Greatest Women in Translation: Charlotte Collins


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

Photo credit: Jaime Stewart / Image created with Canva

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.