Greatest Women in Translation: Linda Coverdale

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Happy New Year, dear readers! I hope you have had a great holiday season and are ready to rock 2020.

Let’s start by welcoming our first interviewee of 2020, Linda Coverdale, nominated by Ros Schwartz.

Linda Coverdale

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1. You told me that once you wandered into translation, you “took to it like a hermit in a cave, Saint Jerome in flip-flops.” How did you wander into translation?

By accident, at long last. Both sides of my family loved books and languages, and my parents even moved to France for a year so their young children could soak up French. Back home again, I studied Latin, Spanish, some German, kept reading, wrote stories, but worried that writing was too vague and risky to bank on for a profession. Good at biology, dreaming of oceanography, I picked my university early for its bio department, then barely survived bio-chemistry. Once at Brown, I listed French as my major, just to tread water for a while. Fascinated by ancient Egypt ever since I fell spellbound forever as a child, in my one and only experience of religious awe, before seven massive statues of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet in a dim and deserted hall at the Met, I eagerly took courses in Egyptology, and felt grounded again. Then I learned that the department chairman had mastered fourteen languages, plus the three types of hieroglyphics. So: another misfire.

Then French literature became a wonderland, and the junior year abroad was an adventure in all directions. Discovering the critical and literary works of writers like Blanchot, Richard, Poulet, and Bachelard led me to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where Derrida, De Man, Deleuze et al were holding court before Yale lured them away. The doctoral program’s year in Paris brought courses at the École normale supérieure, the École pratique des hautes études, the Sorbonne—and playing hooky at the Cinémathèques of Chaillot and the rue d’Ulm. My French dissertation was a labor of true love: Les romans d’Albertine, all because I’d sneaked the Scott Moncrieff Remembrance of Things Past from my parents’ bookshelves when I was about twelve, and God only knows what I made of it, but that die was cast. Offered a good teaching job, however, I balked. I’d had teaching fellowships, was a good teacher, revered the profession, but it deserved a passion I definitely did not feel. Another chilling impasse.

Writing my dissertation, I’d begun drawing at night when the brain had stopped Prousting but was still ticking over, and someone suggested that I’d gotten things backwards, because my drawings were good. Naturally, I went to art school, the Parsons School of Design. Those were marvelous years, but I have never pulled as many all-nighters as I did there, because with art, you see at a glance if something works or not, and it doesn’t matter how long you worked, if it doesn’t. But no one will hire you until your portfolio proves that someone else already has.

Now I had four degrees, but no job. I worked renovating houses, painting murals, and as production manager first on an indie movie, then in a small publishing company, where the accountant told me one day that Richard Howard, French translator extraordinaire, had two Roland Barthes books on deck but time for only one, and so, my friend Keith continued, he had volunteered my services. Oh no, I said, I know nothing about translation. Too late, replied Keith, I told him you can write, know French—and studied with Roland Barthes. Trapped. So, why not, I did my greenhorn best with The Grain of the Voice. The publisher called with another book, by a Cambodian girl who’d seen her family murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Adopted out of a Thai refugee camp by two Czech exiles in Paris, she’d spent a year weeping and raving in Khmer, dancing out her story while her adoptive mother tamed her gently, taught her French, and helped her write everything down. Again, I did my best, and have done so ever since, because the books kept coming. And they have taken me around the world, through the best and worst of humanity.

As for Saint Jerome, patron of translators, he keeps a skull for company, and ducking into that cave is how we translate. I pop in earplugs to enter the zone, where you feel at one with the “reeling and writhing” of French and English, words sluicing around among thoughts, on the page, shifting this way? That way? And you always, always, listen to what’s in your head: what does it mean? How does it read?

For example, I saw that my first Echenoz novel, Ravel, was less comic, more serious than the earlier books, with a “real” protagonist, yet still playful, with an elegance suited to the mannered but ultimately tragic figure of Maurice Ravel. And the novel opens . . . in his bathtub! “On s’en veut quelquefois de sortir de son bain.” En vouloir à, a convoluted expression of long history, means to reproach, be angry at, bear a grudge toward, resent, blame; s’en vouloir de doubles down: I regret, I’m irritated/furious/pissed off at myself, could have kicked myself. That’s trouble right there: “One is sometimes angry with oneself for getting out of one’s bath.” Stodge! French relies on “one”; British English finds it useful; American English uses it sparingly. That all-important introductory sentence went through kaleidoscopic changes, because the rest of the paragraph is a precise, slightly disdainful description of fussing over getting out of the tub while avoiding a possibly embarrassing injury, folderol that often required readjusting the whole paragraph to rebalance it. Finally, the first sentence wound up, simply, “Leaving the bathtub is sometimes quite annoying.” That fit the mood, sense, rhythm, and tone of the paragraph, even though the French sentence had three elements of a “self” now absent from the English. Reading later in an interview that Echenoz had had real trouble with his opening sentence, I felt relief, but learning that he’d settled happily on an alexandrine, I quickly checked my English: twelve syllables! Close enough. Sometimes you know more than you think you do.

I can now see how all my wandering was useful, even necessary, for my translations. Voracious reading stocked my mental reference library: I remember—in Technicolor—daring to pull The Brothers Karamazov from a school library shelf for a book report when I was eleven. Madness! But that book and all the others shoved new words and challenging syntax into me as if force-feeding a goose. The years in France provided vital firsthand knowledge of French life as it is lived, saving me from many a pitfall. My approach to translating has always been to make the English text reflect not simply what the French says, but also what it means to French readers. Languages and music helped me with the varied rhythms of an English text. Art school and museums taught me to decipher and compose images, while the study of literature and criticism let me make increasingly complicated sense of what I read, the vital requirement for correctly inflecting a translation in the subtlest ways.

In the end, I achieved my childhood ambition to become a writer, since fidelity in translation isn’t slavish faithfulness to words and syntax, but the result of skilled critical interpretation. Translators have different ways of remaining true to the French originals, and just as painters interpret what they see, so do we each see a French text through our own eyes, and tell readers what we saw, and for our reports to be moving, we mustn’t “copy” the original, but give our words a full-bodied life of their own. That life is our art, a re-creation, from melting down the French in our minds and recasting it in English.

Helped immensely by family and friends, teachers, publishers, editors, authors, and other translators, I finally and gratefully settled into my true vocation.

2. You were in the French-American Foundation (FAF) Translation Prize jury for 17 years and describe the experience as priceless. Why? What have you learned in those 17 years reviewing fiction and non-fiction book samples and helping provide finalists in each category?

The cast of characters on that jury shifts over the years, but a tableful of translators, university professors, and the odd literary figure guarantees passionate discussion and even some melodramatic extravagance. When I once questioned a new juror’s support of a shoddy translation, he proudly announced that he hadn’t checked any French texts, but simply bestowed his “discerning eye” upon some select English samples. Appalled, I asked him, nicely, just why he was on a translation prize jury, whereupon this emeritus professor remembered an urgent appointment and vanished, trailing his scarf. Silence. “Well,” remarked the FAF chairman with a smile, “that was interesting!” He always said sitting in on our jury was the most fun he had all year.

And it was fun, but I also discovered how bad a translation can be, even from a respected publishing house. British publishers seem to have more in-house French expertise, and their quality control is more reliable than ours. That’s the depressing aspect of the jury: slowly (or immediately!) realizing that a translator is overmatched, and sometimes vastly so. Things can become surreal: I remember a sample by the head of an American university French department who had translated classics of French literature, but whose English at times went berserk, to the point of changing farm boys sliding down a haystack into a child locked in a crowded broom closet. Another well-known translator produced a text so insanely muddled that I suspected senile dementia. How had these travesties made it into print? Of course the major problem is not knowing enough French, but more insidious is sloppiness, inattention to the original text, especially if it only seems simply written. Paying insightful attention to details is crucial, so when the translator is an insensitive reader, the English may be grammatically correct, even easily readable, but the full French text has faded, and this holds true for both fiction and non-fiction. Over the years I saw several versions of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, and the variations in quality among those texts was remarkable.

I think my major accomplishment on the FAF Jury was eventually persuading them to drop their shocking rule allowing translators on the jury to vote for themselves. And the chief lesson I learned was: how to wheel and deal! It’s literary horse trading. We all arrive at the voting luncheons knowing what we want, but as we wrangle and reflect, titles rise and fall in favor, points are conceded, loyalties swayed, darlings abandoned. A proper prize jury with sixty or seventy bilingual submissions to review (with three samples each in French and English) is a vast amount of work, but the drudgery and disappointments are forgotten in the end, when all vote on the finalists, and the winners emerge. So the Prize Luncheon was always a joy. Serving on that jury was a master class in the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the best submissions were a restorative delight.

3. You say you only translate works you can do justice to and feel a bond with. What book have you felt the greatest bond with and has touched you the most?

There are so many truly special ones! I’ll say Slave Old Man by the Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose first novel my friend Keith (intervening fatefully again) asked me to review in 1986. Chronique des sept misères was an absolute stunner, but when Carcanet offered to buy it for me, I knew it was too difficult. That hurt. In 1995 André Schiffrin of New Press provided what became Creole Folktales, Chamoiseau’s English debut and my first venture into his world. I was exploring French Caribbean literature, legends, plants, proverbs, history, vaudou, Creole culture in all its forms, amassing books, Xeroxes, glossaries, scribbled notes, prowling tiny NYC libraries, seeking Martinican contacts, especially during visits to the French Caribbean.

My next step was his School Days in 1996, and when my first love returned years later, I was ready: the magical-comical saga of the Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows appeared in 1999. L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse had come out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity! But it had already been bought over here, so I was crushed. When I later learned from a casual remark that L’Esclave was back in play after almost twenty years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), I pounced. And then the battle began.

The molosser, a huge dog of an ancient breed, became a “mastiff” in English and vanished altogether from the title due to sales rep feedback, but in all else, New Press supported me magnificently in my translation, which was daunting. A few books have driven me to nervous exhaustion, deep despair, and this one did. A simple tale: pursued by the ferocious dog and its master, a mute slave bolts from a long-ago Martinican plantation into an ancient rain forest, where this ordeal will transform them all in extraordinary ways, for they enter an overwhelming physical reality, a wild, lush jungle of life and decay into which the reader plunges as well, as the novel’s powerfully intricate language entangles us in an evocation of nature beyond all human control. Space and time meld in this living maze, where, revived in his lost identity and freedom, the old man reclaims his voice, and is whole again.

The book is as dense as some exotic new element, sinister but beautiful and embodied in a language that belongs in a way to itself alone. It bristles with Creole words, phrasings, and plenty of Chamoiseau-speak. French syntax is artfully tweaked until it becomes a kind of pepper pot, that perpetual stew kept going by Caribs and Arawaks who continually tossed whatever they had at hand into the communal caldron. I have had to reshape English in other books, notably in the Rwandan reportage of Jean Hatzfeld, matching the peculiarities of Belgian- and Kinyarwanda-inflected French to individual witnesses, and here I can only say that you must let your mind go, trust your instincts and your homework, and hope they deliver the goods. One of the three Hatzfelds won the Scott Moncrieff, another was a finalist, and I was ecstatic with relief.

