Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Sligo, Ireland and while I was a good student, and a precociously gifted musician, I did very little to maximize my talents. I went to Trinity College Dublin to study English and Philosophy, but as a young gay man just coming out (in a conservative, deeply Catholic country), I feel in love, slipped off the radar and left university without finishing my degree. It was the end of my first real relationship that prompted me to move to Paris (to a country and a city I have never visited, with rudimentary secondary-school French that I had never been called on to speak aloud). From there, a series of curious but fortunate accidents led to me translating bandes dessinées, working as a publishers’ reader and finally, in 1998, embarking on my first literary translation. So, while I am passionate about languages, and cannot imagine anything more fulfilling than literary translation, I can hardly claim that I had a career path, or worked towards it. In fact, it never occurred to me that I would be “allowed” to translate novels, assuming vaguely that such herculean feats were reserved for some rarefied species.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
From a very early age, I was a voracious reader – not that our house was filled with books or my parents were particularly bookish, but I haunted the local library and read anything and everything I could lay hands on. My early reading tastes were probably no different to any boy of my generation: C.S. Lewis, Emil and the Detectives, Richmal Crompton and later Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. By my teens, I was reading Joyce and Woolf and Dostoevsky (I was idiotically precocious, and my reading of them was through a glass darkly) and marvelling at what words could do, how they could create worlds, affect moods, inspire thoughts, mould dreams. I was determined to be a writer. I wrote my first (truly awful) novel at about fourteen, my second (modernist, sub-Salinger) novel at about sixteen. Thankfully, neither has survived to embarrass me. Books, for me were both a world, and an escape from the world.
Why do you translate?
There is no satisfaction in the world – for me – that compares to recreating a voice, a narrative in English. The more fiendishly difficult the task (allusions, puns, humour, slang, regional dialects) the more satisfying it can be. My literary agent once tried to persuade me to write more books and give up translation, but the pleasures and rewards (and the difficulties and challenges) are very different. As I writer, however outlandish my characters, I can only ever be myself – only as a translator have I can I be a dozen novelists of different genders, countries, backgrounds and narrative voices . . .
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I had no strategy – I was lucky. When I first began translating, I still had a full time job and I made time in evenings and weekends to translate. I never turned down an offer of work. Literary translation was a fond hope rather than a real aspiration – I did not know what qualifications were required to be given the responsibility of carrying a text from one language to another, but I had none and genuinely did not think anyone would allow me to translate literature. In fact, I had done some translation before approaching my first novel. Having become interested in bandes dessinées while living in France, I stocked a wide selection in the bookshop I managed when I came to London. This led to me meeting many British artists and editors toiling at the (then very new) concept of the graphic novel. My first translations were of bandes dessinées by Bilal, Mattotti, Tardi and others. It was in translating graphic novels that I came to know a number of more literary editors at Penguin, Gollancz and other imprints who were keen to dip their toes into this emerging medium. Over time, I became a publishers’ reader for several editors, reading and reporting on new titles in French, until finally I recommended an editor buy the rights to a novel (L’Hypothèse du désert by Dominique Sigaud) and was asked by the editor if I would like to submit a sample with a view to translating the book. This first translation was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize (it didn’t win), but the second novel I translated, Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires) by Michel Houellebecq, was a huge, controversial success in English, and it was this that made it possible for me to give up the day job in 2001, with the intention of focusing on writing and translating (in fact it would be several years before I could earn even a meagre living from literary translation)
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Translators play a vital role in the acquisition of foreign fiction. Few editors can read confidently in a second language, and fewer still have a mastery of multiple languages, therefore they replay on “readers” who provide detailed reports on new titles, and who – like literary scouts – also keep them abreast of the publishing scene in the Francophone (Hispanophone, Lusophone, etc.) world. To is a curious and onerous responsibility – little is paid for a reader’s report (about £75, though it takes several days to read the book and write a lucid report), but it can influence an editor to acquire the rights in the title.
Translators can and do often pitch books to editors unbidden – making a case for titles or authors who appear to have slipped through the cracks and lingered, untranslated. The longer the relationship one has with an editor, the more s/he is likely to be disposed to listen.
Funding – in particular grants and bursaries – also have a disproportionate influence on the publishing of foreign fiction. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy (one with which I staunchly disagree), that foreign authors are “difficult” to publish, because of the cost of translation, because the author may not be able to give interviews/appear on radio or television in fluent English, etc. One of the many factors that can encourage an editor to take a risk are those grants from the Centre National du Livre, the Burgess Grant, PEN translates, etc., which defray the costs of translation, or in the case of PEN Promotes, provides funds for marketing and publicity – since it is not enough to acquire and publish a book in translation, it is crucial to make every effort to find a readership for the book. (This, my late, beloved agent, used to say is the difference between publishing and privishing).
What are you most proud of translating?
There is only one novel I can think of that I am not proud to have worked on. Broadly, if I think of my translation as children, I love them differently but equally. Some of are delinquent, some nurturing, some make me want to throw things. That said, of the francophone authors I have had the privilege to translate, I take a particular pride in the valedictory novels of the great Ivoirian novelist Ahmadou Kourouma whose novels En Attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote) and Allah n’est pas obligé (Allah is not Obliged) offered particularly intractable challenges I had Kourouma’s novels are dense and his narrators employ the cadences of the West-African griot tradition, they are suffused with words in Malinké, and evoke traditions and cultures I know of only at second hand. Attempting to recreate his prolix, magical, poetic and scatological voices was a profoundly difficult and cathartic experience.
