Vango: Interpreting War for younger readersVango: Interpreting War for younger readers

By guest blogger Andrew Roads, literary translator from French to English

On June 5th, a beautiful early summer’s day, Walker Books HQ in Vauxhall was the setting for the launch, organised by IBBY with Walker, of the second volume of Vango by Timothée de Fombelle. The author joined a panel chaired by Alexandra Strick of Outside in World to discuss the theme of “Interpreting war for younger readers” alongside his translator, Sarah Ardizzone, YA writer Lydia Syson (A World Between UsThat Burning Summer) and Walker publishing director Jane Winterbotham.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the room beforehand, and the hum of excited conversation only faded when Alexandra introduced her panel and got the ball rolling with a question about the responsibility authors feel when discussing war in fiction. Are they entitled to play with war in fiction? Picking up on the word ‘play’, Lydia noted that children's games have always featured war, and writers have always been drawn to it as a way of exploring possibilities and themes. But they should be careful not to steal easy emotion from real tragedy, especially when the conflicts presented are in living memory. Agreeing, Timothée said that writers sometimes need wartime episodes to provide a frame and context for peacetime. In the same way that woods and forests are so often used in literature as symbols of the wild side of human nature, wars also reveal aspects of our personalities. He also revealed that while writing Vango the stories his grandparents told were foremost in his mind.

Given controversies over the liberties taken with the facts in Hollywood movies, it was perhaps no surprise that Alexandra should ask how important historical accuracy is in fiction. Timothée answered that it wasn't crucial to his story, which focuses on one character’s destiny in the context of a much bigger story. He was prompted to show the audience a copy of Time magazine with Zeppelin pioneer and anti-Nazi Hugo Eckener on the cover. Timothée travelled to Germany to meet Eckener’s descendants, who were very happy that someone was keen to emphasise the positive side of his work. It can be hard for kids to imagine characters like that really lived. Picking up on this, Jane stressed the importance of introducing children to their own history. Picture books serve this purpose well, as does memorabilia in museums; visuals help bring stories to life. Peepo is actually set in wartime, and books for children perhaps have a role in helping them make sense of images of war, by giving them depth.

Alexandra’s final question in the first part of the discussion was whether books about war have to be exciting. Lydia said that World War Two was exciting, it's undeniable. Long stretches were also boring, and there was a terrible sense of anticipation and fear, but you can't put too much of that in a book, which needs action. Timothée said that books about teenage resistance all begin with a game, and gradually become more serious. In such situations, children lose their adolescence, but as Lydia said, they tend to have no regrets; they look back and say that those years were the best of their lives.

The second part of the discussion focused on Vango 2: A Prince without a Kingdom. Set in Europe and America with a strictly non-chronological narrative spanning 1890-1945, the novel boasts a large cast-list including Stalin's daughter and Al Capone's confessor, who has to "vanish" to an "invisible monastery" off Sicily when he falls foul of his master. The Zeppelins (Graf and Hindenburg) also play a starring role. Vango 2 takes us from Little Italy (in Great Depression-era Manhattan) to the Resistance networks of occupied Paris...

Alexandra asked Timothée about the huge casts in his books – how does he keep track of all the characters? They're like pawns on a chess board, he said, perhaps partly in jest, he knows exactly where they are at all times! Sarah confirmed that it's important for a writer and translator to have a rapport, and also to know people at the publisher, in this case Walker Books. Timothée joked that being translated is such a personal experience that he feels naked in Sarah’s presence! She knows all his foibles and obsessions, in fact she knows him better than his own mother! Moving the discussion on quickly, Sarah referred to French author Daniel Pennac's observation that translators are like psychoanalysts. Asked whether translators are more valued in France than they are in the UK, Timothée said that he thought so, perhaps because some 30 to 40% of books published in France are translations. In the UK, the equivalent figure is around 3%. As a translator, Sarah loves working on kids' books because of the total investment by the publisher. There's a great sense of ownership. Agreeing, Jane said publishing a book for younger readers in translation is a long, immersive process.

That’s something that the members of the Emerging Translators Network, to which I belong and through which I heard about this particular event, will certainly be able to relate to and appreciate. The ETN is a forum in which early-career literary translators provide each other with regular support and guidance in a whole range of areas, from contracts and rates to terminological issues and solutions to translating tricky puns.