Histoire means both “story” and “history” in French, and in Chamoiseau’s story of a slave’s flight into the unknown, he offers a cryptic history of the Caribbean, where plantation owners used their own languages as a weapon of control over their traumatized slaves, who then turned that weapon against the oppressor: plantation storytellers said more in their homemade Creoles than their listening masters could ever understand, taking care, as Chamoiseau says in his Creole Folktales, to speak in a way “that is opaque, devious—its significance broken up into a thousand sibylline fragments.” Which, if you think about it, is a fine definition of poetry. The mystique of the plantation slave Storyteller, sustaining the spirits of his flock with a lifeline to their vanished homelands, is the Creole soul of Chamoiseau’s writing, so willfully opaque, ludic, cruel, the voice of multitudes, a theme that empowers all his fiction and essays.

In this novel are words and references from the history, culture, and natural world of Martinique, as well as both creolized and arcane French, because Chamoiseau is a free-range writer. “My use of French,” he writes to his translators, “is all-encompassing.” French readers are more familiar with this background material than are English-speakers, however, so while the author does not want any Creole dimension of his work spoiled by the reductive ideal of “transparency,” some light must shine on these sibylline fragments for them to signify at all for the Anglophone audience. I tried to make any explanatory material unobtrusive, while moving this text into English with the least possible distortion.

The majority of the Martinican Creole and creolized French words remain intact in the translation, either easily understood in context, or clarified by me with a descriptive word or two, or paired with an English meaning: “djok-strong,” for example. For more complicated words or a short phrase, the English appears immediately next to the italicized original text. Some words, as well as almost all the deeper background references (customs, places, etc.), are marked with an asterisk and explained in my endnotes, all listed by the number of the page on which they appear, in case any readers prefer to check batches of endnotes in advance.

Here is a look at the creolized French in the novel’s opening sentence: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” In Martinican Creole, neg means both “man” and “people.” It is the default term for any Creole person of color. It also means: a black man, any mixed-blood person, a servant, a friend, and has many compound forms, such as neg-lakanpay, a country fellow, and gran-neg, a pretentious man or uppity youngster. The Creole vié-neg is not necessarily derogatory—vié means “old,” as well as “ugly,” “horrible,” “shoddy,” even “diabolical”but here simply means an “old man, who is black.” Gros-saut looks like “big-jump” in French, but the Creole gwo-so breaks down as follows: gwo means big (among other things), and so can mean a bucket, a hard tumble, a waterfall, and the kicking of a harnessed horse. The expression fè gwo so refers to that last meaning, and its figurative sense is thus “to kick, lash out at, be ornery.” So: the context suggests the interpretation.

Writing with both studied care and fond disrespect for words, Chamoiseau is not only free-range, but free-form. His syntax, lexicon, and punctuation (or lack thereof) can even be technically incorrect in French, but must be respected—in this disrespect—by the English. In this novel, language not only tells the story, it is the story, an enactment of the subversive action it describes, and as the slave old man moves into a disorienting but exhilarating new dimension, Chamoiseau’s parlance does too. As with poetry, the reader makes sense of the text, as an active audience for this storyteller. In the end, as Chamoiseau has said, créolisation is a matter of expressing a vision of the world, and my aim was to make that vision accessible to the English-speaking reader in its moving and mysterious glory. Regarding the prickly counterpoint of sound and sense, and in homage to the orality of the Creole he champions, Chamoiseau sums up his instructions to his translators with triumphant glee: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.”

In the service of Chamoiseau’s short tale, I felt like a spider endlessly prowling the Web. Dozens of books were read. Months of research and headaches produced the end notes and afterword essay on the author and his enigmatic mentor, Édouard Glissant. The challenge of translating this novel I could not face again, but living, lively language like this is rare and lovely, and it is irresistible. Any translator who has experienced real discouragement and travail will understand my happiness in saying that the translation went up for four prizes, and won three. I love this book.

4. You say the FAF takes its prize very seriously—and that you may even nominate someone from amongst those you have met over the years. Besides your nomination, why don’t you recommend for us a great (fiction or non-fiction) book you have reviewed or that has already won the FAF?

For non-fiction, here are two superb biographies that won the prize, huge books about two extraordinarily different men who crammed more into their lives than seems humanly possible:

Bonaparte: 1769-1802 by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall (Harvard University Press)

Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, translated by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell (Yale University Press)

And for history, anything translated by Arthur Goldhammer, five times winner of the FAF prize, the only translator I know whose publishers permit his editing (when sorely needed) and whose grateful contemporary authors welcome it.

In fiction, Lydia Davis’s translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Viking/Penguin Group) and Proust’s Swann’s Way (Viking Press) both won the prize. Of course.

5. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I nominate the poet and translator Jody Gladding, a finalist for the 2004 prize in fiction for Jean Giono’s The Serpent of Stars (Archipelago), and who won the prize in 2009, along with the author, translator, teacher, and horticulturist Elizabeth Deshays, for their translation of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives (Archipelago). Both books explore the deep bonds between the human soul and la France profonde, and the juries were unanimous in celebrating the extraordinary match between the French and the translations, so sensitively attuned to the rich yet delicate beauty of the authors’ impassioned voices.

Greatest Women in Translation: Ros Schwartz

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our nominee today is Ros Schwartz, nominated by Lucinda Byatt.

Welcome, Ros!

Ros Schwartz

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1. You were a consultant on the revised Robert and Collins French-English/English-French Dictionary! That is so cool! I’ve never met anyone who has worked on a dictionary before – and I’m guessing most of my readers haven’t either. So, could you tell us a bit more about this experience?

That was so long ago that I’d forgotten about it! It was in the pre-fax, pre-Internet era. The publishers had assembled a pool of ‘experts’ – I have no idea how they got hold of my name or why they thought I was qualified. Every so often, they’d mail out a list of ‘problem’ terms, by snail mail. We were told to ignore the ones we didn’t know and to provide any information we could on words we did know. I think my most memorable contribution was “front-loading washing machine”.

2. You translated the 2010 edition of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and your translation was even shortlisted for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, in 2013! Again, so cool! Could you also tell us a bit more about this experience of translating such a world-famous children’s book?

At first, I felt thrilled and honoured, and then I was overcome with awe and trepidation. Knowing that this work is a childhood favourite, frequently described as ‘one of the greatest books of all time’, that readers would be familiar with Katherine Woods’ 1943 translation or Irene Testot-Ferry’s translation in the Wordsworth Classics edition of 1995, I had to decide whether or not to look at the existing translations. I chose not to. I knew that if I did, they would lodge in my mind, and everything I wrote would be either be a reaction against my predecessors’ strategies, or it might seem that they had found the best solution and whatever I did would not measure up. So my first key decision was to treat this as a completely new translation and to ignore what had gone before. A peek at readers’ hostile reviews on Amazon of a third translation by Richard Howard, published in 2000 and which offered a streamlined, modern take, eliminating the quaintness of the 1940s language, set my alarm bells ringing. People retain a fondness for books they loved as children, no matter how weird or wooden the translation.

The next question was register. Did I want to keep the 1940s feel, modernise, or try and find a more neutral, timeless tone? I opted for the last. I decided to avoid using contractions other than in dialogue, so as not to sound too contemporary, and also to use them sparingly as a device to distinguish the author’s narrative voice from speech and from the author’s voice when addressing the reader.

My first step was to read the French text aloud, which helped me decide on my overall approach. What emerged from this reading was that the French sounds deceptively simple. The lightness and seemingly effortless poetry of the language can turn into plodding prose if translated solely for meaning. For example, after the narrator crashes his plane in the desert, he falls asleep on the ground, ‘à mille milles de toute terre habitée’. Translated literally, this becomes ‘a thousand miles from any inhabited land’ – which is a thousand miles from the airiness and alliterative music of the French. So here, as in many other places, my choice was governed by rhythm and poetry rather than literal meaning, and I plumped for ‘miles and miles from any living soul’. Because music is such a crucial aspect of the French text, I invited my then 19-year-old daughter Chloe to work with me. She’s very musical and has an unerring ear for notes that jar. And yes, she’s credited in the book.

The little prince’s signature phrase ‘S’il vous plaîtdessine-moi un mouton’, again so light and airy in French, risked sounding clunky in English: ‘Please… draw me a sheep’. Not something I could imagine coming out of a child’s mouth. The book’s illustrations show not a sheep, but a lamb. Of course. Children talk about little lambs. Mary had a little lamb. Little lamb alliterates. I checked with a French native-speaker colleague who concurred with my gut feeling that the little prince meant a lamb, which is further evidenced by the author’s own illustrations.

Occasionally English offers an opportunity for wordplay in the vein of Saint-Exupéry where the French doesn’t. Describing the businessman, the little prince says ‘ce n’est pas un homme, c’est un champignon!’. The word ‘champignon’ is a little baffling – the phrase  could translate as ‘he’s not a man, he’s a mushroom/toadstool/fungus’. I felt justified in using a word that works both visually and verbally: ‘And all day long, he repeats just like you: “I have serious matters to attend to! Worthwhile matters!” and that makes him puff up with pride. “But he’s not a man, he’s a puffball!”’

Translating The Little Prince was both hugely challenging and hugely rewarding, and I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit a book I’d loved as a child and to gain a far deeper appreciation of Saint-Exupéry’s genius.

3. The first book you translated was a book you had read that you felt you had to translate. In this interview, you say you “had no idea how publishing worked, no ‘strategy’,” and that you learned on the job. What did you “learn on the job” with this first-time, hand-on experience?

I learned how translation rights are sold, and that the first thing a translator needs to do is approach the rights-holder for permission to champion the book. I also discovered how to pitch an idea to potential publishers and that you need to make the business case for them to consider a title. And the experience taught me that it takes a lot of energy, commitment and time to find a publisher ­– in this case five years.

4. In this same interview, you say “Translators have an important role to play in bringing works of interest to publishers’ attention. […] Publishers are too busy to keep up with everything that’s being published all over the world, and we can act as a valuable filter.” Based on your experience, how do you think translators, particularly beginners, can approach publishers with a book translation offer?

By acquainting themselves with the publishing landscape and approaching publishers whose interests are suited to the book in question. And then writing a compelling proposal (identifying the market) and producing a sample translation that really sings. I have written detailed guidelines on pitching which are available here.

5. You translated Translation as Transhumance, by Mireille Gansel. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Traduire comme Transhumer was sent to me by Gansel’s friend, former publisher Nicholas Jacobs, who was determined to see the book translated into English and was seeking a translator to champion it.

I devoured the book in one sitting, experiencing that visceral sensation of falling in love. This short, exquisitely written volume – an intricate blend of memoir, reflections on the act of translation and a celebration of the power, beauty and music of language – had a profound resonance for me, both personally and professionally. Like Mireille Gansel I come from a multilingual Jewish background and have been fascinated with languages from a young age. Like her, I have been a translator for many years. For me, her succinct observations express the essence of what translation should be.

The child of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, Gansel grew up in France imbibing Hungarian, Yiddish and the German of Mitteleuropa from her family. As a translator from German into French, Gansel gave voice to East Germany’s persecuted and exiled writers. She tracked down the poet Reiner Kunze and the playwright Bertolt Brecht, knocking at their doors and smuggling their words across the Berlin Wall and into the West.

