Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Collins

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Image credit: Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series! It’s been a long time since our last interview due to my vacation. We are now back with our last interviewee of the year, Charlotte Collins, nominated by Marta Dziurosz.

Welcome, Charlotte!

Charlotte Collins

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1. You only started as a literary translator in 2012. Before that, you were mainly a journalistic translator. However, with the very first book you translated, A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, you won the 2017 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translation Prize. Do you think that having had a connection with the book beforehand made a difference to the way you translated it? I’m referring to the fact that you were asked to write a reader’s report on the book for Picador, were very enthusiastic about it, and the publisher was convinced to buy the rights.

It’s not unusual for a translator to come to a book in this way, after writing a reader’s report for the publisher. What I didn’t realize at the time, because I was just starting out, was that you’re seldom asked to read something this good! It’s a rare delight for me to feel such an intense personal and emotional connection with the work.

I’m not sure to what extent that influenced the translation process, though. I try to be meticulous with everything I translate. Literary translation isn’t just about communicating content; you’re trying to reproduce, as closely as possible, the atmosphere and feel of the original. But this is such a delicate thing to do. It’s necessarily subjective; the text is being filtered through your own mind and sensibility, so what you’re reproducing for others to read – and interpret – is your impression of it. Another translator will inevitably reproduce it differently. So however ‘invisible’ a translator tries to be, they can’t help but be an integral part of the text.

Because of this, I feel a duty to try and stay as close to the original as I can – without, of course, sounding clunky. I pay very close attention to what I believe to be the author’s intention (though here again my interpretation can only be subjective), and feel I have a responsibility not to betray it. So, for example, I might be weighing up translation choices and find myself thinking, “But if s/he had wanted to say that, s/he would have chosen this word instead.” In which case I’ll stick with whichever’s closer, providing it works.

I felt it was especially important to do this with A Whole Life. It was clear to me that the author had chosen each word with great care, for a reason, and it was vital that I do the same. With other texts I might allow myself a bit more freedom. The one I’m translating now, for example – Mark und Bein (Homeland) by Walter Kempowski – requires a much looser approach: he has a very distinctive style, and that needs to come across, but it runs the risk of sounding awkward in English. I’ll be discussing with the editor how free it can be. It’s a challenge.

2. You think the literary translation community is “tremendously supportive.” How do you think this benefits new translators entering the market?

I think this is a wonderful time for emerging literary translators – in the anglophone world, at least; I can’t speak for other regions. Translated fiction is enjoying something of a ‘moment’ – sales are up, the readership is expanding, and new and reconstituted prizes like the Man Booker International, the Dublin International, the new Translators Association prize for emerging translators and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation are making a fantastic contribution to promoting translated literature, as well as increasing the visibility of the translators themselves and an appreciation of what it is we do.

One of the most valuable resources out there is the Emerging Translators Network. It was set up by three of my colleagues in 2011, and is aimed at translators who are just embarking on their literary career. It now has hundreds of members all around the world. The ETN provides practical peer support and advice via an online forum, and it’s also a great social network. As is the case for any writer, there’s the potential for translation to be quite an isolated profession. I was lucky enough to move into literary translation shortly after the ETN was founded. There are so many translation-related events happening, and if you look or post on the forum you can usually find colleagues who are going. Some colleagues I met just a few years ago are now close friends.

Once you’ve published something, or have a contract to publish, you’re eligible to join the Translators Association of the (UK) Society of Authors. It’s really worth doing, not only for the networking and in order to keep abreast of developments in the profession, but also because, once you’re a member, you can send contracts to the SoA’s legal team. They’ll check them for you with a fine-toothed comb, and advise you on what you could and should be asking for. That alone is worth far more than the membership fee!

3. I previously watched and shared on my social media channels the speech you gave on accepting the prize mentioned in question 1. I’ve just watched it again to write these questions and was equally impressed and inspired by it. One of the most beautiful things you said was that you “feel passionately that the learning of languages is tremendously important for breaking through […] walls, for crossing […] borders, for making […] connections, for understanding other cultures.” You made a connection between this growing spirit of isolation, especially among political leaders, of not wanting to communicate, to reach out to other people and cultures, and the drop in the learning of languages by English speakers. Could you elaborate a bit on the connection between learning new languages and the spirit of openness and understanding?

