April 30, 2024

Translating 'The Beast Within: Humans as Animals': Interview with Alison Duncan, International Product Development Manager & French to English Translator

By Darius Phelps

Congratulations to Alison Duncan, a Master’s in Translation alum (Class of 2018), whose translation of The Beast Within: Humans as Animals by Jessica Serra was recently published. During our interview together, I had the pleasure of learning more about Alison’s time in the MS in Translation program, and what innovative new work she has on the horizon. Through her professional network, Alison was introduced to the science editor at Johns Hopkins University Press, who in 2018 was looking for a translator to work on the English edition of a French book she had acquired, and the rest is history.

The Beast Within by Jessica Serra is the first title in the Animal Worlds series. What Do Bees Think About?, scheduled to publish in May 2024 and also translated by Alison, will be the second title in the series, and more titles are in the works. When asked about how her time at NYU contributed to her career and translation practice, Alison detailed that her coursework equipped her “with best practices for how to carry out the act of translating, from the technical aspects of using translation technology to the more creative aspects of stylistics.” Learn more about Alison’s translation process below, along with an exclusive excerpt from The Beast Within.

Q: Which aspects of Jessica Serra’s work did you view as crucial to communicate in your translation of the book?

A: Ultimately, I want English readers to have the same experience as French readers: to be guided through scientific studies in a way that intrigues, be presented with ideas of what the world is like for other animals, and finally arrive at the end of this journey with a shifted perspective and understanding of Jessica Serra’s ultimate point that humans are simply part—and not the pinnacle—of the animal kingdom.

Q: What are key linguistic aspects that you kept in mind when translating between French and English?

A: Readability, fluency, and making science approachable and relevant for readers were my linguistic goals for The Beast Within. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received in my career is that to be a great translator, it’s important to first be a great writer. Mastering the ins and outs of your target language’s grammar and style, being precise with word choice, knowing how to construct sentences and paragraphs that flow, discerning when to diverge from the source, all of these things are essential to make a translation read like it is not, in fact, a translation. I hope that readers who pick up The Beast Within will have the same quality reading experience as those who pick up La bête en nous.

Q: What is your biggest takeaway from the translation of this book?

A: Research is vital. But so is time management and using the tools at your disposal. As a translator of science-related content, I spend a significant amount of time reading parallel texts and more generally educating myself about the subject matter. For The Beast Within, this often meant looking up an article the book cited, reading its abstract, locating key terminology, and understanding the scientific method used in the study as well as the researchers’ conclusion. In some cases, I needed to do additional background research to understand concepts or terminology. While I find this interesting, it is so easy to fall down a rabbit hole. If not careful, an hour could go by researching a single term! Translating this book reminded me just how important it is to manage my time efficiently and use technology (CAT tools, glossaries, etc.) to work smarter—lessons I first learned in my NYU courses. For example, it’s happened more than once in my book translation experience that I’ve added a term to the glossary only to uncover more information 100 pages later that makes me rethink the original choice. Technology helps me document my research so I can revisit it and make changes consistently without losing too much time.

Readability, fluency, and making science approachable and relevant for readers were my linguistic goals for 'The Beast Within.' One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received in my career is that to be a great translator, it’s important to first be a great writer.

Q: Was there a paragraph that you particularly enjoyed translating that we can share?

This paragraph from the epilogue was particularly enjoyable to translate because not only does it summarize the book’s message quite well, but it also conveys the author’s passion for her work.

"In 1859 Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution shattered [the current] model of thought by reintegrating humans into the animal kingdom. But reconnecting with one’s animality was not an easy task. How could humans accept the idea of being relegated to the status of beast, even though they had been striving to distinguish themselves from it for thousands of years? It was a very hard pill to swallow. It was no longer a question of dithering around philosophical questions or theological positions, however, since science, impartial and objective, revealed and continues to reveal discoveries on a daily basis that cannot be ignored. Our behaviors and our skills, however emancipating, can be understood in the context of our animality. But then, if human beings are just animals, even if unique ones, what does that leave us for delineating ourselves? Since we construct our human identity through culture and how we want to be seen, it is our actions and values that give meaning to our passage on Earth. Reconciling with the “beast within” not only allows us to know ourselves better but to be open to a new worldview in which animality is no longer derogatory. Wonder awaits anyone who dares to lift their blinders, because the kingdom of beasts—these masses thought to be devoid of intelligence and feelings—is revealed to be a universe of genius, vibrating with emotion. But it is also a violent realization; reestablishing our connection with our animality and with animals forces us to take stock of the consequences that our long disconnection with them has had, and of the urgent need to remedy it. Poached, transported like merchandise, confined in spaces that do not respect their needs, slaughtered without being stunned first; there are billions of sentient beings who suffer because of our anthropocentric way of thinking. How long will we continue to exploit animals so we can convince ourselves that we are not also animals? This is the challenge of our time: either we regard other forms of life with humility and respect, or we blindly continue in our occult beliefs, which reinforce our place in the universe but condemn thousands of species to extinction and precipitate our own demise in the process."

Excerpted from The Beast Within: Humans as Animals by Jessica Serra, translated by Alison Duncan. Copyright 2024. Published with permission from Johns Hopkins University Press.

On behalf of the NYU SPS Center for Publishing and Applied Liberal Arts, we are extremely proud of all that Alison has accomplished and look forward to what she achieves next. 

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