When America declared war on Vietnam, Gansel wondered what she as a poet and translator could do in the face of Curtis E. LeMay’s declaration that the US would “bomb ’em back to the stone age”. The answer for her was to learn Vietnamese and take herself to war-torn Vietnam to seek out the poets so as to translate their words. For her, translation is a profoundly political engagement, and she commits herself body and soul to every act of translation. There is no boundary between her life and her work.

Translation as Transhumance encapsulates Gansel’s conception of the translator’s role as being akin to that of the shepherds practising the centuries-old Mediterranean tradition of transhumance. The long, slow journey as the shepherds make their way from one village to the next is rich in cultural and linguistic exchanges. Translators too are pastors, open to different cultures, reaching out to the other and transmitting literature across borders.

Gansel’s writing is imbued with her humanity, her humility and her boundless curiosity – an inquisitiveness she displays in person too. When I first met her she showered me with questions, so strong is her impulse to reach out to the other. She has a deep connection to the land and those who work on it, and is equally at home among her shepherd friends, whose way of life she campaigns to preserve, as she is among poets and writers.

There is something about this book that has touched a chord in so many people, creating an entire ecosystem of interest and support, and leading to true friendships between all those involved in its publication.

6. From all the books you have translated so far, what’s your favorite as a reader?

That’s like asking a mother which of her children is her favourite!

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Linda Coverdale, translator from French.

Greatest Women in Translation: Lucinda Byatt

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Welcome back to the Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Lucinda Byatt, non-fiction translator from Italian into English, nominated by Marilyn Booth.

Lucinda Byatt

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1. You were a speaker at this year’s ITI Conference. I was there too! Too bad I missed a chance of meeting you! The topic of your presentation was “What’s involved in translating non-fiction? Rewards and Challenges.” Could you tell us a bit about it?

I’m sorry we didn’t catch up there, too! But thanks so much, both to you and above all Marilyn, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog. The theme of this year’s ITI Conference in Sheffield, UK, was “Beyond the Core: Forging the Future of the Profession” and this was the context of my talk on non-fiction translation. In fact, this is a huge field, ranging from academic works in every discipline to the popular non-fiction markets. Broadly speaking, I focused on three topics: Building up expertise and finding opportunities; Tackling the translation (skills, research); Looking at collaborative translation and working with editors.

I’m very conscious that I can only speak from my own experience – every translator follows a different path and accumulates different skills, of course! But in general, a non-fiction translator tends to be a specialist – at least, that certainly helps, even in a broad field, like my own, which is history, history of art and architectural history. So the somewhat obvious advice in the first part was to follow your interests and to find areas that you are passionate about, and maybe also qualified in – since this is an added incentive to develop your knowledge and gradually build a network of contacts.

The second part of my presentation tried to give some answers to the broad question of what, if any, are the special skills of the non-fiction translator? I think there may be an assumption that translating non-fiction is harder and more complicated than translating fiction. For example, do you need to invest more time in research and fact checking? Or in finding and checking quotations, and deciding whether to use a published translation if one already exists?

I suggested that translating non-fiction need not be harder, and indeed – in some respects – it might actually be easier than translating fiction. For example, a non-fiction author is less likely to be as experimental in style as a novelist, because she or he is focused above all on the argument and the factual content of the book.

Most of the skills required for non-fiction translation are the same as for fiction. There may be no dialogue to deal with in non-fiction, and there’s unlikely to be much colloquial language. But rhythm, word choice and the construction of sentences and paragraphs are just as important in non-fiction writing – particularly in the growing ‘umbrella genre’ of literary non-fiction – as they are in novels. A non-fiction book certainly has a flow, a carefully constructed sequence of chapters, and it often features evocative settings and vivid characterisation.

2. You are one of the very few interviewees in this series who does not work with fiction. You translate books, but primarily focused on history, architecture, art history, and humanities in general. I confess I’m quite happy to feature a non-fiction translator for a change, since, in my humble opinion, we, “technical” translators, do not get as recognized as fiction translators do. Do you feel the same way?

There’s no doubt that compared to fiction, translated nonfiction doesn’t get much of the limelight, and certainly fewer prizes. Yet translated non-fiction will never not be relevant and its benefits are even more trenchant today. English-language publishers have certainly discovered there’s a market for engaging, even challenging, non-fiction books emerging from Europe and beyond. I know I’m not alone in being more aware than ever of how important it is to bolster an open society, and one way of doing that is to offer readers books that deepen their understanding of other cultures and enable them to join in the debates that excite, or aggravate, us all.

And it’s not only published non-fiction that we should consider. Journalism and blogs are also important – non-fiction writing comes in many forms.

I’m intrigued that you use the term “technical” translator. We are all technicians in some respect. As I said before, a non-fiction translation needs the same feel for register, rhythm, tone, voice, flow, etc. as for fiction. These skills form the crux of our ‘techne’, but perhaps the difference is that in non-fiction the approach is usually more subject-specific.

3. Talking about history, you also teach non-translation courses at the University of Edinburgh, such as Italian Renaissance. What came first: the translator or the teacher? And how did you venture into translation?

That’s an interesting question. I did languages all the way through formal education – and had an inspirational French teacher who worked on translation with us in secondary school. Then at university, I did French and German for two years, before eventually focusing on medieval and modern history. Even the next step – a doctorate at the European University Institute – was effectively a blend of languages and history as all my primary sources were in Italian. Learning Italian from scratch was quite a steep learning curve! During the four years I spent in Italy for my doctorate, I worked on various small translation projects and enjoyed them. Moreover, as a Ph.D. student you are also asked to give presentations. So I think I can honestly say that translation and teaching have developed side by side.

However, there have been times when translation has certainly been uppermost. While I was living in Turin – in the Nineties – and for the first six or so years back in Edinburgh – in the Noughties – I was solely a translator. My first published translation was for Polity, and the next few books were for a Swiss publisher, Birkhäuser, and for Cambridge University Press. Sometimes these opportunities arose because I met the editors at book events in Turin and perhaps editing work then led to translation; or occasionally they were the result of a direct approach.

I also worked extensively as a commercial translator during the years we lived in Turin, translating what I think could be called “general” documents for companies and institutions. This general practice allowed me to hone my skills, also in terms of business practice. One of my earliest contacts in Turin was Alan Nixon, whose company Dialogue International is still flourishing. Much of the work he gave me was for Fiat which was then still a big presence in Turin. The technical automotive stuff was beyond me, but I worked on corporate documents and the occasional presentation for the top management. While I was in Turin, I also embarked on a broad range of translation projects for cultural institutions in the city and elsewhere. I loved the variety and again it was valuable experience as I worked for museums and tourist organisations, on cultural policy documents and (from Edinburgh!) even on the 2006 Winter Olympics. In the 1990s technology was in its infancy: I had a pc and email, but no broadband. Work had to be delivered electronically over a modem connection (who remembers its distinctive buzz?) or in hard copy by “Pony Express” (bike couriers). I still work with a few of my Turin clients – one private company holds the record, with a relationship that dates back nearly thirty years!

4. Although you mainly translate non-fiction, your latest book, Murder in Venice, by Maria Luisa Minarelli, is a fiction one. And you also said it’s quite different from the previous two (academic books). How was your experience in translating this fiction book for a change?

I really enjoyed it. The publisher is AmazonCrossing and the offer came out of the blue, but the contract was straightforward and the terms were good. I have to add here that I have always found it very hard to retain copyright for my non-fiction translations. In this case, AmazonCrossing were immediately clear that this was not an issue, although of course it is licensed back to them. Moreover, the contract includes royalties, including on free promotional copies, something that has never been the case in my non-fiction contracts for other publishers. All of my contracts are vetted by the UK Society of Authors, which is a real bonus of membership, and immensely reassuring. However, even with their support, securing copyright and royalties for my translations can still be an uphill struggle.

As is clear from the title, Murder in Venice, Maria Luisa Minarelli’s book is a historical mystery. It’s set in eighteenth-century Venice, so that itself appealed to me. I know Venice well and teach a ten-week course on medieval and early modern Venice. The author’s historical research is excellent and the characters and setting are convincingly portrayed. There were some lovely coincidences too. Just last year, I translated a life of Leonardo da Vinci by Antonio Forcellino, and here – as a key part of Minarelli’s plot – I came across the canal dredger designed by Leonardo, probably while he was living in Milan. Another particularly enjoyable aspect of my foray in fiction was the sense of freedom in the translation process (no footnotes!). Above all, translating the different voices in dialogue was a treat. I’m secretly hoping to do more!

5. These previous academic books you translated were about suicide and lordship in medieval Southern Italy – and then a fiction book. How do you manage to work with such diverse topics? Do you have any established work process?

The non-fiction books I have translated often have varying degrees of connection with my specialized academic field. But the variety is enormously stimulating. It means discovering and researching new topics. Regular contact with the author is an enormous benefit, and given the immediacy of communication now, I think all translators would agree that this is a crucial part of the translation process. For me, it’s often a starting point. If I can talk to the author, by phone or Skype, I find I have a better understanding of the register and pace of the “non-fiction voice” on paper. I also rely on the authors for their specialised knowledge.

My work on Marzio Barbagli’s book, Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide, offered different challenges. It is a masterpiece of sociological and historical analysis. I won’t go into the arguments here – also because it’s certainly not my place to do so! – but I will say that the subject-matter was gruelling at times. In practical terms, a major problem that arose during the translation was the referencing. Many of the reference works had been translated, perhaps from German or French originals into Italian and obviously the footnotes gave pages numbers from the Italian editions. Instead, I had to trace the English translations, where they existed, and then play the “page number” game (different language editions often don’t have the same pagination) as I searched through the books for the correct passages. I’m sure others will know what I’m talking about. It can be a frustratingly slow process, but in the end it’s worthwhile.

The translation of Sandro Carocci’s book on lordship in medieval Southern Italy was a great example of collaboration. Probably the most useful result of working closely with an author is that you can fine tune the message. And, above all for a work of non-fiction, the message is key. Of course, language matters too: and in this case, Sandro’s advice regarding the correct feudal terminology was invaluable.

A similar project was the co-translation with Michael Bury of a sixteenth-century art history treatise by Giovanni Andrea Gilio, “Dialogue on the Errors and Abuses of Painters”. Working together with Carol Richardson, this was in every sense a team project. I was the only “professional” translator, but Michael Bury’s thorough understanding of the text meant that his contribution to the translation was fundamental. Some of the challenges of tackling a historical text, like Gilio’s, are outlined in my chapter on the translation process, which is included in the volume (Getty Publications, 2018).

On that note, I’ve recently also worked on a variety of other historical texts in the context of major exhibitions. These have included extracts from the letters between Emma Hamilton and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily, and also a few letters written by Artemisia Gentileschi. Decisions about language need to be made and my preference is to steer a middle course that tries to avoid unnecessarily archaic vocabulary but also glaring anachronisms. Clarity for the modern reader seems to me to be paramount.

