Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I spent half my childhood in eastern Australia, on the edge of the Coral Sea, where I went to a school whose motto was “Every pupil a good swimmer”. That sub-tropical beginning, living barefoot, catching lizards, going to the beach every week, meant that when my parents brought me back to foggy, suburban south London, to an undreamt-of land of rain, shoes and no lizards, I was instantly on the lookout for another somewhere to run away to. Luckily I was sent to France at the age of thirteen on a school exchange, and that was it. I found languages easy to learn – French and German first – and I followed that relaxed path through school and 3 years at Cambridge, but as Søren Kierkegaard says, life is understood backwards but has to be lived forwards, so while I was successfully getting out of England as often as I could, I began to understand that easy didn’t necessarily mean the same thing as satisfying. So I tried other things: I wrote (in secret), I pestered a publisher for a job, I interested myself in what was being written in France and Germany. When I became a publisher’s editor and bought the rights to a French novel by Michel Déon called Un Déjeuner de soleil, I awarded myself my first translating job. Later, when I started writing more determinedly (i.e. wanting to get published), I realised what a really useful starting-off point translating had been. Looking back much later, I see that I’ve been incredibly lucky: languages seem to have taken me everywhere I’ve wanted to go.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
The first novels I remember reading were the historical novels, not much read now, of Geoffrey Trease, for their combination of intense adventure and serious historical background. More indelible than Trease’s novels, though, are Kipling’s Just So Stories, which as an infant in Brisbane I listened to the actor David Davies reading in his wonderful, wise, velvet voice. The Butterfly That Stamped seems to me still to be one of the richest and most unforgettable stories ever written. A few years on, it was Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath which alerted me to the idea that there were modern worlds of risk and adventure, among many other worlds modern and not so, by Marryat, Williamson, Jeffries, Melville, Poe – I was an insatiable and indiscriminate reader and remember walking to and from the library often, sometimes twice a week, to “change my library books”. And then one day I happened to pick up Hunger by Knut Hamsun and I had my first literary role model, the intellectual vagrant with a self-destructive but romantic streak. I have refined my self-image a bit since then. However rugged the literary racket can be, I feel scandalously privileged to be a part of it.
Why do you translate?
It came about almost accidentally, but I felt the value and the pleasure of doing it almost immediately. Alexander Pushkin called translators “the post horses of literature”. I not only like the idea of delivering other writers’ worlds across borders into mine, but the feeling of gradually peeling away that inscrutable layer of another language and working to reveal a book’s moods, intentions, narrative and language – the author’s love for their characters and the way they first make them come alive, then release them to be themselves. It’s an evolving activity that always offers new questions, puzzles, decisions; it’s also perfect exercise for a writer who isn’t, at that precise moment, writing.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I’ve mentioned this above. My professional beginning in the book world was as a publisher’s reader, reading the unsolicited manuscripts at a publisher called Hamish Hamilton, two days a week for £100 a month. Publishers don’t employ anyone to do that these days, though I found two prizewinning novels that way. From there I became the most junior of junior editors, but my boss, the great publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, would let me go to Paris every Easter to talk to French publishers, and that was how, at Gallimard, I found my first translation: I bought the rights to Michel Déon’s novel and appointed myself its translator.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Frank Wynne has summed this up extremely well. Translators are often the champions of a book or a writer long before it, or they, can be appreciated by an editor. Translators can be the scouts, the hunters, the advocates, before they become the arrangers, surgeons, adapters of a text.
Funding is a perennial challenge. I’ve always been disappointed by the way many publishers cost their activity, on a book-by-book basis. If they believe in that activity, and in the continuum of literature, in being publishers rather than industrialists, then why can’t the overhead of translating a certain number of books per year be spread across their output, like electricity or distribution costs?
What are you most proud of translating?
To plagiarise myself, I feel outrageously privileged to have had the chance to translate the books I have translated. Some of the results have pleased me, but that’s usually because in the unspoken repartee between the writer – “Hey! I’ve just come up with this really memorable joke / mood / description” – and their translator, I can sometimes feel that I’ve given as good as I’ve got.
What is your biggest disappointment?
I don’t have one, in the realm of translating. All literary work, even in its final printed and published form, is a work in progress, not finished, only put aside. I’m sure I could improve on every translation I’ve done.
