Seeing words differently

Seeing words differently

A prolific translator of crime fiction, Frederic Grellier is definitely a man of words. He also happens to be blind. He speaks to Priya Kulasagaran about his work and his love for books.

Frederic Grellier takes a deep pause when asked about what he loves about words, before replying: “It’s like eating apples.” The 52-year-old translator’s food analogy explains the way he does not discriminate when it comes to his reading material. “You can enjoy an apple fresh off the tree, juiced, or cooked in hundreds of ways, and each experience contributes to what I like about the apple. I think at the core of what it is to be human, is that you want to be told the world in one way or another. Whether it’s a New Yorker article, or a novel, reading gives me a feeling of communion,” he says.

Based in Paris, France, Grellier was in Kuala Lumpur in February to deliver a talk on translation at Silverfish Books. He has translated over 50 bestselling crime novels from English to French, including crime fiction heavyweights such as Jonathan Kellerman, Laura Lipmann, and Ian Rankin.

As he speaks about languages and story-telling, it is also obvious that Grellier has been an avid reader since he was a child. “My mother gave me the love of reading, and in our family, books were seen as rewards – it was a grand occasion to go down to the store and pick up a volume of Tin Tin (a popular French comic book),” he says. “And I never went anywhere without two books; the book I was reading at the time, and a ‘backup’ book in case I finished the first one. I even loved reading encyclopaedias, I remember spending hours and hours learning the meanings of words.”

It may sound strange then that he was initially resistant to the idea of being a translator. “It used to be very painful for me to move from one language to another – it’s a problem when you have a profound knowledge of two languages. It took me years to understand to accept things will be different in the other language,” Grellier says. What changed his mind was reading a book that was so good that he was willing “work with that struggle to translate it”. This book was The Hand of Strange Children, by British writer Robert Richardson, which landed him his first job as a book translator.

There was a far larger struggle than switching between languages that Grellier had to deal with early in his career though – losing his sight.

Adjusting to a new reality

As Grellier started working on his fourth book, he found himself embarking on a two-year period of coming to terms with his condition. “But it was only when I became blind that I began to see the words,” he adds.

Grellier has a rare genetic disorder known as retinitis pigmentosa, which affects the retina’s ability to respond to light and causes severe vision impairment and sometimes blindness. While he first showed symptoms of the condition when he was just seven-years-old, the condition rapidly progressed when Grellier was in his early 30s.

“It wasn’t a well-known condition 40 years ago, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had an eye problem. I can take you on a tour of the various lampposts I’ve bumped into in Paris,” jokes Grellier. “But it was a theoretical thing; it’s like you know you’re going to die someday, but chances are it’s not an obsession for most people. So when I crossed the 50% barrier (of vision loss) at age 30, that’s when it struck me that it was happening.”

It was then when he first started using a white cane, and learnt braille. “Last year I found out that I had been using the cane wrongly for the past 20 years!” he exclaims, as he sweeps his cane around the floor to demonstrate his point. “I suppose at an unconscious level, I hadn’t totally accepted the situation – that’s how I interpret it. Because, it had always been this thing, to be self-sufficient, to appear like I can do it all. It takes a lot to say that sometimes, you do need help. And that it’s okay to need some help.”

Grellier’s wife, Armelle, has been a big source of support. Soft-spoken, and ever ready with a smile, Armelle not only helps guide Grellier when he’s moving around, but also helped him when he was getting back to translation work – by patiently reading out the books to him. From the way she looks at him, and the way he leans into her words, it is clear that this is a couple that is still very much in love.

A father of four, Grellier adds that his children were also instrumental in helping him pull through those difficult years of his life. “It happened when the children were young, and I wasn’t totally blind then, so I managed to do a lot of things and take care of them,” says Grellier.

“I remember one day taking my eldest two girls, aged four and two at the time, to the daycare, one holding my left hand, one on my shoulder, my cane in the right hand. Suddenly my two-year-old says, ‘Bravo papa!’ I asked why she said that, and she replied that it was because I did not step in the dog poo on the street,” he adds, with a laugh. “So I got to live that (parenting) life to its fullest, because I was at home wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Tools of the trade

While it took grit to get cope with his vision loss and work, Grellier’s foray into the world of publishing was not a straightforward one either. After spending nine years in the United States during his father’s posting with the French embassy there, Grellier returned to France at the age of 16 and went on to study law and political science. However, he had set his heart on working with words.

“I initially wanted to be a journalist, but I knew my eyesight will one day be an issue,” says Grellier. “So I found a job with a film producer, reading American scripts and books for possible French films.” From there, he soon found himself reviewing novels as well, and subsequently translating them.

Having learnt braille late in life, Grellier says he is not sufficiently proficient to use it in his translation work these days. He does however, have an arsenal of tools, which he eagerly shows off. His main tool to access books is a portable text-to-speech device which enables him to ‘read’ books by listening to them.

“Your ears can never compensate for the agility of your eyes,” he says, as he turns up the speed of his digitised-voice software. “So while this high speed of speech may be unusual to you, this is how I scan emails, or browse the internet. I never leave home without this, it has really changed my life.”

He admits that it did take him some time to get used to the digital voice, when “I had the pleasure of my wife’s lovely reading”. “But, you get used to it, you adapt; now I hear the words themselves than anything else. It’s still the same dreadful digital voice, but it’s something that helps me get to the words,” Grellier says.

Grellier also uses a braille terminal, a mechanical device which displays refreshable braille characters by way of raised pins. The display works with a screen reader, and enables users to read their computer screens by touch in braille. It also functions as a note-taker.

“The problem is that these displays can be hugely expensive,” says Grellier. “This one costs 2,500 Euros, and I could only afford it with the subsidies available in France. Now various associations for the blind are funding research into the production of cheaper models, and this is essential. This is the only real access to literacy when you’re blind.”

With these tools, Grellier usually takes about four months to translate a novel to completion – which is the standard time frame for many other translators as well. “Sometimes, I do need Armelle’s help with proofreading,” he adds. “There have been times when editors have sent back their notes and edits of my work, written in red ink on a printed copy. Spell checking can be quite tedious too when using the screen reading software I have,” he says.

While admitting that he was initially sceptical of being able to continue his work after his vision loss, it appears what also helped push Grellier was his love for words. “I feel really fulfilled doing translation; I love sandpapering the initial draft, trying to pin down the right way of saying things. It’s my life.”

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