6. You are currently translating a short book for Antonio Foscari, Living with Palladio. What can you tell us about it?

I’ve worked with Antonio Foscari on three previous projects, two of which have also focused on Villa Foscari, an elegant building on the mainland close to Venice, which was designed by the great sixteenth-century architect Antonio Palladio. This is a shorter book and will appeal to a broader audience since the author goes through the villa’s rooms and describes how they would have been used in the late sixteenth century. There are fascinating details about the layout of the villa and the upstairs/downstairs division. For example, the top floor of the villa was used to store grain and other produce because it was dry and also well guarded. Thieves were rare, even the four-legged variety: the smooth bands of plaster applied to the walls made it easier to trap any pesky rodents by preventing them from scrambling up the walls and into the roof space. I really look forward to seeing it in print.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

It’s a real pleasure to nominate Ros Schwartz. Ros is a hugely talented and award-winning translator and an inspiring mentor. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Kings College London and also a director of Warwick Translates Summer School. When I contacted her about this blog she was on her way back from Cameroon where she’d been to lead a literary translation workshop.

Greatest Women in Translation: Marilyn Booth

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Marilyn Booth, nominated by Kari Dickson.

Marilyn Booth

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1. First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Man Booker International Prize as Best International Novel of 2019 with Jokha Alharthi, author of Celestial Bodies, which you translated into English! Jokha was the first Arabic language writer to win the prize and the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English, thanks to you! How does it feel co-winning such a prestigious prize with a woman author of firsts?

It feels great for many reasons. Women have been strong contributors to Arabic narrative and poetry forever, from pre-Islamic and early Islamic poets, and on to medieval Andalusian poets. When something recognizable as ‘the Arabic novel’ emerged in the nineteenth century, women were prominent among their authors (and translators), and they’ve been on the scene ever since, as fictionalists, memoirists and essayists, as well as poets. As Kim Ghattas wrote recently in an essay in The Atlantic, this prize is also yet another little puncture in the appallingly resilient Euro/American stereotypes about Arab women and Muslim women. I’m delighted that commentators have recognised how this novel really challenges stereotypes. It’s also great given the history of literary production in Oman. Long before Oman was a modern nation, it produced strong poets. But modern fiction in Arabic is a relative latecomer to Oman and the other Gulf countries, since the educational and printing infrastructure that was so important to forming writers and readers of fiction was established much earlier in  the national Arabophone communities that emerged from the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt and the rest of northern Africa as well as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine. So Oman hasn’t been at the centre of Arabic literary fiction, though there are many good writers there and I hope the prize encourages even more activity. So it is great to have Omani writers recognised. I also appreciated that this year’s short list was mostly women – all the translators and all but one of the writers (and I do have great respect for the one man writer on the list!).

But the most important thing is that I just felt this was a novel that had to be translated. I did it long before we had a publisher. Sometimes you just have to do things. So it is fantastic that it has gotten such recognition. But I’m afraid I also need to say: before we were shortlisted, the novel wasn’t being reviewed, or featured in bookstores, or anything. So I am a little cynical about the effect of prizes. Great – but what about all the other fantastic fiction in translation out there? The fiction that doesn’t get much notice? In the US, our novel is now being called a ‘must-read’ for autumn 2019, but if we hadn’t got the prize, would any of these enthusiastic commentators and readers have found it? It is great to laud the indie presses that are doing so much to get translated literature out there, but that’s only part of the story.

A book has to find its way to readers, and unfortunately this is not a ‘natural’ process most of the time.

2. Your latest translation, Night Post, by Hoda Barakat, is forthcoming in 2020. Could you tell us a bit about it and its translation process?

I am in the process! So I am in that horrible stage where I feel like I am incompetent at both Arabic and English. (Do other translators out there feel this? I know that some do.) This is an edgy and sad and beauitfully crafted work about statelessness, displacement, and intersections of political and personal conflict. I’ve translated Hoda before; her work is deep, inventive, bold, and ever-changing. The tone of this novel differs to earlier ones, I think, in its intensity, an urgent sense of anger and desperation – and an attempt to hold onto hope in spite of this – that the characters convey. It’s told by a series of narrators who are in limbo, politically, geographically, emotionally. Recently, Night Post was a controversial choice for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, sometimes called ‘the Arabic Booker’). I haven’t followed all the narrative on that, but what I celebrate is that this can be a controversial choice precisely because there is so much fantastic writing in Arabic that is being published. Not enough of it appears in translation, of course.

And one thing I feel passionate about is trying to find a way to translate and publish a lot of fantastic works in Arabic published throughout the twentieth century. There were some amazing 1950s novels for instance… (as there have been in every decade). Sometimes publishers seem to only want the latest thing – a little more on that below – and I think that is unfortunate.

I can’t really say any more about the process, because I’m inside of it. I’m in there, and moving around, and pondering voice. This novel is very different to Hoda’s earlier novels and, for instance, to Celestial Bodies. Of course, every work demands its own voice and its own set of strategies. That’s one of the creative joys of literary translation, isn’t it? Another is that, in the end, it’s about good writing.

3. In our email exchange, you mentioned you were treated in a “scandalous way” in translating Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea. Could you briefly tell us what happened?

Well, you asked about that – and indeed, it was a very upsetting experience. I cannot comment on the author’s perspective, because she never told me. She just wanted the translation to be other than the one I submitted. The ‘scandalous’ aspect was that Penguin, after accepting my translation (and apparently really liking it, to judge by the emails I got from the editor at the time), allowed the author to change it in any way she wanted. I don’t think the result was successful, but what is ‘scandalous’ is that they had no interest in my literary choices as a translator and I had no status as the author of the English-language text. I have used the term ‘scandalous’ because a reviewer used that for the translation – and I totally agreed with that reviewer, and I wrote in to say, yes, ‘scandalous’ but not for the reasons you think!

I really thought that this novel was fantastic in its innovative and out-there use of a blog structure, of colloquial Arabics, of a truly and literarily canny narrative about a globalized culture of privileged people. The Arabic text, in its structure, deploys a kind of voyeurism that actually exposes authoritarian patriarchal practices for what they are, and links local patriarchies to global consumer commodity fetishism as well as to attempted censorship practices which the novel defeats through its very existence. One of the ironies of the way I was treated in this translation situation was that unlike quite a few other academic specialists in Arabic literature, I really appreciated this novel. Not for the plot(s), the stories of the young women in themselves but rather for the politics of language and patriarchal culture that it so imaginatively inscribed (which are also about young women, of course, and young men). I’m still sad that the author apparently disliked my work so much that she wasn’t even willing to negotiate or work together on it, though I expressed to the editor a willingness to do so. (I knew I was perhaps being too edgy in my translation choices in that novel, and would have let go of some of that if we’d had a chance to work together on it.) I think it is a shame. In English, it emerged as a straightforward story about four Saudi young women, in a rather cliched style. I wanted to translate it because I thought it was much more than that.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the whole incident raises difficult questions about the distribution of power in the literary translation business, in a hyped-up commercial scene where celebrity authorship may not be a positive factor in producing the best possible translations. One ‘small’ – but I think very significant and disturbing – sign of that power imbalance is the fact that most presses still do not put translators’ names on book covers. Of course, that has to do with the prevailing sense that readers are scared off by translations. I hope (and believe) that this is changing, and the Man Booker International helps in that. But we translators have to keep on fighting for the rights we ought to have.

4. On the later article you wrote to the Translation Studies journal, Translator v. author (2008), you discuss this incident in light of domestication and “the strong bias toward ‘transparent’ translation that privileges sociological content over literary texture and the thickness of locale.” Do you think this is a problem faced mainly by translated Arabic literature in Anglophone literary marketplaces? Why do you think so?

I do think it is a problem, though I think the pressures are truly complicated. In this case, perhaps it was partly that the original author wanted her novel to appeal to a certain audience, and she thought she knew best how to do that. But that is part of a broader pressure, right? I can’t say whether this is more true for Arabic works than for other traditions. I expect most literary translators have been faced with situations where they are urged to provide more ‘clarity’ at the expense of following the rhythms and perspectives of the work they are translating. Of course, we all read partly in order to learn about other worlds, whether temporal or geographical or spiritual. But that’s also about appreciating types of complexity or ambiguity (or seeming ambiguity), including the different ways of being and seeing that different languages and histories offer. A novel set in Iraq, or in Oman, or in the US civil war, may teach readers a lot about ‘Iraqi history’ or ‘Omani history’ or ‘the history of the civil war’ but not necessarily in an easily understood fashion. Sometimes I have the feeling that publishers (and readers?) are more willing to accept complexity in a literary work centred in their own world of experience than they are if it is from elsewhere. I have wondered whether this is especially the case for works from Arabophone countries, or from Muslim-majority countries, given the intensive and sensitive political relations that partly govern attitudes amongst Europeans and North Americans towards those societies, and the very real desires that readers have to ‘understand’ them. But the worst thing is to me a novel for political information. Linked to this is a kind of ‘presentist’ bias in publishers’ choices: they seem most interested in the latest thing, and I think that is at least partly due to the intensity of the political scene in Arabophone countries. I’d like to hear from translators of other languages whether they feel a similar political pressure, though. At the same time, we are in a difficult political moment: so many people seem to be turning inward. Hoda’s Night Post is important, then, not only as a strong artistic presence but as a political intervention itself in a world where the displaced represent a radical ‘difference’ that is too often unwelcome. In this moment – no doubt in any moment – as a translator I feel that bringing such works into English is the most important political act I can offer.

Understanding of course is a much more complex operation, and I do trust readers to grapple with that necessary difficulty. As a translator, one way I try to bring the reader inside of a complex world that might be new to her is by preserving Arabic usages in the translation, and figuring out how to make them meaningful. I usually find that sticking very close to the language of the original yields the richest and most powerful translation. But that isn’t always the way others feel!

5. Among one of your current and envisioned research projects, you mention “research on contemporary practices of Arabic literary translation, especially first-author/second-author [translator] interactions and the politics of publishing and marketing.” Does it have anything to do with the incident above? Could you kindly elaborate a bit more about it?

I started interviewing other translators about this; I was motivated by that experience and by one other situation of miscommunication with an author I had translated. But also I wanted to pursue it because I have not seen much work in academic translation studies on how ‘first’ and ‘second’ authors get along. It’s a fascinating topic. For me, most of the authors I’ve translated have become wonderful friends. We work together. Translation is an intimate process of discovery for both authors, and I am enormously grateful for the friendships that have been at least partly the outcome of this process.

But as I suggested above, I think that in the present moment literary translation is particularly fraught, subject to all sorts of cultural and commercial and political pressures on everyone involved. (I am more sympathetic than I may sound to the pressures publishers deal with.) As you know from reading my articles, one thing that really animated and upset me about the Girls of Riyadh situation was that the academic literature on literary translation would suggest that I ‘had the power’, as a North American white woman, to produce the work. And yet, in that case, I clearly didn’t. So what is the politics here? I have to confess that I haven’t followed up on that research I did – I think it is important but I’m more interested in my nineteenth-century research.

6. One of your main topics of research and about which you have written books, book chapters, articles, and essays is gender, history, and politics in the Arabic literature. What is the connection among them?

