Fionn Petch, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Scotland but left age sixteen and never really made it back. I lived in Mexico City for about twelve years, and now live in Berlin. I’m a freelance translator from Spanish and French into English.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
In my teens, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy; the John Wyndham novels; most of Orwell; Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; Calvino’s Invisible Cities; Claudio Magris’ A Different Sea – this last one changed the bearing of my life.
Why do you translate?
I believe translation underlies all communication, both within and between languages. Language is what makes us most distinctively human, and translation is a celebration of that, insofar as it makes all humans intelligible to each other, bringing different life-worlds into proximity. Translators are walkers-between-worlds.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I’ve been working in translation for about ten years, specializing in art and architecture books, and most of my clients arrived through recommendations. To get into literary translation, I’ve done quite a few stories and poems for journals – unpaid, naturally. My break was being offered my first novel to translate by Charco Press: Fireflies by Luis Sagasti.
What are you most proud of translating?
The first translation of the first SF story in the history of the Americas, written in Mexico in the 1770s by a Franciscan friar called Manuel Antonio de Rivas. The Spanish is rather baroque, but also quite funny. The title is very long, and begins Syzygies and Lunar Quadratures Aligned to the Meridian of Mérida . . .
What is your biggest disappointment?
Translating a sample of a very interesting novel in Spanish that Penguin/Random House was selling the rights to, which then became the subject of a bidding war, but the translation subsequently went to someone else.
What are you working on at the moment?
The Distance Between Us by Peruvian writer Renato Cisneros. It’s been a huge bestseller in Spanish, and it will be interesting to see how it is received by the Anglophone world.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
I find the whole idea of pigeon-holing “translated fiction” as distinct from English-language fiction very odd and short-sighted. It betrays a misunderstanding not just of what translation is but of what reading is. Why on Earth choose only to read books written in English? It’s like deciding only to talk to people whose surnames begin with ‘Mac’. Other countries don’t have this hang up. Imagine if Latvians did the same.
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 hope so. There seems to be more awareness of naming the translator in reviews. On the other hand, I am slightly wary of the translator becoming too much of a protagonist. We didn’t write the books, after all. We just chose all the words.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
In terms of literary translation, I think it has mainly affected the research process. For example, you can immediately verify any real place or historical event the author mentions, or even follow a character down the streets of a city using Google Maps and Streetview. This can be really useful for getting a sense of a place you don’t know – but can also throw up annoying inconsistencies you then have to resolve.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
No, though I’ve nothing against people who do. At the most I’ll read The London Review of Books on my phone if I’m waiting in a queue or something.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I’m generally suspicious of social media but recently joined Twitter to hear about things happening in the translation world and occasionally to say things too.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing and translation in your view?
Not going to happen (buries head in sand). Apart from potentially some sources of funding, I don’t think it will have a huge impact. I don’t know.
Your bedside reading?
The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. Extraordinary book with a very interesting translation history.
Your favourite prose author?
Difficult choice. Nabokov.
Your heroes in real life?
Ian Hamilton Finlay, artist and writer.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Terry Gilliam. Anne Carson. Mike Scott of the Waterboys. Tilda Swinton. Seamus Heaney.
What are your favourite literary journals?
The London Review of Books. Words Without Borders. The Learned Pig.
Your chief fault?
Lack of self-confidence
Your chief characteristic?
Your favourite motto?
“I prefer to be a man of contradictions, than one of convictions.”
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