Euan Cameron has enjoyed a long career first as a publisher and subsequently as a translator and book reviewer. He has translated over thirty books from French including works by Simone de Beauvoir, Julien Green, Paul Morand, Pierre Péju, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, Philippe Claudel and Patrick Modiano, as well as biographies of Marcel Proust and Irène Némirovsky. He was appointed Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2011. His first novel, Madeleine, was published in June by MacLehose Press.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Born in London, but I grew up in Dorset and in Buenos Aires.
Were the members of your family big readers?
My mother was a serious reader. She was always reading a recently published novel or a literary biography. When we lived in Argentina, she ordered books she had read about in her weekly New Statesman from the Librería Mackern in Buenos Aires.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
In no particular order: Robin Hood, books about Scottish history, books by Mark Twain, Richmal Crompton, Kipling, W.H.Hudson, Henry Williamson, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
I think so. I was always aware of the different publishers’ names, imprints and colophons, and there was a romance to them. Because title pages of books always mentioned the publisher’s overseas agencies, I imagined I might be able to work in, for example, Auckland, Melbourne, Toronto, Cape Town, (even Paris in the case of Thomas Nelson & Sons, where I once went for an interview).
What roles did you encompass over the years?
General factotum at University Presses of Chicago, Columbia and Yale (London office); publicity at Nelson, Michael Joseph and Bodley Head; editor at Bodley Head, Barrie & Jenkins, Harvill and Random House.
How much hands-on editing did you do as a publisher? Were you taught author management or did you just learn on the job?
I learned on the job. Senior authors (such as Graham Greene and Muriel Spark) did not take kindly to editing; other, younger ones (such as Allan Massie, Ian Rankin) seemed grateful for one’s input.
Why did you decide to translate?
At the age of about fifty, I realized that my opinions about books I was recommending at editorial meetings were not shared by younger colleagues. I decided to leave publishing and attempt to earn my living as a reviewer and a freelance editor and as a translator from French.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I knew the French/American author Julien Green and this led to my translating his four autobiographical books for Marion Boyars. My greatest good fortune came when Stuart Proffitt asked me to translate Jean-Yves Tadié’s vast biography of Marcel Proust for Penguin Books. I had no particular strategy beyond keeping an eye on the Paris literary press and on what were the latest books being published in France, and occasionally I’d recommend books I’d admired to London contacts
How important is the relationship between author and translator; and when you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive what needs to be addressed and how?
It can help a great deal to form a friendly relationship with living authors; it’s up to the translator to foster one. In the case of those authors no longer alive, special care need to be taken with tricky passages and finding an appropriate style. Ideally problems should be shared with someone familiar with the writer and the period. It helps a great deal if one’s commissioning editor knows the language from which one is translating.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
When I first worked in publishing, translations were a rarity and scarcely any rights in living authors were sold at Frankfurt in the late 1960s and ‘70s. The role of the translator was pitiful and you were lucky even to have your name mentioned on the title page or prelims. Pay was appalling and translated books were rarely reviewed. Nowadays, thanks to moving spirits such as the late Anthea Bell, Peter Bush and Daniel Hahn, there is a far more professional approach to translation.
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?
Yes, definitely, though media space for books seems to have shrunk. Christopher MacLehose, both at Harvill and subsequently, has done more than anyone else to alter attitudes towards translated books and he has influenced other publishers.
How important were, and are, editors and how has the role changed – if at all?
Editors were and are always important. A good editor can transform a book. Standards rise and fall depending on the authority given to editors. The best editors these days, in my view, are those in the USA.
You have gone from being a publisher to a translator and now a novelist – how has each role proved beneficial to the next?
Translation and working as an editor myself have probably helped my writing style, but I don’t have sufficient experience as a novelist yet!
Can you give us a snapshot of a day in the working life of Euan Cameron?
I rise early, take my wife, who is a headmistress, into school, have breakfast, skim my newspaper and start translating by 8.30am. I work until 1.30pm, when I begin to feel weary and less alert, and then either I take a siesta, play tennis, or shop for supper.
What have been the most striking changes in publishing since you began your career?
The arrival of the Net Book Agreement changed everyone’s outlook on the trade. The editorial role has also been diminished, while the views of the marketing and sales departments tend to influence decisions unduly.
Your views on how new technology and social media have (or have not) affected your working life?
Not hugely, although computers and the Internet have speeded up one’s work. I never edit on screen, however.
Your favourite literary journals?
London Review of Books.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Paris, August 25, 1944 – to experience the joy of the Liberation of Paris.
Your favourite prose authors?
Robert Louis Stevenson, Graham Greene, William Trevor, Muriel Spark.
Your favourite feature films?
The Third Man; Hiroshima, mon Amour; L’Avventura; The Seventh Seal.
Your chief characteristic?
Your current bedside reading?
Library Looking-Glass: A Personal Anthology by David Cecil (Constable, 1975).
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