And translation! This is an enormous topic. As in so many parts of the world (including most of Europe), in the nineteenth century, Arabophone intellectuals and activists of all persuasions were subjecting themselves and their societies to rigorous questioning about the sources of societal strength: nationalist movements emerged, partly (but not entirely) in response to European imperial power. A central aspect of this self-questioning concerned gender roles and how they were implicated in social transformation as well as in the international politics of reputation. I study the emergence of feminism and of other kinds of gender activism in Egypt and across the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, and particularly its discursive aspects: who was writing, about what, how, and who did writers seek to reach? I mentioned the novel earlier – and the nineteenth-century Arabic novel was a site for exploring such issues, especially through the theme of chosen romantic love versus arranged or coerced marriages, and how this intersected with national politics and economic well-being. Translation was hugely important: works from European languages as well as from Turkish were translated and adapted, and I study that range of practices. For instance, I recently published a study of how Fénelon’s 1689 French text on girls’ education was translated in radically different ways, and argued over, 1901-9, in Egypt.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Lucy Byatt, whom I’ve known among a group of wonderful women in Edinburgh. Lucy is a translator of academic and creative nonfiction, especially works of history and art history, from Italian, and also writes in collaboration with others. She has produced some gorgeous books. Lucy also teaches at the University of Edinburgh.

Greatest Women in Translation: Kari Dickson

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Welcome back to my beloved Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

The interviewee featured this month is Kari Dickson, nominated by Sophie Hughes.

Kari Dickson

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1. You have taken an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Surrey. What a pleasant coincidence! I have also taken an MA in Translation Studies (with Intercultural Communication) there, in 2009/2010. So how about you start telling us a bit about it?

Back in the day, the MA at Surrey was the only one where you could specialize in Scandinavian languages. I thought it was an excellent programme; it combined theory with practice, and we also had classes in technology, international law and economics, as well as weekly talks by professionals. Translation theory is perhaps not everyone’s bag, and is an academic discipline in its own right. Personally, I enjoyed learning about different schools of thought on what the translation process is, and it supported my practice, but did not necessarily make me a better translator. In my experience as both a practitioner and a teacher, I have come to see it as a shortcut – it kick-starts the brain into thinking like a translator. However, I have also learnt over the years that it’s not necessary to have an MA in order to become an excellent translator, it’s the practice that really matters. I know many people who have come to translation via other routes. These days, however, more and more agencies are asking for higher qualifications and experience with CAT tools. And I’m showing my age by saying that when I did the MA, we discussed the CAT tools that were being introduced to the market, but they were still not a requirement to get work! I am also showing my age when I tell you that it was here that I learned to use a word processor; it was age of WordPerfect for DOS and daisywheel printers, but gave me an invaluable tool to start my career. My guess is that anyone thinking of being a translator today will know how to use a computer, so won’t need to do an MA for that!

The MA was geared towards commercial and technical translation, but the head of department knew that I wanted eventually to translate literature and encouraged me to pursue this. She was the one who put me in touch with NORLA, an organization that promotes Norwegian literature abroad and provides translation subsidies, as well as invaluable support for translators at all stages of the profession. And I am forever indebted to her for that. That meeting with NORLA was the greatest springboard to my development as a literary translator – the second being the BCLT summer school and what is now the National Centre for Writing.

I think that in terms of literary translation, these organizations and opportunities are of more importance than the MA, to be honest, as they have provide contact network of colleagues and publishers that support my life as a translator.

2. You worked for four years as staff translator at a Norwegian bank. How was this experience? What did you learn that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

The job at the central bank of Norway was my first job after doing the MA in Translation, and they definitely employed me because I had an MA. I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work inhouse at the outset – I felt like a newly hatched chick, and was able to develop in a stable and secure environment, certainly in terms of finances and confidence. I worked as part of a team of three; the two other translators had been working there for many years and basically mentored me. One of the first things they suggested I do was learn to touch type, as it would increase my productivity. I had no background in economics, so obviously, I learned an enormous amount about economics in general, but also the national economy of Norway, as it was the central bank. But I also learned that I wasn’t necessarily suited to an office job. When I then set up as a freelancer, my experience from the central bank gave a kind of stamp of quality that helped to build my portfolio of clients.

This, in turn, provided me with a relatively good financial base from which to take the plunge into literary translation, through my contact with NORLA.

3. You have an impressively long list of translation works. Which of them did you like translating the most and why? And which of them was the most challenging and why?

Ohohoh, that is so hard to answer. Each book has its merits and challenges. But I do particularly like translating short stories, and at the moment am thoroughly enjoying working with Gunnhild Øyehaug. I first translated one of her short stories (Two by Two) in 2005, and have championed her ever since. Her first collection of short stories and first novel were then picked up by Farrar Strauss & Giroux in 2016, so I’ve been able to indulge in my love of her writing, and in the past few months I have translated a further five-six pieces by her. She is at once realistic and wildly fantastic, with a lot of humour, and she works on several levels, as she likes to use a meta-device or two. Her style involves a lot of comma splices, run-on sentences, and innovative use of compound nouns, etc., so there are plenty of challenges when rendering it in English. Interestingly, I seem to get away more with the US editors than I would with UK editors (having said that, I have never worked with a UK editor on Gunnhild’s work). We also have a very good working relationship – Gunnhild is one of the authors I have had most contact with. An obvious advantage of short stories is that they are fast to read, so we can have a couple of edits together and discuss them fully, whereas with longer works (some of the books I have done have been 600 pages plus) that is a lot harder, unless both author and translator take the time to sit together for a week or two!

The other book that I would like to mention is Beyond the Great Indoors by Ingvar Ambjørnsen (aka Elling). This was a co-translation with Don Bartlett, and was my first published translation. I love working collaboratively. It has its challenges, especially in terms of ego, when the word you are so pleased with, is dropped – but I was constantly learning and honing my skills, and I do believe it makes for a better product (and possibly a better person too, as you’re having to work with and accommodate other people’s ideas and language). It was a great experience, as we played to each other strengths, and I would definitely like to do more co-translations.

4. In the 2017 edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you were part of a panel for Daniel Hahn: The Power of Translation. I’m not asking you to tell us about it because if you are like me, chances are you don’t remember it at all. So my question is: What is the power of translation, in your opinion?

Well, the way things stand today, certainly here in the UK, I think the power of translation is abundantly clear. I have spent much time over the past months and years thinking about what I can do personally to fight against the tide of xenophobia that has been unleashed since the Brexit referendum, and the answer is always translate, translate, translate. Miguel Unamuno famously said: Fascism is cured by reading, and racism is cured by travelling. And translated literature allows us to do both, even from our armchair – it expands our understanding of other cultures and places, helps us to see our own situation in a new light, makes us curious, and broadens our capacity to embrace the unknown. Just a couple of days ago, I did a very Edinburgh Fringe thing for the first time in years: I took a punt on the one show that wasn’t sold out in the venue I was called Before the Revolution by the Temple Independent Theatre Company from Egypt and was in Arabic with surtitles. The two actors, dressed in white, stood facing us without moving, on a bed of nails for the entire forty minutes or so. At first I expected something more to happen, to be entertained more in some way, and then I thought “these people must really want to tell me their story” and I listened more carefully and learned so much. I left with a grain of understanding of what people in Egypt had been through, which I would never have had, had they hadn’t bothered to have their play translated and come to the Edinburgh Fringe.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things to be said about the power of translation, but for me, at the moment, this is the most important.

5. In ten years of experience giving seminars and talks, you have talked about different topics, such as translating (crime) fiction, translating cultural peculiarities, translation theory and practice, the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor, etc. What do you like talking about the most and why?

I always feel terrified when I’m asked to do something like this, but have learned to say yes, no matter. I tend to think of myself as quite an organic translator; I grew up bilingually, more or less, and even though I’ve studied translation theory and the like, I rarely think in any detail about what I’m doing or my strategy while I’m working. So being forced to sit down and think more clearly about the translation process from whichever angle is a good thing. I think it’s not so much what I’m talking about, but rather who I’m talking with that makes it fun. And I never tire of talking with other translators (I think generally, translators never tire of talking translation) – there are very few others who find the minutiae of what we do interesting for more than a short while, so it’s always a treat to be allowed to indulge. The last panel that I chaired on the symbiotic relationship between translator and editor was a great one as the topic is a rich vein to plow: the direct relationship between translator and editor, the translator as copy editor/proofer, the translator as editor of an anthology, for example. Everyone on the panels works with and wears both hats, so it was a very insightful, engaging and lively discussion.

6. What book translated from Norwegian into English do you highly recommend us?

Again, such a hard question to answer, I could recommend so many, for so many different reasons. But given what I said above about the power of translation, and given the swing to the right in so many countries today, I’m going to say The Seed by Tarjei Vesaas, published in English by Peter Owen in 1966. And since the terrorist attack in Norway by a far right extremist in 2011, I have been bending people’s ear about this book, and trying to get the publisher to retranslate it. I think perhaps I just need to do it, if nothing else to ease my own itch. Vesaas wrote the book in 1939-40. It is a highly symbolic story about how violence comes to an idyllic island with the arrival of a disturbed young man who had experienced a fatal explosion in the factory where he worked. It is about mob mentality, violence, blame, guilt and atonement, and the message could not be clearer: violence must not be tolerated.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

There are so many great women in translation I would love to nominate, though you have interviewed a number of them already. I am going to nominate Marilyn Booth, who translates from Arabic, and her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Beings recently won the Booker International. I know her as a former colleague from Edinburgh University, a neighbour, a fellow translator, and most essentially of all, good company!

Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Hughes

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

It’s August, Women in Translation (WiT) month! Let’s start celebrating it in great style by welcoming our next interviewee, Sophie Hughes, nominated by Juana Adcock. And stay tuned, because this month’s monthly post will also be WiT-related.

Welcome, Sophie!

Sophie Hughes

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1. Back in 2017 you contributed to a Literary Hub series calling for more women authors to be translated, suggesting books in Spanish by Latin American women writers that you would love to see in English. Since it has already been two years, has any of them been translated meanwhile since then? Would you add any other to the list now?

To my knowledge, these are the three that are either forthcoming or now published, which in itself isn’t a bad number, but it’s also possible that there are more in the pipeline (perhaps a translator beavering away somewhere to make it happen by producing an irresistible sample).

Humiliation by Paulina Flores (forthcoming Catapult; Oneworld Publications, tr. Megan McDowell)

Nona Fernanda’s Space Invaders (forthcoming Graywolf, tr. Natasha Wimmer) and hopefully The Twilight Zone will follow now that she has “broken into English”, a horrible phrase.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (And Other Stories; Coffee House Press, tr. Sophie Hughes) and for which I’m proud and even more delighted to say we were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019.

I think that if I don’t keep adding to these lists in my head, I’m not doing my job properly, because we have to keep reading to be able to find out about new writers and to promote them and pitch them to keep feeding into the system. I see my brief as a literary translator as very wide (this is part of its appeal!). I understand myself as being part of the publishing biosphere where each organism works in delicate balance with those around them. So as a translator I support authors by reading them; I support agents by producing paid samples or simply writing to say how much you liked x book before they go off pitching it; I might support a literary scout by reading for them and doing paid reports; literary journals by writing articles for them; publishers by translating and promoting for them; real booksellers by buying from them, etc.. I suppose there’s also a fear of falling behind in my reading. I live in the UK now, and only visit Latin America once a year if I’m lucky. I’d feel a real fraud if I didn’t try my hardest to keep up to date with what is being read and published and how it is being received there.

WiT month is nearly upon us, so perhaps there will be a repeat or an update of the series. I’ll look into it! 

