Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Lewis

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Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Sophie Lewis (nominated by Alison Entrekin).

Sophie Lewis

Credits at the end of the interview.

1. Besides translating, you used to be senior editor at And Other Stories. What exactly do you do now?

I still edit but as a freelancer. I edit fiction for And Other Stories but also for other publishers, including Peirene Press and Tilted Axis Press. This sits more easily alongside my freelance translating: I try only to take on one major job, whether translation or edit, at a time, and run the smaller jobs of whatever kind alongside. In addition, though, since 2016 I have been running workshops on translation in secondary schools, under the title Shadow Heroes.

2. As editor of And Other Stories, you wrote this article about the Year of Publishing Women 2018. This has everything to do with our series, so why don’t you tell us a bit more about this amazing initiative?

What I didn’t manage to include in the article was an argument for why it’s even more important for a publisher working mainly with translations to publish women: if British publishing is male-dominated, what filters through via translation is so masculine it’s breathtaking. So the opportunity to get the word out around the world that we’re interested in something else, in women’s writing particularly, and then in digging into the systems and nets around women that allow them to write, be published and be translated – or not, was something particularly pertinent to And Other Stories. And with some very exciting books already scheduled for 2018 the provocation is already working its magic.

3. You mainly translate from French into English, and one of your numerous translations was Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle, that, in your own words, is “groundbreaking women’s writing”, giving voice to “a schoolgirl in a convent school […] systematically repressed from a young age.” Being aware of the many difficulties women face and of the sex issues the world is facing, how was this experience of translating such an amazing woman writer and such a delicate story?

This was a very tough job. The prose was frequently both precise and purple, anatomical, highly detailed and also emotional and sensual. I had to find words for parts that are never comfortably named in English – the usual problem is the lack of middle ground between offensive slang and medical terminology. So I reluctantly employed some euphemism, while making sure I was as precise as I could be everywhere else. And I tried to keep hearing that teenage girl’s voice. Thérèse is precocious but also sheltered. She herself is finding new ways to express her experience and she does that awkwardly, sometimes, but always with genuine feeling. Following and recreating her experience was nearly as painful and exhilarating as it must have been for Leduc to get it down on paper.

4. Besides Leduc, you have also translated several other French writers, such as Stendhal, Jules Verne, Charles Cros, Marcel Aymé, Emilie de Turckheim, Emmanuelle Pagano. Have you already ventured into translating Brazilian Portuguese literature? If so, what have you translated so far? If not, why not?

I have translated short fiction by João Gilberto Noll and also a fair bit of non-fiction and paratextual stuff – for literary festivals and the like. I need to build up my contacts in publishing, so they know to trust me for this work as well as French books. I also need to read more Brazilian fiction, so that I can better trust my own sense of taste and how the literary landscape lies in Brazil. Lastly, I need to convince the Brazilian authorities to reinstate the translation funding so confidently announced only a few years ago. That would really help publishers make the leap to commission translations of Brazilian works.

5. What, in your opinion, are the main differences between translating from French and Brazilian Portuguese into English?

I find Brazilian Portuguese often more fluid, not being required to be quite as specific as either French or English. But really, the differences between each book and each writer’s style are much greater than the differences between the languages overall.

6. How did your story with Brazil and Brazilian Portuguese begin?

I originally began to study European Portuguese in evening classes. I had some ideas about what my next language should be and so chose Portuguese for somewhat academic purposes. I was the only person in my class to be neither related to lusophones nor in love with a lusophone. It was hard! Then my husband landed a job teaching in Rio, so we switched our Portuguese classes to Brazilian. It only really came together when we reached Rio. We lived there for four and a half years; our son Xul was born there in 2014.

7. Now it is your turn to nominate our next interviewee. Who inspires you the most?

I admire Sarah Ardizzone very much for following an inclination to specialise in working with younger writers and translating a youthful, ‘street’ world that requires immense sensitivity to slang and to street-level politics. As I see it, the work she translates presents at least as challenging difficulties as any other texts could do, but Sarah tackles them both more systematically and more passionately than any other translator I’ve encountered.

* Image created with Canva.
Credit of Sophie Lewis’ picture (provided by the interviewee herself): photographer Anna Michell.
Source of the quote on the image: Sophie Lewis and her authors.

Greatest Women in Translation: Alison Entrekin

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Created by Érick Tonin

After a one-month break, welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series! I assure you it was worth the wait.

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, the great Alison Entrekin, acclaimed literary translator from Brazilian Portuguese into English (nominated by Diane Whitty).

Alison Entrekin

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1. You were actually a professional dancer! What made you change careers and become a translator?

I hurt my sciatic nerve dancing and had to give it a rest. So I went to university to study Creative Writing, because it was the only other thing I liked doing. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was learning Portuguese, that I decided to study translation with the intention of becoming a literary translator.

2. According to Guilherme Sobota (Estadão), you are one of most popular translators when it comes to contemporary Brazilian literature in English. You have already translated Paulo Lins, Daniel Galera, Chico Buarque, and Fernanda Torres, to name but a few well-known Brazilian authors. You are currently retranslating My Sweet Orange Tree (Meu Pé de Laranja Lima), by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, and will start Grande Sertão: Veredas soon. What are /were the challenges of translating such famous works?

