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.

* 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.

How to become the world’s most translated author

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Image provided by the author

Becoming the world’s most translated author is no easy feat. Many of those in UNESCO’s Index Translationum list of the top 20 most translated authors have held a place in the list for some years. Or decades. Or, in the case of William Shakespeare, centuries. But that doesn’t mean that the list isn’t open to new entrants. Danielle Steel and Stephen King are both within the top ten, giving hope to those still writing away in the hope of making it big enough to need to engage an army of professional translators to spread their novels around the world.

The Index Translationum reveals some interesting information about those whose works have been translated more than any other authors’ in the world. Here we drill down into the detail in search of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author.

Clearly, being an incredibly talented writer is the most important element behind making it onto the Index Translationum list, but analysis of the other factors reveals some interesting results. When it comes to becoming one of the world’s most translated authors, less is definitely not more. All of those on the list are (or were) prolific writers. The most recent entrants have all written dozens of novels, with Danielle Steel being known for writing up to five novels at a time.

Language is also a key factor. Of the top 20 most translated authors, English was (or still is) the language used by nine of them. French comes next, with four authors writing in French, followed by Russian and German with two authors each.

Gender is also relevant. Of the top 20 authors, only six are female. While the literary world has become far less dominated by men – in particular over the last 50 or so years – there are still many countries where women are not encouraged not to become authors (or are forbidden from doing so altogether). Given these facts, that four of the top ten most translated authors are women is actually very encouraging. Men might still have the edge, but the ‘fairer sex’ is catching up fast.

Subject matter is the final important element when it comes to the criteria for making it onto UNCESCO’s list. Six of those in the top 20 wrote books for children, while five chose murder/mystery/suspense as their genre (including the author at the very top of the list, Agatha Christie). Other genres in the top 20 were as varied as religion, romance and politics.

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Image provided by the author

Based on these fascinating insights, it’s possible to identify the key characteristics of the winning formula for becoming the world’s most translated author. If you’re a man who’s writing dozens of murder/mystery fairy tales in English, you might just be in with a chance!

About the author
louLouise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.