2. This 2016 article you wrote on the then Man Book International Prize winner is really touching! Could you elaborate a bit more on what exactly you mean when you say “perhaps authors never have quite such an attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”?

That is a great question, and I’m very happy to return to my comment and think about it again, three years on. They are two very different kinds of attachments. Since writing that article, which talks about the translator as a kind of surrogate parent to the text, I’ve actually had a child myself. And I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I feel the same way; I think the metaphor still stands. It’s about responsibility, different levels and senses of responsibility. As a parent (as the author of the text), after the initial feeling of “Shit, I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this newborn thing that needs me for everything” (the outset of writing a book), these children (or brainchildren) start to look after themselves a bit more: you grow into your child or text and relax into rearing or writing them because you know them so, so intimately; they are a part of you because they were born of you and bred in your home. By the end, you know them better than anyone.

Enter stage the literary translator! I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations. The anxiety produced from working on a brilliant piece of writing and knowing that it has to be brilliant in English is sometimes overwhelming. Speaking, as that article did, of tears, I cried many times translating my latest novel, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, and not only because the novel is heartrending. To someone who does not translate, it is hard to express how deeply you have to tap into both the author’s and their characters’ minds, into the world described, into the fabric of both the source and target language, and how exquisite but also acutely discombobulating and visceral and draining that can sometimes be. Read this piece in Words without Borders by Julia Sanches on translating the Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’s O sol na cabeça (The Sun On My Head) and then read her translations of the stories. That is extreme attachment. That, in my opinion, is assuming her translator’s responsibility wholeheartedly (heart being the operative morpheme). And it’s why she’s one of the best.

As a final note, I’d add that if I could amend that article, I might now clarify: “perhaps authors never have quite the same attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”. After all, it’s not a competition! 

3. In this article, you say “In my personal utopia, our English evolves thanks to translation.” Do you still think so? If so, could you elaborate more on this idea?

Oh, absolutely! I think it at a most basic logical level in that if literature helps language evolve, and translated literature falls under ‘literature’, then English evolves thanks to translation. To give a practical example, I like the idea that translators carry across source language punctuation traits. The punctuation system in English as we know it (including words like comma and semi-colons) was still only coming into existence at the end of the 16th century. It isn’t really very old at all. We tend to think that it has sort of settled down, and publishers and editors and writers adhere to norms without really thinking (for practical reasons), but translators have to think about it differently, creatively. I like the idea that translation can create unruly (and often very sensible and correct-feeling) instances of punctuation. It frees up English in this sense. We marvel when, every now and then, ‘revolutionary’ or even ‘genius’ English-language writers do the same thing (the first contemporary writer that comes to mind is Eimear McBride). I marvel every time I notice a translator has stuck closely to the source language punctuation at the expense of English ‘correctness’. Not revolutionary maybe, but certainly evolutionary!

4. You are a member of various associations, West Midlands Literary Translators Network, Society of Authors’ Translators Association, and Emerging Translators’ Network. In your opinion, as a (literary) translator, what are the advantages of becoming a member of professional associations?

The benefits of being a member of each of these associations differ depending on what they offer, of course, but essentially it all boils down to company, solidarity and support in a profession that is filled with lovely people, but is also something of a minefield (from complex clauses in contracts to the dubious ethics or even sometimes safety threat of translating a certain text). I highly recommend translators join local and national professional associations where they can.

5. Are you working on any translation now? If so, tell us a bit more about it. If not, tell us about your last translation. Or talk about both, if you like. 

I’m working on a sample of Rodrigo Hasbún’s next novel, which is wonderful. Very different to his first novel to be translated into English (by me in 2017), Affections. I’ve missed translating his careful, quiet prose. I’ve just delivered two novel translations: a co-translation for Charco Press with Juana Adcock of the marvelous Colombian writer Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (a more poignant portrait of a father-son relationship would be hard to come by), and a translation of Mexican author Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for New Directions and Fitzcarraldo Press (one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read). Next up: a new writer to me (and to English readers), another Mexican, Brenda Navarro, for Daunt Books. It’s a book about motherhood and disappearances of various kinds.

6. What translated book into English by a woman writer and/or woman translator do you recommend us?

That’s impossible because I don’t know you! To anyone reading this who has just had their heart broken (or ever, I suppose –it always smarts), read ‘Poem of the End’ by Marina Tsvetaeva in Elaine Feinstein’s translation. Read it and weep. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Translator from the Norwegian, Kari Dickson, who I was lucky enough to get to know on a blissful residency in Cove Park in Scotland. To meet her is to be reminded that literary translation is never a solitary act if you embrace the profession and the brilliant, life-hungry people in it.

 

Sophie, thanks a lot for such an interesting interview filled with great tips of books to read and how to support writers, translators, publishers, etc. It was a pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you a bit better. Congratulations on the amazing job you do!

Greatest Women in Translation: Juana Adcock

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Juana Adcock, poet and translator working in English and Spanish, nominated by Robin Myers.

Juana Adcock

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1. You were brought up bilingual (to an English father and a Mexican mother, having spent the first part of your childhood in England and the rest, till the age 25, in Mexico). To which extent do you think this has influenced you into being a translator? Has it helped somehow?

Absolutely. My entire life experience has been marked by an obsession with language and the written world, and very real, embodied experiences of linguistic and cultural translation. My dad is a translator too, and runs a commercial translation agency. He gave me my first job after I graduated from university, and growing up, the conversations at the dinner table more often than not revolved around translation problems. My whole life has been like one never-ending Translation Summer School (for those who have attended such things, you’ll know that’s pretty intense!). I don’t know if any of this has helped me as a person, as it has made me a bit too aware of language, in a way that can be pretty dysfunctional when it comes to off-the-page interpersonal communication (as most of my friends and family will attest!). But it definitely gave me a career path which I love dearly and am deeply grateful for. And the longer I work in this profession, the more I realise that being bilingual will never automatically equip you with the ability to translate. So many more skills and tools are needed than that, and the learning process is infinite. Each new translation project teaches me a lot, and that’s precisely the fun of it.

2. Having been based in Glasgow since 2007, you say you have a fascination with the Scots language(s). It’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve just arrived from a vacation in Europe, when I visited Edinburgh for the first time and was genuinely impressed and fascinated by their English, so I would love to hear what you have to say about it. Can you give us examples of what fascinates you most in the Scots language(s)?

I love the immense variation in accents – a phenomenon that you get throughout the UK but which seems even more marked in Scotland, where words seem closer to their roots and down in the ground instead of coming out of your mouth like rings of smoke and floating above your head the way they do in things like RP. Leaving Gaelic aside (which is a whole other thing I haven’t explored very much yet) in Scotland you have the Doric of the northeast coast, the Dundonian, the sing-songy accent of Fife, and even within Glasgow you get a huge array of different accents: Southside versus the east end Dennistoun versus East Kilbride. Many of these variations intersect with the old trade routes and family histories of migration, as well as social class. Then you have the historic Scots – what Robert Burns wrote in – and modern literary Scots, which may or may not be a mashup of Scots from different regions. The vocabulary comes from Germanic, Old French and Dutch, but the grammar is also different, as is the pace, intonation and pronunciation. Literary Scots also often has to reinvent its own spelling each time it is written, as a way to represent on the page the way people speak. I adore not always being fully able to understand what people are saying and instead just bathing in the music people make with their mouths; just giving in and letting it wash over me like it’s pure poetry. My earliest encounters with Scottish accents were through the film Trainspotting and Mogwai’s first album, Young Team, where one of the songs includes a telephone conversation which I couldn’t understand a word of, despite being a native speaker of what was purportedly the same language. Here’s a few lines of my favourite poem by Alexander Hutchison, who wrote in Doric as well as English (you can read the whole poem here):

                                                                   Deid-loss or Daidalos

                                                                   fit’s it gaan tae be?

 

Pooshin pumpers, coonter-jumpers, cairpet fitters birslin wi a moo-fae

o tacks; tomcats; corncrakes; shilly-shally sharn shifters; couthy bicuspids;

aa the wee glisterin anes; aa them that wid grudge ye one jow o the bell.

 

The neist yett swung, syne mair wis kythit: tethered tups,

draigelt yowes; the slalom loons fae Dandruff Canyon; wheepers

o candy-floss; footerin futtrets; the hee-haw-hookum o hystet hizzies;

foosty fowk lik Finnan haddies; Buckie blaavers wi the full wecht o blaw.

 

As you can imagine, carrying all this into Spanish was no easy feat. My approach was to use a combination of modern northeastern Mexican slang and archaic words and to be as musical as possible to try and replicate what the poem is doing. I don’t know how successful I was, but I definitely want to work with Scots.

I recently wrote a long love poem to the Scots language. As is my habit, the poem moves between different languages, in this case English, Scots, Spanish and Italian. Whilst performing it I become hyper aware of where the words sit in my body: I was already well familiar with the way Spanish booms in my chest while English thins out above my head, but I was amazed by how the Scots goes back down to my chest. I probably need to write a whole other poem about that, too.

3. You have worked in a couple of co-translations (An Orphan World, by Giuseppe Caputo, with Sophie Hughes; Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener, with Lucy Greaves). How is the experience of co-translating different from translating a book entirely by yourself?

It’s basically a lot less lonely, and a lot more fun. It’s being able to engage in a three way collaboration: not just with the author who may or may not want to be very involved in the process personally, but with someone who understands the mechanisms of both languages and every single one of the minute problems you are trying to resolve. You get to make a lot of insider jokes that only you and your co-translator will ever understand. And, personally, I grow to love the work a lot more through the love that emerges in the collaborative process. Even though I’m a writer, I sometimes don’t work particularly well in isolation. I can get bogged down in the details, or stuck for days trying to come up with a solution to something that my co-translator doesn’t even see as a problem: to them the answer is obvious. Then of course comes a whole other conversation, and I think the translation becomes richer because of it. Each translation is a different reading, and a co-translation is merging two different readings into one. It is a wonderful luxury and a very rare one in the world of books: as readers, during the act of reading, we are always alone with the text. We may be able to talk about our reading experience with a fellow reader after the fact, but we really get to do with another person the kind of close reading that translation is. If I could, I would only ever do co-translation for the rest of my days.

4. Besides being a translator, you are a poet and musician, playing in two all-female bands (including writing some of the songs in one of them). Talk about talent in arts! Do they combine somehow and add to each other or help in one another?

Music helps me immensely. It both grounds me and lifts my spirits, and when I’ve been playing music my writing and translating feel freer, more relaxed and spontaneous. The voice I’m looking for takes less time to appear: I can hear it more clearly in my head, and all I have to do is transcribe. I did try and quit music for good at some point: it was the worst mistake of my life. I’ve never been so depressed or creatively blocked. I’ve now promised myself to always play music, even if just to myself in my bedroom, because it makes me a better writer and a better translator.

5. Last November, you presented at the Glasgow Feminist Arts Festival at an event called So It Is Better To Speak, which explored “the fluidity and complexity of women-identifying and non-binary identities through sound, voice and the body,” and emphasized “the importance of shared knowledges and experiences that emerge when we speak up and out.” Sounds really interesting! Could you tell us a bit more about how it was and what exactly you did?