In order to learn to speak another language well, you need to understand how that language works within the culture. Language isn’t just words. Everyone knows – translators especially – that words exist within a context, and that context is all. So learning another language means you’re opening yourself up to that other culture, learning about different ways of thinking and doing things; you gain a sense of a different history and environment, a different way of life. It can’t help but broaden the mind. Our world today is globalised: we’re not living, and cannot live, in isolation, be it social, cultural, economic or political. But we’ll never all be the same. We can and should celebrate our differences and diversity – including linguistic diversity – while at the same time seeking to bridge those differences and facilitate better understanding between peoples. The better we’re able to communicate with someone in their own language – the more of their language and culture we understand – the better we’re able to understand them and their way of thinking. And that of course puts us in a better position to build bridges, cement ties, do business, negotiate peace, do whatever it is we want or need to do.

Even learning a language to a very basic level will take you some of the way. It’s not just about being able to speak fluently: you’ll experience and understand how different languages actually force you to think and communicate differently. I’ve learned to appreciate, for example, that my bad habit of interrupting people is even more unacceptable in German. How can I possibly know what someone’s trying to say when they haven’t even got to the verb! And when speaking in German you need to have a very clear idea of what you want to say, otherwise you may have to go back and start the sentence again. It’s much easier to waffle in English.

4. In your opinion, not only learning languages but also reading translated fiction is important for the exploration of new cultures. You say that, when we read, we enter into the character’s head; we become that person, we are drawn into their world. How is that particularly special when reading translated fiction?

For all the reasons given above. It’s essential that we broaden our understanding of others, of how people outside our own little bubble of experience live and think, and why. It’s important that we learn to have empathy, and realise how our actions impact on those around us. What better way to do this than through fiction? Fiction takes you inside someone else’s head; you’re directly experiencing things from their point of view, thinking their thoughts, living their life, hearing their voice inside your mind as if it were your own, being transported to places you’ve never seen, that may not even exist. If you look at it this way, reading is a kind of magic. And if you’re reading literature in translation, the starting point is already a culture other than your own, so the book will inevitably transport you to places and points of view outside your immediate realm of experience.

5. In your speech, you said: “It is important, especially now, that we read well, that we read wisely, and that we read translations.” How do you think we – translators – can play our part in increasing awareness of this?

First, we need to promote ourselves more. Translators are not, on the whole, natural Rampensäue (limelight-hoggers). In our profession we spend the majority of our time working at home, on our own, in silence, with just a book for company, in close communion with the mind of someone who may or may not be dead, and is almost certainly unaware of our devoted attention. This is what we’ve chosen to do, and there are probably reasons for that. I think many of us find it difficult to promote ourselves and our work, beyond telling a few friends and colleagues when we’ve got a book out, either because we’re a bit shy, or because we’re afraid of coming across as arrogant or pushy. To me, each individual translator is a representative of and an advocate for the profession. This is why I support the #namethetranslator initiative, which aims to ensure that translators are always credited alongside authors on websites, in reviews, broadcasts and so on. We want readers to be aware of the work we do, to be conscious that they’ve just read and enjoyed a translation, because it might make them want to read others. In my experience, once people really start thinking about what translation involves, they’re intrigued and want to find out more. At literary festivals, translators are becoming a bit of a draw in themselves – talking about a specific book, examining their craft, discussing with the author, or representing him/her if s/he is unavailable (or dead). Once we can command that interest, we acquire a platform to speak about our work, about the books we love, and about wider contemporary issues, and be heard.

6. “Life is just one moment after another. They might be big moments or small moments, but every one is precious.” This was another of your touching lines, referring to the depth of the book A Whole Life and the author’s attention to detail. I reckon one of your big moments in life was receiving the prize. How about one of your small, but special, moments? I would love to learn what it was.

Small, special moments… well, there are so many. They’re all around us, all the time. You just have to focus on them. As soon as anyone talks about it like this they immediately sound like a New Ager, but it’s true. I’d say that, like Andreas Egger in A Whole Life, I often find them in nature. I have lots of memories of moments spent looking at a beautiful view. For example: sitting outside a mountain hut early one morning and looking down on the mist clearing from the Kaisertal as the sun came up, all those little fluffy clouds drifting off like sheep in search of the exit. Or… aged 18, reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for the first time, under the sloping ceiling of an attic room. It was breathtaking – I felt as if I were being swept up and away in a whirlwind, and when I finished I more or less fell off the bed.

And all shall be well and 
All manner of thing shall be well
 
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
 
Into the crowned knot of fire
 
And the fire and the rose are one.

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

I’d like to nominate Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has just stepped down after three years as co-chair of the Translators Association. As well as being a multiple-award-winning translator in her own right and one of the leading practitioners in her field, Antonia’s also a dedicated mentor and an inspiration to a great many of her colleagues, particularly emerging translators from the Polish. She has long been a vocal and active champion of translators and translated fiction.

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Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Lewis

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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.

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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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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. 🙂