But I’ll confess to one accident. A couple of years ago I persuaded a publisher to commission a new translation of André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars to mark its centenary. This was a large challenge, not least because Gide is a writer with, stylistically, one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th; but it’s also a very funny book. So I modernised it shamelessly – as the TLS reviewer noted, “The idiom is suitably vigorous . . . : ‘Gross!’, ‘Whatever!’, ‘All sorted!’, ‘May I pass?’, ‘Shock horror!’, ‘top scientists’ [and it] makes free with allusions to knickers, cleavage and peeing. In short, here may be just the version to bring new readers to this evergreen centenarian.” Which was pleasing. Somehow, however, in editing the final version I accidentally deleted the important last sentence of the second chapter in which Anthime, having angrily ripped up his notes, repents and pieces them together to make a careful copy of his compromised results.
I am waiting like a hawk now for the moment when the translation’s first printing sells out and the time comes to reprint.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished translating Michel Déon’s haunting short memoir-novel, Your Father’s Room (Gallic), and I’m now rereading our correspondence, which comprises, to my amazement, about 900 letters. Michel died last December; we wrote to each other for more than 35 years, and he was an indefatigable and unfailingly mischievous correspondent. I’m thinking about a book based around the letters. Given email’s supremacy today, perhaps it’ll be a story of the last epistolary friendship.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
When I was making a radio series called The Romantic Road for BBC Radio 3 a few years ago, two things struck me. The series was about the rise of the novel in Europe, beginning with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and the first thing I noticed was how enmeshed all the European cultures (including Britain’s) were in the writing of other countries, right up to the mid-20th century. Don Quixote led to Gil Blas in France, which led to Tom Jones in Britain, and so on. The second thing I realised when I was researching the series was that being able to read French and German gave me access to many more languages across Europe than just English did, because those two countries routinely translated more “foreign” books than the UK did. That situation is thankfully (and in the case of a swathe of new small publishers impressively) improving.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
Pluses: huge at-fingertips resources – dictionaries, encyclopaedias, databases of original texts, forums.
Minuses: the electronic noise, the discouragement of concentration, almost everyone’s shrinking attention span.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
To be honest, no. I take in much less, remember much less. I’m told that there’s good science behind that, that the brain retains much less from direct light sources (screens) than it does from reflected light sources (paper). As much as possible I read from, and try to translate from, paper texts.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I like to be involved, but I try to avoid skulking on social media – self-promotion can feel a bit graceless – but I have been involved in making films about “my” authors and I always try to make myself available if there’s an event or book tour.
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?
I think the implications for publishers are the same as they are for most businesses. In other words, if it happens Brexit will be confidence-sapping, destabilising and counter-productive to an unknown but considerable extent and for an unknown but considerable time. I’ve already felt the chill wind of economic nervousness as a translator. But I don’t oppose Brexit personally on the grounds of economics, and nor, I suspect, do most publishers. The main grounds are surely cultural and simply human. The late and great Martin Roth, former director of the V & A museum, said after the referendum vote that as a German “Europe always gave me hope for a peaceful future, based on sharing, solidarity and tolerance. Dropping out always means creating cultural barriers – and that worries me.” It worries me too, and I suspect it’s what worries the great majority of translators and publishers.
Your bedside reading?
The Ropewalker by Jaan Kross trs. Merike Lepasaar Beecher;
The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry ed. Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, Irina Mashinski;
The House With the Stained Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska trs. Antonia Lloyd-Jones;
The Innocent of Falkland Road by Carlo Gébler;
Mes Arches de Noë by Michel Déon.
Your favourite prose author?
On a desert island? F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Your heroes in real life?
“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” as Bertolt Brecht said. Oh wait . . . In the current circumstances Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama would all be useful.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
John F. Kennedy, George Orwell, Graham Greene and Yvonne Cloetta, and Angela Merkel.
What are your favorite literary journals?
Times Literary Supplement and L’Atelier du Roman.
Your chief fault?
Permanent unwarranted optimism.
Your chief characteristic?
A tendency to over-commit.
Your favourite motto?
“It takes time to live. Like any work of art, life needs to be thought about.” Albert Camus, A Happy Death.
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