Natasha Lehrer, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I think of myself as a Londoner born and bred, but in fact I’ve lived all over the place since I was a child. I’ve lived in northern California, Manchester, Oxford, Jerusalem and now Paris.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
I was always turning up to live in a new place with a funny accent that I had to shed if I wanted to have a hope of making friends. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved stories about misfits who came from foreign lands, and odd little girls who didn’t fit in. The Secret Garden, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Bilgewater by Jane Gardam, The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden. And I adored the Norse myths.
How did your career as a translator come about?
I moved to Paris with three little children, an English degree and only basic French, which meant I was basically unemployable. I’d been working in some way or another as a writer and editor for the previous fifteen years or so, so I carried on doing that. After a couple of years I started translating film scripts and doing commercial translation, mostly for luxury brands, which turned out to be a brilliant training and I would heartily recommend to anyone looking to hone their skills as a translator. Then I decided to do an MA, in French, in comparative literature. The degree was brilliant, a wonderful, challenging introduction to theories and problematics of translation.
Around that time I met Cécile Menon at an informal translation group in Paris. I talked about a book I was keen to translate, La Main négative by Tiphaine Samoyault. Cécile was very struck by it, and a couple of weeks later she sent me an email asking me if I’d like to co-translate Suite for Barbara Loden with her. She was just setting up Les Fugitives. Neither of us knew what we were doing, really. My career took off because of what was, essentially, an extraordinary stroke of luck. I’m very grateful to Cécile for taking a chance on me.
To what extent was your work as a reviewer for the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Haaretz, Observer etc., been helpful for a would-be translator?
Apart from making me a good reader, I’m not sure how book reviewing helps per se. But writing shortform journalism is an excellent way of training a writer to weigh up every single word, which is also a very important skill for a translator, so maybe it has been more helpful than I realized.
How come you relocated to France, and what was the first thing you read in French?
We moved fifteen years ago for my husband’s work. He’s French and he wanted our children to spend time in France. I seem to remember reading a lot of Anna Gavalda when I first got here. But it took a long time for reading in French to become a pleasure.
Which of your translations to date has been the most challenging to do, and why?
Probably Robert Desnos’ The Penalties of Hell, or The Sacred Conspiracy, an anthology of various surrealists, including Georges Bataille, a notoriously knotty and difficult writer. They are both incredibly complex and often very obscure texts. I’m pretty proud of them.
How important is the relationship between author and translator?
It depends on the author and the translator. Quite a few of the writers I have translated are no longer alive, which makes it a moot point.
Obviously I really care that my authors who are alive are happy with the work I do, I’m not convinced it’s always either helpful or necessary to consult them. Some of the authors I’ve translated have wanted to spend time going over the final manuscript with me, which I’m always happy to do. But if they don’t I’m even happier not to. I usually just make a list of questions for them at the end.
Your views on how new technology and social media have (or have not) impacted books in translation and your working life as a translator? How involved are you in the promotion of the books you translate?
Well I tweet a bit and I used to be on Facebook but I’m not at all keen on social media. I feel like the world would probably be a slightly nicer place if Twitter didn’t exist. But I know that particularly for small publishers it serves a vital role and I try to do my bit when I have a book coming out.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got five books coming out this year, four novels and an anthropological study of Parisian haute couture. I’m working on The Sailor of Casablanca by Charline Malavalfor Hodder and Stoughton this weekend. I’m also doing some of my own writing.
Has the perception of books in translation in the British book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
I recently picked up a 1984 edition of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, and there was nothing in it anywhere to indicate that it was a translation. No credit, no name, nothing. Now as a matter of course the translator’s name is prominently displayed on the title page and often on the cover too. There’s far more recognition of translation as an art in itself, where I think in the recent past people tended to think of it as a form of transcription. That’s largely thanks to many remarkable people who work so hard to raise the profile of the profession, including, in the UK, Danny Hahn, Ros Schwartz, and Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin of the Translator’s Association. Translators are now visible as they have never been before in modern publishing. The #namethetranslator campaign on Twitter has been instrumental in raising the profile of translation. I don’t know the statistics but I believe that the traditional statistic – that only 3% of books sold in the UK and the US are translated from another language – has risen a little, or even a lot.
Is winning or being shortlisted for a Translation Prize important, and why?
Prizes help a lot, of course, in terms of raising the profile of translation and of boosting an individual translator’s career.
The really big change is the fact that some of the major prizes for literature in translation, the now defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International Man Booker in the UK, split the prize between the author and the translator. I hope that other prizes will follow suit. The philosophical implications of recognizing that a translator is a co-creator are huge.
Winning the Scott Moncrieff prize for Suite for Barbara Loden a few years ago definitely helped me when my career was first taking off, but at the same time I think it’s important not to become too focused on a prize-giving literary culture which can, paradoxically, have a negative impact on the vast majority of writers and translators doing superb work but not winning prizes.
Your views on success?
Well obviously it depends on how you define it. Every sentence you translate is a small victory, a tiny little incandescent triumph. But even as these tiny victories pile up and become a book, that’s not necessarily enough. In publishing, as probably in lots of worlds, success is somewhat arbitrary, I’ve learned. I’ve translated a few books that have disappeared almost without trace, in spite of really wonderful reviews. They’re books I am very proud of, but for some reason they haven’t managed to scale the gates of the literary world. So I guess they haven’t been very successful in the conventional sense. But that seems like an unfair gauge – after all, not all successful books are very good.
If success means getting recognition from readers, reviewers, fellow translators, publishers – it’s wonderful, vital.
Your chief fault?
I talk too much.
Your chief characteristic?
I talk too much.
Five favourite prose authors?
Ben Lerner, George Eliot, Muriel Spark, Joan Didion, William Maxwell.
Five favourite writers translated into English.
Marguerite Duras, David Grossman, Georges Perec, Primo Levi, Homer.
Five favourite feature films?
The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Manchurian Candidate, The Talented Mr Ripley, Wanda, The Lives of Others, L’Ascenseur à l’echafaud.
Five favourite musicians or bands?
Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen (a bit less since seeing Marianne and Leonard), Cesaria Avora, Lili Boniche, Gil Scott Heron.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Elaine Mokhtefi, David Bowie, Anni Albers, Agnes Varda, Alexandra David-Neel.
Your bedside reading?
Becoming Beauvoir, by Kate Kirkpatrick.
– How do you make God laugh?
– Tell him your plans.
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