Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!
Our nominee today is Ros Schwartz, nominated by Lucinda Byatt.
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 plaît … dessine-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.