That was one of the best events I’ve ever had the honour to take part in. The festival was organised and curated by the brilliant film critic and scholar Becca Harrison, and the event included a balancing act from composer Amble Skuse, Scottish folk song with a feminist twist from Burd Ellen, contemporary flute from Diljeet Bhachu; storytelling from Mara Menzies; and a queer sermon by performance maker Nelly Kelly. The performances were followed by a roundtable discussion hosted by Dee Heddon of the University of Glasgow. It’s not often that you get to see music, performance, poetry and storytelling in a single event which also has an intersectional feminist focus. It was a true luxury to see everyone’s work alongside each other and then have the time to talk about our creative processes and how feminism informs our practice, exploring questions we don’t often get to ask ourselves and each other. It surprised me that we all seemed to be working with the archive in one way or anthoer, drawing from it but also resisiting it in different ways, re-inventing or fictionalising it as a way to subvert the heteropatriarchal discourse. And I learned a lot from hearing all of these insanely talented artists talk about their work, as they helped me understand my own practice from a different angle, and even gave me new ideas for how to tackle work in progress that I’d been struggling with. The event was packed out at the CCA in Glasgow, with the only man in the audience being Becca’s boyfriend! But that was somehow even better. I cannot wait for the festival’s next edition, and if I didn’t live in Glasgow I would travel just to come to it. It is as unique and richly informative as it is urgent in our current times. Definitely keep your eyes peeled for it and come to it if you can.

6. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate my beloved co-translator, Sophie Hughes.

Greatest Women in Translation: Robin Myers

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talk to Robin Myers, US-born, Mexico City-based literary translator and poet, nominated by Charlotte Whittle.

Robin Myers

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1. Could you start by telling us about your beginning in translation?

I first became fascinated with translation in my late teens. At the time, it felt like the natural amalgam of several other interests: poetry, the Spanish language, and Mexico. I was born and raised in the US, but part of my father’s family came from Mexico; I visited a couple times as a child and always wanted to spend more time here. So I studied Spanish as the means to this very specific end. I lived in the city of Oaxaca for a few months after high school, then again halfway through college. It was during those early experiences of real immersion—in the language, in a place I loved, in my first Spanish-speaking friendships, in my first forays into reading contemporary Mexican literature—that I started experimenting with translation. There was something very simple and earnest about those initial explorations: I just wanted to share what I was reading (whether in English or Spanish) with people I cared about. As innocent as this may sound to me now—or at least as far removed as it can feel from certain parts of the day-to-day grind—I still believe that the desire to translate springs from the desire to connect, period. Of course we want that! Of course we want to bring disparate words, disparate worlds together.

In any case, it wasn’t too long before my translatorly hopes and expectations came into contact with more technical realities. In college, I spent a semester studying in Buenos Aires and took a workshop with Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, a remarkable Argentine poet and translator. Ezequiel’s approach emphasized the metrical building blocks of the Spanish-language poetic tradition, and at first I railed against this focus on syllable-counting and form. But I came around, and I started to genuinely enjoy the search for poetic “solutions” within a set of formal parameters. Ezequiel’s mentorship was very important to me as I started translating in a more professional way, and we’ve both gone on to translate each other’s work over the years, which has been a great gift.

2. Besides being a translator you are also a poet. Does being a poet help as translator and vice-versa? If so, how?

It absolutely helps. Both poetry and translation (and by this I mean the translation of anything, not just poetry) are practices rooted in the materiality of language. If you write poetry or translate anything, you are in the business of dealing with words as stuff, as resources, as concrete elements you shape and combine to form certain structures and spark particular effects in the reader. Of course, in translation, you’re using language in response to—in relation to—language that already exists in the world. You’re writing (because translating is also writing) in the service of and in complicity with that language. In this sense, too, translation demands both that you saturate yourself with the original text and that you distance yourself from it. That doubleness has helped me write my own poetry, I think, at least in the sense that it’s made the experience of writing poetry much more interesting. For one thing, it’s made me more conscious of the artifice of whatever I’m doing (and I mean “artifice” not as an insult but as a fact). For the same reason, it’s also made me feel freer to experiment: to think with more curiosity and more gratitude about language as “tools” and how I might try them out. I do feel that writing poetry affects my translations as well, or my approach to translating. For example, I care a great deal about sound when I write poetry, about what happens to words when we string them together and speak them aloud, and I feel a similar need to “hear” what language does in translating both poetry and prose. That said, I don’t mean to talk about this obsession with sound as if it were strictly the domain of poetry, much less of poets, because that’s not the case at all! I’m just musing about what it feels like for me in going about things as I go about them.

3. Could you please kindly share one of your (short) poems with us?

Here’s an untitled poem (they’re all untitled) from a collection called Having, which was translated into Spanish by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg and published as Tener in Argentina, Mexico, and (soon) Spain:

You can have it.

You can have the mad dash
and the mist,
the burned tongue
and honey-slick,
the cup
intact.

The night rage, the gray dawn
forgiving you.

The train,
the track.

The soft hairs
at the nape of the neck,
the thrilled plunge
and the cast.

You can have the rest of it.

You can rest.

It will drive you mad.

You will scald your way through
the days, trying
to have all of it,

having it.

4. In this interview you gave for the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said “translation is a weird, lovely, mysterious, largely invisible relationship, both for the translator and for the translated.” Why is that?

I mean, it’s so intimate! Even if the author and translator never meet, even if the author can’t read the language she’s been translated into, even if the author’s been dead for hundreds of years. No matter what, the translator gets to—has to—inhabit the text, figure out what makes it run, spend an unholy amount of time studying how the author thinks and what she cares about.

The translator invariably has to make tradeoffs, has to figure out what can or should or under no circumstances ought to be sacrificed. It feels like a serious responsibility!

The translator is entrusted with something. With any luck, if she and the author exist on the same mortal plane and can talk to each other and choose to do so, they’ll both view the translation process as something that links them together. And they’ll both register this as an honor: the translator, honored at the invitation to engage with the text, attend to it, and deliver it somewhere new; the translated, honored to have her work—which she, too, once produced in a solitary act of faith—engaged with, attended to, and delivered in this way. But even if the translator and the author walk the earth at different moments in history, or are never in personal contact, or don’t even personally like each other very much, this relationship still exists. The devotion, the attention, the responsibility, the anxiety, the fact that the translator ultimately creates a second work of art that is both inseparable from and necessarily independent of the first: it’s all there, all the time. I find it so strange! Thrillingly strange, though.

5. Your poems are translated into other languages, including Portuguese, right? How is it like being in both sides, as translator and translated author?

It’s been very joyful and moving. Yes, poems of mine have been translated mostly into Spanish, with shorter selections into Galician, Arabic, and Portuguese. Many of these translations have emerged from long-term dialogues and friendships; several of the translators are themselves poets I’ve translated from Spanish into English. So it’s hard to be objective about it; it’s all felt like a series of long, warm conversations, marked by a sense both of deep connection and of distance. Distance in the sense that I always hope a translator will feel that the poems also belong to her, you know? In all her particularities, all her personal styles and tastes and approaches.

If I write a poem and someone else translates it—or the other way around—it’s ours.

Part of what I still find uniquely powerful about the experience of being translated into Spanish, though, is that my books have only been published in Spanish translation. Not in English, and not in my own country of origin. And since I’m based in Mexico, when I take part in poetry readings, for example, I mostly read in Spanish. Which means I’m directly and constantly identifying myself with someone else’s work as my primary form of participation. Which means I’m inhabiting and sharing theirs as much as my own.

6. Are you currently translating any books? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?

I currently have three prose projects in the works: by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Chile), there’s Cars on Fire, a wild, free-wheeling, darkly funny collection of short stories set between Chile and New York, forthcoming from Open Letter Books in 2020; Animals at the End of the World, a novel by Gloria Susana Esquivel (Colombia) about a young girl growing up in her grandparents’ house in Bogotá, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in 2020; and The Restless Dead, a book of critical essays by Cristina Rivera Garza (Mexico) about disappropriation, “necropolitics,” and contemporary literature. I’m also working on various poetry projects in hopes of eventually finding homes for them in English. These include work by Javier Peñalosa, Maricela Guerrero, and Isabel Zapata (three Mexican poets whose recent books take beautifully and radically different approaches to the natural world and its relationship with contemporary humans); Daniel Lipara, Claudia Masin, and Alejandro Crotto (all from Argentina); and Adalber Salas Hernández (from Venezuela).

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Juana Adcock, a Mexican-born, Scotland-based poet and translator. Juana translates between Spanish and English in both directions (a superpower that never ceases to amaze me!). Into English, she is the translator of Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (with Lucy Greaves) and An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (with Sophie Hughes). I met Juana in person only recently, although we’d been in touch for months before that, because I had the privilege of translating her poetry collection Manca into English. By the end of the process—which involved great openness, engagement, and creativity on her part—I really felt that Juana and I had become co-translators. I feel lucky to know her and learn from her in both languages!

Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Whittle

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dearest readers!

This month, our Great Woman in Translation is the British-American literary translator Charlotte Whittle, nominated by Julia Sanches.

Charlotte Whittle

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1. I always love to learn about translators’ beginnings in translation. How about starting by telling us yours?

My path into translation wasn’t exactly a linear one. I grew up in a monolingual family, learned Spanish in Mexico when I was 18, studied Spanish and literature in college in the UK, and lived in Peru and Chile. The first translations I remember doing were of César Vallejo, when I was still an undergraduate. I was living in Peru and became obsessed with his work. Translating poems seemed to me like the best way to engage with them, to get inside them and see how they worked, and there was something really thrilling about making them breathe in another language. A couple of years later, I did a diploma in translation studies in Santiago de Chile, but this was an experience that closed doors as well as opening them. My final project was a translation of a story by the great Peruvian writer José María Arguedas. I was so happy thinking about and doing translation, but I remember the instructor saying in very clear terms that it was impossible to make a living from literary translation. Being young and inexperienced, I took his word for it, and I didn’t pursue translation seriously for a long time after that. I took the academic route, and translated poems for fun. I discovered that I loved teaching, but after a few years, I found it didn’t leave me enough time for creative projects. I finally realized that translation was the activity that brought my skills, experience, and interests together under one umbrella, and that was when I decided to make it my focus, despite the dire warnings of penury.

2. Could you tell us why your translation of Norah Lange’s People in the Room can be considered important for the gender imbalance in literature?

The data collected on this subject – for instance, by the Three Percent Translation Database, now housed by Publishers Weekly – tells us that of all the books translated into English, as many as three fourths are by men. Why is this? Partly because of the implicit bias that male writers are somehow more “important,” partly because of the lack of gender parity in publishing in other countries as well as our own, and partly because, while women translators translate both men and women nearly to equal degrees, male translators seem to be more disposed towards translating men.

 People in the Room was published in English 68 years after it first appeared in Spanish; during that lapse, Lange received significantly less critical attention in her home country than her male peers (who were also more often translated), despite the importance of her writing. It’s so easy for women writers who weren’t sufficiently lauded in their time to pass under the radar, and translators can play a role in rectifying this. Obviously, I’m not claiming to be able to shift the canon with a single translation, but the fact that I was able to find a publisher for this novel and that Lange’s work has been well received in English, demonstrates that there has been a small change in the tide, at least in the world of literary fiction in translation. I think there is more interest than there’s been in the past in projects that draw attention to women writers who’ve been overlooked. Recent books such as The Houseguest by Amparo Dávila, translated by Audrey Harris and Matt Gleeson, and The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers, translated by Kit Maude, are further evidence that there is now an audience for this kind of work. All these projects are significant because they go some way towards rebalancing the gender inequality in translation. Of course, there’s a lot more to be done and there are multiple forces at play, but things are slowly evolving in a positive direction.