Every work comes with its own set of challenges and they’re usually not what you expect them to be. Sometimes it’s the syntax, like in Cristovão Tezza’s The Eternal Son, which is very Brazilian and seems to resist translation into English; or the vocabulary, like in Paulo Lins’s City of God, which is very colloquial and born of a reality that has no direct equivalent in an English-speaking country. Adriana Lisboa’s writing is very poetic, and I spend a long time trying to find the right balance and flow for her sentences in English. With retranslations, there is the issue of the previous translation being either dated or unsatisfactory in some way, and I feel an unspoken obligation to somehow make the new translation work in ways that the previous one didn’t.

3. Which book did you enjoy translating the most and which did you find the most challenging? In both cases, why?

Budapest by Chico Buarque, for the intense word-play, which is incredibly hard to reproduce, but so much fun. The most difficult to date was Tezza’s The Eternal Son. His sentences are long and winding, with many asides, and English just doesn’t have the grammatical flexibility to pack so much information into a single sentence and still sound natural. But I am sure that my next project, a retranslation of João Guimarães Rosa’s 1956 classic, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—often likened to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for its linguistic complexity—will make everything else feel like a walk in the park.

4. In this article you wrote for the Words Without Borders blog regarding your translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas, you mention untranslatability. I frown when people widely share articles with lists of untranslatable words in any given language. I do not believe anything is untranslatable, after all, what would our job consist of if this were true? Can you say a few words on the matter? What is your opinion regarding translatability x untranslatability?

I know what you mean about those lists. They often consist of words that describe culture-specific phenomena, which require a few sentences of explanation. Or words that compound a lot of information, which is easier to do in some languages than in others. Or words that are incredibly versatile—like saudade in Portuguese—and can be used in myriad ways, all of which require different translations in the target language. Perhaps they are better described as words that don’t have a single corresponding word in other languages. But they can be explained, and explanation is a kind of translation.

As for Grande Sertão: Veredas, it is possible to unravel the underlying meaning and translate it into straightforward English (albeit with the loss of many nuances). The 1963 translation does precisely that, but the translators chose not to go the extra mile (or light-year, as the case may be) and reproduce Guimarães Rosa’s linguistic alchemy, with its unique blend of quirky syntax, neologism and regionalism, which is what makes the novel so special. These things have to be reconstructed in the target language in the spirit of the original, because there are no direct equivalents, but it’s still translation, nonetheless. Anything that seeks to convey the message and spirit of something else is a kind of translation.

5. In some interviews you gave you mentioned punctuation as being the most challenging aspect of translating literature (as here). This is the first time I see someone point out punctuation, and not words, cultural aspects, or puns/jokes, as a challenge in translation. Could you please elaborate a bit more on the topic? What is so fascinating, yet challenging, about punctuation?

I think of punctuation as traffic signals in a text, telling readers when to stop, when to go, when there’s a bridge coming up.

But while the rules of punctuation are very similar in Portuguese and English, Brazilians and English speakers often punctuate quite differently. It’s all about usage. Brazilian writers regularly join clauses with commas where we would use full stops (periods) in English, and readers are used to it. It seems to help the flow, whereas it can have the opposite effect in English. When readers of English come across an odd connection between clauses (i.e. a comma instead of a full stop), they tend to stop and go back to try and figure out what they missed. So much for flow. I’m not saying that every time there’s a weird comma, we should use a full stop in the translation, just that a case can be made for this kind of swap in some instances. You have to analyse the context and ask questions: How does this piece flow? Who is speaking? Does this comma cause readers of the translation to pause where readers of the original keeping going? Does it change the rhythm or tone?

Just the other day I had to make a decision about whether or not to italicize foreign words in Chico Buarque’s My German Brother—with the author’s blessing, of course—as they are not italicized in the original. There are passages where the Italian-Brazilian mother says things half in Italian, half in Portuguese, and others where the brother tries to seduce an Argentinean girl in Portunhol (the Portuguese-Spanish equivalent of Spanglish), to name just a few examples. The transition from one Latin language to another is so seamless and natural in the original, but somehow clumsy in English without italics. I eventually came to the conclusion that italics, like punctuation, signal that something different is coming up, like a sign warning of a road bump ahead, and the translation flows better with italics. But it’s all very subjective, and case-specific.

There are days when I don’t agree with myself.

6. When you mention translation, people in general usually think of two things: interpreting and literature. The dream of most translation students is to become a literary translator. However, translating literature is not a bed of roses, as we say in Brazilian Portuguese. It once took you three weeks to translate three pages of a Brazilian literary classic, as you mention in the essay you wrote for WWB Daily (link in question 4). That is equivalent to 57 words a day! What is the advice you would give a student or beginner – or even an experienced translator – who would like to enter the realm of literary translation?

I think everyone needs to find their niche. A friend of mine, who is a legal translator, says she can’t imagine working on a single text for months on end. She will happily turn out several documents a day, and she does it so effortlessly because she knows the terminology back-to-front.

Literary translators, on the other hand, need patience and staying-power. Books have a habit of taking twice as long to translate as you thought they would. Every novel takes you somewhere different and you have to become an overnight expert in subjects you’ve never dealt with before (you invariably discover that your vocabulary is really very poor). I would say to someone starting out in the field: Always ask about the things you aren’t sure of, even if you feel stupid asking. If you can, read your translation out loud, listening for glitches, sense, transitions, alliteration that isn’t supposed to be there. Revise, revise, revise. When in doubt, revise again.

7. Now it is your turn. Who do you nominate to be our next interviewee?

I nominate Sophie Lewis, editor and literary translator from French and Portuguese.


It was a pleasure e-meeting you and learning more about you, Alison. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions for the interview. 🙂