Interview | Aneesa Abbas Higgins | Translator of the Week

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up here in London – my father is Indian and my mother English, and at the time we were a fairly unusual family to say the least. I was always a great reader – and music has always played a big part in my life too. I’ve lived in America and in France – and I’ve travelled quite a bit, but now I spend most of my time either here in London, or in a small village in France. I sing in a choir, and spend most of my time when I’m not working either reading or coaxing my garden to grow. My family is very important to me.

Did you grow up learning and speaking different languages? What fiction in translation did you read, or rather, was available?
My father’s language is Urdu – but I grew up speaking English. I heard Urdu spoken around me, but not enough to learn to speak it myself, although I have made repeated efforts and I have made some progress. But I fell in love with French as soon as I started it at school. After that, I added German and Russian, but French was the language I absorbed the most thoroughly. As for fiction in translation, I’ve always been a voracious reader. As a child I read everything I could lay my hands on and never thought about whether or not it was translated. I remember my father reading me stories by Prem Chand when I had one of the childhood diseases we all used to succumb to, and I started reading the Russian classics as a very young teenager. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot made a huge impression on me. And I read Anna Karenina for the first time around then too.

How did your career as a translator come about?
I started translating after I retired fairly early from teaching. I taught French at high school level for many years and although I loved teaching I always knew I wanted to move on at some point. So, after I stopped, I did a one-year Postgraduate course in “Theory and Practice of Translation” and also a few courses in creative writing. All of this confirmed for me what I already suspected: that literary translation was what I wanted to do. I followed the excellent advice given by Ros Schwartz and found a book I’d really enjoyed that hadn’t yet been translated, put together a pitch and a sample translation, and was fortunate enough to find a publisher willing to take it on. The book was awarded an English PEN grant – and everything followed on from there.

Five best books in translation which made an impact on you, and have inspired you ever since?
It’s almost impossible to narrow this down to five books – five translators perhaps. I’d have to start with Constance Garnett and any one of her translations of the Russian classics: Anna Karenina, The Idiot, War and Peace, there are so many to choose from. Secondly there is the pioneering Barbara Wright, who translated Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Pinget, Sarraute and just about all of the French Nouveaux Romanciers. If I had to pick one of her translations I think it would have to be her translation of Pinget’s The Apocrypha. Robert Chandler, who translates from Russian, has also been a great inspiration to me. I read his translation of Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate while I was still teaching and was bowled over by the skill and artistry of what he’d achieved. My father inspired me too – when I was very small he was busy translating Shakespeare into Urdu for the BBC’s Urdu Service and he often used to talk about how he’d struggled with particular phrases, such as “Put out the light” (Othello).  And I’m constantly inspired by the work of my fellow translators from French: people like Ros Schwartz, Sarah Ardizzone, Frank Wynne, Shaun Whiteside, Sophie Lewis and so many others.

What was the most challenging part of translating your first work?
The first book I translated was a challenge precisely because it was the first book I translated! I think I felt very free, I did it largely on instinct. The book was written in two different voices: a narrative voice telling something rather like an adventure story, and a series of letters written in the voice of a nineteenth century would-be social scientist. The letters needed a certain formality and a naïve earnestness that harks back to a bygone age, and I had to think myself into a way of thinking and speaking that was reminiscent of nineteenth century classics. It was a challenge, but one that I relished taking on.   

How important is the relationship between author and translator?
It’s wonderful to be able to pick the author’s brains, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that for almost all of the books I’ve translated so far. I usually take notes on difficulties as I work on my first draft and hone it down to a list of outstanding queries that I haven’t been able to solve myself after the second, or sometimes the third draft. Then I start emailing questions and it’s always interesting to see what comes back. My experience has been that authors are grateful to be translated into English, and very appreciative of the care one takes as a translator to be faithful to their intention.

What are you most proud of translating?
I’m proud of all the books I’ve done, each one for different reasons. But I think over all I’d have to say that I’m most proud of A Girl Called Eel by the young Comorian writer, Ali Zamir. It was his first novel and it has a rawness and energy that was essential to retain in the translation. And, what’s more, he wrote it without any punctuation except commas. It’s not as stream-of-consciousness as that might sound – the commas work as a kind of catch-all form of punctuation, and the text flows quite freely, with one “sentence” following on quite naturally from another. But in order to retain that in translation, I had to do a great deal of juggling and tweaking to make sure the reader isn’t left confused. Zamir also uses a vast range of phrases and sayings, some of which are archaic and others completely invented. So that was a challenge, but it was enjoyable too as it meant I was able to call on some of the weird and wonderful turns of phrase I have clanking around in my head ­– obsolete, old-fashioned expressions my mother used to use, for example. I had to be creative, flexible and very disciplined at the same time to make it all come together.

