular point in one’s life, for reasons that are not clear at the time. This was such a book for me. I felt compelled to translate it. To bear witness.

It took me five years to find a publisher, but eventually I Didn’t Say Goodbye was published in the UK by Caliban Books, and in the USA by EP Dutton. Both publishers are now defunct, and the book has recently been republished in my revised translation by Plunkett Lake Press in the USA.

On my return to England in the early 80s, I discovered that I was completely unemployable. Speaking fluent French was not considered a valuable skill in the workplace, especially since I didn’t know shorthand or typing. So I launched my career as a translator. Publisher Pete Ayrton, formerly of Pluto Press and then Serpent's Tail, gave me my first commission; I took myself to the Frankfurt bookfair and discovered an untranslated book by the great Senegalese film-maker and novelist Ousmane Sembène which Heinemann commissioned me to translate ... and my career took off. 

What made you want to translate for children?

Having children myself and being immersed in the world of children’s books.

How did the Little Prince translation ‘find’ you?

The publisher – The Collectors Library – got in touch. He’d heard my name on the grapevine.

How long did the translation take you? 

Off and on, months. I revised it over and over, working with my daughter Chloe, aged 18 at the time, who has a wonderful ear for music and was my sounding board and ferocious critic. 

Do you use translation software?

No way!

Cover of Le Petit Prince, drawings by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How did you go about translating the book?

I deliberately chose not to look at earlier translations as they would have influenced me one way or another. Then I approached it the same way I go about translating any book. First I read the book and think about overall style, tone and register and make a note of any particular challenges (use of slang, whether the setting is particularly French or will need adapting, any issues to discuss with the editor beforehand). My aim is to arouse the same response in the reader of my translation as that created by the original text on the French reader.

Then I start drafting my translation. I set myself a target number of pages to translate each day/week/month, counting back from the deadline and building in plenty of editing time. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Each book is different and requires its own strategy. I like to work fast on this initial draft, resolving as many difficulties as I can quickly, but leaving the rest until the second pass. Often knotty problems at the beginning resolve themselves as I become immersed in the book. Once I’ve drafted the translation, the real work begins. At that point I put aside the French book and wrestle with the English. I will do three, four or five drafts, and each time I fine-tune the translation a little more. 

Every translation is a fine balance between paying careful attention to what the author has written, and creating an enjoyable reader experience while not ‘colonising’ the text. This can involve a wrangle with publishers, some of whom are much more reader-oriented and want to make revisions for commercial reasons. 

Do you think French is easier to translate into English than say, Japanese, because the language and culture are closer to English? Or is it harder, because so many more English-speakers understand French?

I don’t really know. Every language brings different challenges. I translate North African, Lebanese and sub-Saharan African writers who, although they write in French, come from an Arabic or African culture. 

Were there any specific difficulties caused by the translation? 

The book is written in exquisite French, which sounds light and airy, and when I did my first draft of the translation, for meaning, it was horribly clunky. Sometimes you have to prioritise music over meaning to replicate the effect. For instance, when the pilot tells how he’d crashed his plane in the Sahara desert, ‘à mille milles de toute terre habitée’, that translates literally as ‘a thousand miles from any inhabited land’ which loses the alliterative musicality of the French. So I translated it as ‘miles and miles from any living soul’.

In 1935, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed into the Sahara desert during a Paris-to-Saigon air race. He and his co-pilot did not have enough water and were starting to have hallucinations when they were rescued after four days by local Bedouins. The Little Prince begins with a pilot who has crashed in the desert, where he meets the Little Prince.
Photo of Saint-Exupéry with his downed plane, Wikimedia Commons

Did you make any choices in favor of 'transatlantic',  'classic', or non-slangy English? 

The Little Prince was written in 1942 and there is already the Katherine Woods translation from 1943, so I didn’t want to make my translation sound old-fashioned. Besides, there’s almost nothing dated about the book. Nor did I want to modernise it as Richard Howard did in 2000. I was aiming for what I hoped was a timeless, neutral English. There’s no slang in the French, so I certainly wasn’t going to introduce any in the English. And there’s no such thing as transatlantic English. I translate into UK English. I don’t think Americans will have a problem with it, and there are no sidewalks, faucets or elevators in the book. 

What kind of sources do you use when you don't understand what something means? 

When I come across a word or phrase I don’t know, I research it to see how it’s used in the original language, in what context, by whom, etc. And then I ask French mother-tongue friends. My favorite dictionary is my very first one, bought with my pocket-money at the age of 15, a 1932 Harraps two-volume bilingual edition. It’s been invaluable for my translations of George Simenon, some of which were written in the 40s and 50s and are full of objects that no longer exist and can’t be found in contemporary dictionaries. 

Did you find any untranslatable nuances or language play that you had to leave out?

There is one issue that troubled me and still does: at one point the narrator, talking to the (child) reader explains that on Earth, there are 111 kings ‘including the African kings’ (in French, les rois nègres). This book was written during the colonial period when no one would have batted an eyelid at such a comment. The difficulty is knowing the author’s intention: is his tone patronising towards the African kings, implying ‘Well, we know the African kings aren’t real kings, but let’s be nice to them', or is he being inclusive and reminding readers that in Africa they have kings too? In this age of political correctness, it’s tempting to self-censor. But as a translator, I must translate what the author wrote. I originally got around the problem by translating this sentence as ‘on Earth, altogether there are 111 kings’ without specifically mentioning the African kings, but having given a number of talks and workshops on this particular problem, I have been convinced, mainly by African and Indian participants, that I should put the African kings back in.

Little Prince with flowers, drawing by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

What would you say is the message of the book?

The importance of love and of cherishing those you love. The futility of material pursuits. 

Have you ever translated a book you didn’t like?

Yes, at the start of my career. I took what was offered. It’s like being in a bad marriage. 

Have you received any letters from children about the book?

No. But I did get a letter from a disgruntled French schoolteacher who’d found a mistake. Which I’ve since corrected.

What other translators do you admire?

Sarah Ardizzone, Frank Wynne, Daniel Hahn [Editor: He is the next translator in this series! Interview will appear on 14 April], Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Sophie Lewis, Lulu Norman, Emma Ramadan, Nicky Harman, Margaret Jull-Costa and so many more.  

Thank you, Ros! 

* Header image: TranslateGerd Altmann on Pixabay

Photo of Ros provided by translator

Since 1981 Ros Schwartz has translated a wide range of fiction and non-fiction from Francophone authors. In 2010 she published a new translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and she is currently one of the team retranslating George Simenon’s oeuvre for Penguin Classics. In 2009 she was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2017 she was the recipient of ITI’s John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence.
Follow Ros on Twitter: @RosSchwartz
Ros on Wikipedia

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