3. You are currently working on the translation of Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations. Do you feel there are any particularities between translating men x women?

Norah Lange and Jorge Comensal could hardly be more different: People in the Room is somber and full of mystery, while The Mutations is satirical and hilarious, but I would trace differences between authors to geographic region, time period, and individual authors’ concerns and idiosyncrasies before making sweeping statements about gender differences. In the cases of both these books, their style captivated me, I felt a deep, personal draw to their subject matter, and an urgent need to share them with English-language readers. In terms of the practicalities of the two translations, perhaps the biggest difference was that one author was dead and the other alive. Sometimes, when translating Lange, I wished I could hold a séance, or a table-tapping session like the one described in her book, just to be able to ask her if she thought I was on the right track. In contrast, I talk to Jorge often, and think our conversations have enriched the translation process. But to go back to the question of gender, the concerns and idiosyncrasies that make writers unique may result from their experience, and gender can certainly be a factor in that. A woman writing in the mid-C20th is working under a different set of constraints than a man writing in the present. As a translator, I think about gender less in terms of the characteristics of the writing, and more in relation to the conditions that determine how writing by men and women is read and received, and the conditions that allow them to write in the first place.

4. Could you also talk a bit about your translation of Agus Morales’ We are not Refugees?

Morales is a Spanish journalist who has spent most of a decade gathering the stories of members of displaced populations in different parts of the world. We Are Not Refugees is the result of his intensive exploration of the factors that cause mass migration, and the real-life experiences of those who are forced to flee. The book describes the situation of multiple displaced communities: Central Americans fleeing northwards from violence, Afghan and Syrian refugees in Turkey, internal displacement in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Few writers have such breadth of experience when it comes to mass migration, and Morales identifies the specifics of a range of cases, while also finding commonalities between them. He writes movingly of his subjects, while letting those he encounters tell their own stories, so readers can get to know some of the faces behind the headlines to which we are often numb. I came away from this project with so much admiration for writers and journalists who have the emotional stamina to tell these stories in a clear-eyed manner.

5. What have you learned so far about being a (literary) translator that you could pass on to newbies?

I’m still learning! But here are a few things that come to mind: I’ve learned that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to pay your bills as a translator; that there are many different ways a book can happen; that there’s no limit to how much a translation can change during the first few drafts; and that the editor is not the enemy.

But the most important thing I’ve learned so far is that as translators, we have to create our own community.

Translating books requires hour after hour of solitary work, week after week, month after month. Without an office to go to or a cohort of colleagues you see every day, it can get lonely. That’s why I’m so incredibly grateful for my translation colleagues, both in New York and further afield. I have regular workshops with translator friends where we discuss everything from tricky sentences to how to collectively improve working conditions for translators. It’s important to see your colleagues as allies rather than competitors, and the brilliant and fascinating people I’ve met through this work are one of the things I most treasure about it.

6. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’m nominating Robin Myers, a translator from Spanish based in Mexico City. Robin is a tireless translator of poetry and prose, and an extraordinary poet in her own right. I recently devoured her translation of Empty Pool, a collection of gorgeous, luminous essays by Isabel Zapata. I also had the pleasure of editing her translation of Ezequiel Zaidenwerg’s Lyric Poetry Is Dead for Cardboard House Press, where we publish bilingual editions of Latin American Poetry. Robin’s handling of rhythm and meter in that collection is a masterclass – I’ll leave it to her to tell you more about it!

Robin’s interview will be published on June 3, as I’ll be on vacation from April 20 to May 19.

Greatest Women in Translation: Julia Sanches

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Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dearest followers! After a long hiatus of setbacks, we’re finally back!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Julia Sanches, Brazilian-born literary translator from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan into English.

Julia Sanches

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1. You’re Brazilian-born (São Paulo), but work into English (from Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and French). How is that so, considering we usually translate into our mother tongue?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, lately; not about how it is I translate into English – it’s obvious to me – but about the idea of mother tongues. This rethinking was in part prompted by Esther Kim and Frances McNeill’s essays in the latest issue of In Other Words. In “We May Have All Come on Different Ships, But We’re in the Same Boat Now: Why We Should Not Label Translators as ‘L2’ or ‘Non-Native,’” McNeill interrogates the validity of the L1/L2 designations (L1 being “the language you think in, you feel in, you know best, whereas L2 is the language you aspire to speak fluently”), while in “Inheritance from Mother,” Kim points to the troubling lack of heritage speakers in the professional world of literary translation, and offers ways to address this.

In her essay, McNeill offers three examples that belie the L1/L2 dichotomy and interrogates whether or not one should consider the person in question an L2 speaker. Here’s my example: A person born in Brazil to Brazilian parents moves to the United States with her parents when she is three-months old. She is dropped into English-only education and quickly comes to speak English fluently. She speaks Portuguese at home and with her extended family in Brazil; they call her gringa. Eight years later, she moves with her parents to Mexico City and enters a bilingual school, where classes are imparted both in Spanish and English. She becomes fluent in Spanish – they call her güera – retains her English and continues to speak Portuguese at home. Five years later, she moves back to the United States with her family, where she attends a monolingual (English) public school. One year later, she moves with her family to Switzerland, where she attends an international school (read: where students’ common language is English). She later completes her higher education in Scotland (English) and Spain (Spanish). What is this person’s (you got it, it’s me) L1/L2?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘mother tongue’ as ‘one’s native language; a first language.’ So, in that respect, Portuguese is my mother tongue – it is the first language I picked up at home, from my mother, who always insisted that I should never lose it – although the notion of languages being native (i.e. inherent to, innate, naturally becoming, again according to the OED) to anyone baffles me a little; our capacity for language may be innate, but its execution has, in my experience, been very much learned.

What’s more: I’m a citizen of Brazil and of no other country. Although I lived in Europe for fifteen years, it was never anywhere that made citizenship an easy path for me. After about thirteen years in the United States, I can finally apply for citizenship, though I’m not sure I’ll ever feel American. I could uncomplicate my identity as a translator by obviating the fact that I’m Brazilian, but what’s the fun in that?

2. On your website, you say you are soon-to-be chair of the Translators Group of the Authors Guild. Could you tell us more about it?

We’re in the process of creating a Translators Group within the Authors Guild, following the model of the Society of Authors’ Translators Association in the UK. Generally speaking, there’s an industry standard for author contracts and terms here in the U.S. This standard wasn’t arrived at out of the kindness of publishers’ hearts, but was fought for. The idea behind creating a Translators Group is to support work to establish similar industry standards for translators. Alex Zucker and Jessica Cohen have been working with the Authors Guild on a model contract that would spell out certain contractual terms that might seem impenetrable to some translators, among other things.

Another thing we’re exploring is establishing translator communities within the Authors Guild’s regional chapters around the country, to help better share information about contracts and other working conditions. The Authors Guild is the only organization in the U.S. with in-house lawyers providing legal services to authors and translators, and they’re already huge advocates for translation and translators. The idea is to focus this effort.

3. Last year, the Brazilian publishing house Companhia das Letras invited five Brazilian literary translators to talk about their professional trajectory in their blog in celebration of the International Translation Day, and you were among them. You wrote about your experience translating The Sun on My Head, Geovani Martins’ first book. On Twitter, you said you wrote the blog post in English and then translated it into Portuguese, but didn’t like the self-translation process. Do you remember why?

I sound completely unlike myself in Portuguese. It was like giving voice to a stilted and awkward-sounding stranger who happened to also be called Julia Sanches.

4. You retweeted a quote by Javier Cercas at the Edinburgh Book Festival, “Translators are like psychoanalysts. They know you really, really, really well. I’m really scared of them.” On your post for Companhia das Letras (above), you said the relationship between translators and “their” authors is disturbing, unbalanced, partial and voyeuristic (curiosity: were these the words you originally used in your English version?). Could you elaborate more on the relationship between the author and their translator?

First off: in English, it was “lopsided, unreciprocated, and often hair-raisingly voyeuristic.” Interesting…

What can I say but that: when I translate – especially when the book in question is such an engrossing challenge as Martins’ collection, something so distant from my lived experience – I get a tad obsessive. If you were to decontextualize my behavior, it might seem stalkerish, even. I read everything I can about the book, the author, I read the book itself a gazillion times, both in English and in Portuguese (and I’d probably read them in other languages, if it were available to me). I follow the author on Twitter if I can, and Instagram (yikes). I draw connections between what they post about music (etc) and the musical (and other) references in the book. Often, I go to bed with a translation problem at the back of my mind – sometimes even at the forefront – and wake up fretting about it, too. On good days, I’ll have a solution by the time I’m at my computer.

It’s a bit like crawling into and living in another person’s skin for a long stretch of time. Or spying on a neighbor from across the street. You know near everything about them and often they don’t know the first thing about you. It’s a little bit creepy – in a totally harmless way.

5. You are one of the organizers of the And Other Stories’ Portuguese Reading Group. The 2018 group had, for the first ever, an all-Brazilian reading list (including one translated by yourself). Could you tell us a bit more about how it works? Are there any plans for another edition in the near future?

And Other Stories’ Reading Groups are a rather innovative and ingenious way for the publisher (AOS) to find overlooked gems from other languages to publish in English. The idea is to put in the hands of readers some of the sleuthing, reading, and evaluating that goes into figuring out what to publish. On my side: I email a bunch of Portuguese readers and ask if they’d like to participate; then reach out to agents and ask for materials (hard copies usually, no one really likes reading on screens); we meet, in person, if possible, but usually over Skype, to discuss our impressions, which I then memorialize and share with the publishers. Rinse and repeat. It’s quite fun. Victor Meadowcroft, who will be heading the UK group, and I are currently choosing which titles to read and discuss in the fall. You should join us!

6. You write really well! I’m truly impressed and in love with your writings. Haven’t you ever thought of venturing into being an author yourself?

Oh, gosh. Thank you! Writing fills me with a very particular and acute anxiety, so I tend to avoid it. Translating ticks that box for me, whatever that means. It’s thrilling, plus, I get to hang out in and between various languages, which is where I feel most at home.

7. I will take advantage of your inside view into Brazilian literature and ask for recommendations. What books do you personally recommend, translated or not?

I’ve recently finished reading Emilio Fraia’s Sebastopol, which I deeply enjoyed. The prose is just my style, limpid and charged. He’s also quite masterful at creating suspense, at leaving things unsaid, at giving voice and weight to silences.

8. I could keep asking you a ton of questions, but I’ll leave you for now. So now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Charlotte Whittle, an acrobatic translator from Spanish whose recent projects include Norah Lange’s People in the Room and Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations. She is also one of the editors of Cardboard House Press and periodically holds cartonera workshops. Aside from all this, Charlotte is an amazing storyteller; she’s got an eye for the most off-kilter and delightful details and remembers them, too. We keep each other sane and safe from bouts of imposter syndrome. I think of her as a co-conspirator.