How do you manage to balance fidelity, meaning and flow when translating a text?
This is really the heart of the matter. “Flow” implies rhythm, tone, music, all those intangible elements that contribute to the distinctiveness of the author’s voice. These are things one strives to recreate, to be faithful to. So fidelity includes both meaning and flow. I try to tease out as much of the meaning as I can on my first draft and work my way gradually into the music of the voice. I read my drafts over and over again, both in my head and out loud. I have to be able to ‘hear’ both the original and the translation. In Winter in Sokcho, Elisa Shua Dusapin uses language sparingly to create powerful images, whereas Zamir’s approach is quite the opposite. Often, when you’re juggling the words to try and get the right rhythm, the “flow” you’re aiming for, you find that the meaning isn’t quite what you thought it was. Words and their meanings are slippery – I remember feeling baffled and exasperated as a graduate student grappling with Derrida, but the one thing that did make sense to me was the idea that language and meaning aren’t fixed. They are embedded in webs of meaning that slip and slide depending on the way they’re put together. And all of this comes into play in translation. Another reason why I love translating.

How involved are you in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on how new technology and social media have (or have not) impacted books in translation and your working life as a translator? 
I like being involved in the promotion of the books I’ve translated, but it very much depends on the publisher. I usually make it clear that I’m happy to do all I can to help. As for technology and digital media, I came into translation when this had already become part of the landscape. My years as a teacher of teenagers, in a school that was very much in the forefront of the digital revolution, ensured that I was fairly up to speed when I began translating. I can’t imagine working without online resources. I’ve been around long enough to remember the old days of typewriters, tipp-ex and actual, physical cut and paste and I don’t regret their passing at all. Life is much easier with my lovely connected laptop! So my beloved dictionaries sit above my desk on my shelf, and I do still use them, but I search online first and I google all sorts of things. It’s so helpful to be able to research the background, look up an unfamiliar reference, see pictures of the places and objects, even the people being described, and all with just one click! Translation takes you to all sorts of interesting places. I use social media mostly to help promote my work, which I still find a bit awkward. I find the overlap between professional and personal relationships online difficult to manoeuvre – where do you draw the line between essential self-promotion for professional reasons and attention-seeking self-agrandisement?

What are you working on at the moment?
I have three books out this year – Winter in Sokcho which was published in February, and another that has just come out, On Terrorism: conversations with my daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a very different kind of book. And I’m in the finishing stages of working on Nina Bouraoui’s All Men Want to Know which is due to be published later this year. I’m working on a few other things at the moment and doing a bit of writing of my own.

Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
I was fortunate to come into translation just as the profile of translated literature was on the rise. I’d never realised before that people made such a distinction between translated literature and everything else – it wasn’t something I thought about. We all read Hesse, Garcia Marquez, Borges, Kundera, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Camus, Beauvoir, Simenon – the list goes on. The distinction has always seemed to me to be totally artificial. So, yes, it’s wonderful that literature in translation from all over the world is now becoming more visible, but it’s a distinction I’d like to see disappear completely. We should all read as widely as possible and as much as possible!

Your views on success?
Success can mean so many things. It can be finding just the right way to put together a sentence that’s been haunting me. Or seeing a book I’ve translated on the shelves of my local bookshop. I suppose my greatest ‘success’ to date was being shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for my translation of Seven Stones by Vénus Khoury-Ghata – that was a real boost. But ultimately success for me as a translator would just be to go on translating wonderful books for as long as I can.  

Some translators are also literary critics. Do you think a critical background is helpful to a translator?
It’s certainly helpful to be able to think critically about the books you’re translating. I did my first degree at Sussex University, in the days when it was considered to be radical and pioneering in its approach. The one thing they really expected us to do was to think for ourselves and to read widely and critically. I learned how to apply that critical thinking to literature during my time at Birkbeck where I did my MA. I’ve written quite a few reader reports for publishers as well as reviews for publication and both of these involve critical thinking as well as the ability to write decent prose. But it’s just as important to be able to write creatively too. A translator has to be a writer in every sense of the word.

Your chief fault?
I’m very argumentative.

Your chief characteristic?
It’s quite difficult to shut me up – as you can probably tell!

Five favourite prose authors?
Helen Dunmore, Colm Toibin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marguerite Duras, Tolstoy . . .  Ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list!

Five favourite feature films? 
Ditto, but right now, I’d say Hiroshima, mon amour; 2001: A Space Odyssey; La Haine; The English Patient; Singin’ in the Rain.

Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Jessye Norman (I’m sure she’ll sing for us when we start to flag), Obama (either Barack or Michelle but preferably both), Noor Inayat Khan, Albert Camus, and Graham Norton to keep the party going and stop things from getting too serious.  

Your bedside reading?
At the moment, The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells, brilliantly translated by Charlotte Collins. After that, I plan to reread something by Penelope Lively or perhaps Tessa Hadley or Helen Dunmore. And some poems by Clive James too.

Your motto?
Keep moving forward.

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Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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