5 Things We Learned from Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone at Authors Live

Bessora and Sarah Ardizzone on Authors Live

On Thursday 6 October we were joined by award-winning author Bessora and translator Sarah Ardizzone who told us all about their hard-hitting graphic novel, Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord.

We’ve had a translator on Authors Live before (Matthew Fitt for his Scots versions of Dahl stories), but this broadcast offered us a unique opportunity to hear about the writing and translation processes for a single book. The nature of the Alpha story, which follows a man on a desperate journey from Africa to Europe, also gave this event particular relevance to the current refugee crisis, offering our audience of high school pupils from around Scotland a thought-provoking, topical discussion.

We’ve picked out these 5 highlights from the broadcast, but make sure you watch the full event on demand to gain more insight into the issues and processes behind Alpha.


Fact vs Fiction

Although Alpha’s story is fictional, as Bessora explained, this gave her a unique opportunity to show the reality of life for migrants:

'I think that fiction is a lie, but it’s a lie that is telling the truth, because you get in the characters’ shoes. When you are looking at TV, it’s flat, it’s 2D, and it’s forensic, you know, it’s not real life. It’s a kind of analysis or a social analysis, and it’s very short so you don’t have the time to get in the peoples’ shoes, and you have it through fiction.'



In a difficult journey like Alpha’s the boundaries between countries are important points along the way, but the boundaries between right and wrong are also significant, as Sarah explains:

'It’s almost as if the boundaries are very concrete, you know. There’s the boundary with Morocco, there’s the boundary into Europe. Those stay the same, but on your journey, every day you’re having to shift the little boundaries of your life to work out how to survive and what’s kind of acceptable and feasible in a given situation.'


Children as Refugees

During Alpha’s journey, he meets Augustan, a little boy who has been given away by his family in hope that he might find a better life in Europe. Bessora spoke to us about the devastating nature of Augustan’s story, which is true for so many unaccompanied refugee children:

'Children are involved in this kind of trouble, but when you are children, even if you are six or seven years old, you suddenly have to become an adult; you lose your illusion. You want to believe what we tell you, but you won’t believe it for long, because in the end, you will understand that, oh, no, it wasn’t true, eventually life is hard, and adults are lying… Even if you are children or an adult, you have to improvise, you have to build your future, every minute, you have to build your destiny, you are not sure of anything.'


Translation Challenges

The nature of Alpha as a graphic novel makes it shorter in terms of word count than a typical YA novel, but that can actually make it more difficult to translate, as Sarah explains:

'It’s the most difficult thing to translate, and Bessora kind of used that term earlier when she was talking about deceptively simple, because it’s very, very spare and bare bones and stripped back, the way that [Alpha] writes. It’s this idea of a man who’s very bright, who’s very engaged in the world, who is able to express what he sees, but doesn’t necessarily have huge levels of education at the same time. And it’s getting that voice out… There aren't very many words, but every single one of them counts, and you’ve just got to keep kind of polishing it and drafting it and redrafting it until it sounds right.'


Forget about Grammar

Amongst Sarah’s great insights on translation for foreign language students, she revealed that there are many things more important than grammar:

'You need to be kind of bicultural, you need to know how the country works that you’re translating from. You need to live there, you need to spend time there, you need to watch their television programmes, listen to their radio programmes, read their newspapers. So it’s not just about your grammar, your grammar’s the least of things. You need to soak up that culture'

So if your French teacher pulls you up about grammar, you can remember that one!

We’re really just scratching the surface here with these highlights, so we hope that you will check out the full event for yourselves by watching it on demand! Make sure to check out the rest of our Authors Live episodes while you’re at it, including Marcus Sedgwick and Jackie Kay.

You can also find learning resources and further information about Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord at thealphabook.org