What is your biggest failure?
Like many translators (and indeed authors), I am rarely happy with a finished work. I like to paraphrase Paul Valéry, a translation is never finished, only abandoned. That said, there are novels were I feel, despite my best efforts, something crucial fails to make it across the infinite divide. One such is ¡Que viva la música! the only novel by Colombian writer Andrés Caicedo. When first reading it, I hopelessly underestimated the difficulties of translating it, assuming it was a simple coming-of-age novel when in fact it is a densely allusive palimpsest of Colombian music and culture. I originally agreed to a deadline of six months, in the end, it took me two years. Caicedo’s novel (published in English as Liveforever) is a paean to music, particularly to the salsa dura of the 1970s, but it is also shot through with references to Caicedo’s cultural touchstones – form Alfred Hitchcock to Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, all of this woven into the voice of María Carmen del Huerta, whose lyrical and hypnotic narrative becomes a song in itself. Though the process of working on it was by turns terrifying and breath-taking, the final result is like a good cover version of a great song; it makes you long for the original.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently translating a harrowing let darkly lyrical novel by the Mexican writer Emiliano Monge called Las Tierras arrasadas, which charts the humiliations and the savagery of people trafficking from Latin America towards the United States, but does so in narrative that is poetic and surreal, taking Dante’s Inferno as its template.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
Much too complex to go into at length here. There was a time when English-language authors were also translators (from Tobias Smollett translating Don Quixote to Saul Bellow translating Isaac Bashevis Singer), something that persists in Spanish world, but one that has all but disappeared in the English-speaking world. Even in the immediate post-war period, the great UK publishers – George Weidenfeld, André Deutsch, John Calder, Victor Gollancz – championed literature in translation. Literature was not divided into English Literature and the dismissive “World Literature”, but seen, as it should be, as a continuum. To separate books in translation from those written in English is not only invidious, but overlooks the essential intertwining of the braid of world literature. It is impossible to think of the development of Anglo-American literature without reference to the novels in translation As Milan Kundera writes in The Curtain: “. . . it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, if was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert’s tradition living on in Joyce . . .”
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?
Immensely, infinitely, and entirely for the better. Translators are much more visible now than they were when I started twenty years ago, they have greater support, not only through the Translators Association, but through the practical courses at the BCLT (British Centre for Literary Translation) and in the field of translation studies. Moreover, the inclusion of translators and events surrounding translation in festival such as Hay, the Edinburgh Book Festival and the London Book Fair have meant that readers and editors have a clearer sense of what translation entails. The emergence of a new generation of Small Press publishers (& Other Stories, Gallic, Alma, Peirene Press, Pushkin), have once again brought literature in translation to the foreground, and if newspapers (often) forget to credit a translator when reviewing a book, at least the books are being reviewed.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
I cannot remember (and find it difficult to imagine) how I translated books before the advent of the internet – the sheer wealth of resources, online libraries, dictionaries, fora and discussion groups has made the act of translation easier (though sometimes fraught with too many choices). Other shifts in translation have been less positive in their influence – the rise of social media has contributed to potential readers having a short attention span. Many readers seem to seek immediate gratification and reassurance; the single most grating review I frequently encounter on Amazon is “I didn’t like/couldn’t identify with any of the characters”, surely the most fatuous reaction to a book – if liking a character were a prerequisite, no-one would read the novels of Céline, or Crime and Punishment or Lolita.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
While I still prefer paper books, I have no problem reading eBooks (and much of my work-related reading is now supplied as PDF proofs or in eBook format). I also find eBooks enormously practical because I travel for at least six months of the year, and transporting paper books is cumbersome and difficult.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I use social media to help promote my own (and other) books. Intelligently used, I think it can be an excellent tool. The rise of book blogs like dovegreyreader, Brain Pickings, TRANSLATIONiSTA and many, many others have provided a focus for reviews at a time when broadsheet newspapers have slashed the amount of coverage given to books. In the end, social media is a tool like any other, but there are times, when talking to marketing and publicity departments, that it seems that likes and retweets are an end in themselves. In the end, word of mouth still sells more books than any other technology.
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?
It is difficult to assess while so close to the debacle. I think/hope that British interest in what they think of as “foreign” will wax and wane regardless of Brexit. Those who read Steig Larsson or Pierre Lemaitre were not seeking out literature-in-translation, they were drawn to books about which their friends were passionate. That said, it seems likely that the translation sector may become even more dependent on subsidies and grants at a time when they are in steep decline.
Your bedside reading?
My comfort reading (when I’m ill or frazzled or at odds with the world) often strays to golden age crime – Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, but the novels I have reread most often (in whole or more often in part) are Proust’s Recherche, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Joyce’s Dubliners.
Your favourite prose author?
I don’t think I could narrow it down to ten, let alone one. If we limit it to three-favourite-prose-authors-in-the-past-five-years, then Javier Marías, Virginie Despentes and Ali Smith.
Your favourite poet?
Three: Guillaume Apollinaire, Tony Harrison, Elizabeth Bishop.
Your heroes in real life?
I admire many people, but am wary of the idea of heroes which seems to airbrush what is human into hagiography. I prefer to think, like Whitman, “there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero”. Or a young woman, obviously.
Your chief characteristic?
Dogged determination against all odds.
Your chief fault?
Um . . . eh . . . procrastination, I think, but I’ll get back to you.
Your favourite motto?
“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
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