Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I dropped out of university in the early 1970s and ran away to Paris where I spent eight years soaking up the French language and culture. I enrolled at the radical university of Vincennes and did various jobs, from telephone operator on the SNCF enquiries line to picking grapes, milking goats and teaching English in companies. When I came back to the UK in 1981, I found that I was unemployable, so I announced myself as a translator.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
I lived in a house full of books. My father collected books and had very eclectic tastes. We used to go to Portobello Road market together every Saturday and he taught me how to identify a first edition. I had unrestricted access to his entire library. We lived in a small suburban house where there was no privacy. I shared a bedroom with my sister and the only place I could be alone was the loo. During school holidays, I think I spent most of my waking hours locked in the toilet with a book. I was a serial reader, so I’d find an author and then read everything by them. I graduated from Enid Blyton to Angela Brazil – I loved boarding school stories – and Agatha Christie. As an older teenager, it was Sartre and Camus, Zola and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Why do you translate?
Translation is my home. It’s what I do, it’s what I’ve always done. It’s the only thing I know how to do. I’ve been immersed in languages since birth. My grandparents were from Hungary, Austria, Poland and Russia. Their only common language was Yiddish and they never learned English. My parents were Francophiles and Italophiles and the songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Mistinguett, Charles Trenet and Tino Rossi. They taught me nursery rhymes in French, German and Italian. I was fascinated by words, by language from the minute I could open my mouth. As a teenager I had a Saturday job in a hair salon in Soho where all the hairdressers were from a little village in northern Italy. They spoke in dialect. I knew they were bitching about their husbands and talking about sex, and I would lurk and eavesdrop and try and fathom what they were saying.
We used to go on family holidays to France and Italy, I absorbed the languages without thinking about it. So why do I translate now? I love the endless challenges, the continual learning, the satisfaction of bringing a writer to an English-speaking audience.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
The first book I translated was a book I read that I felt I simply had to translate – Claudine Vegh’s Je ne lui ai pas dit au revoir. I had no idea how publishing worked, no ‘strategy’. I learned on the job. I obtained permission from Gallimard to approach UK publishers and simply hawked my translation around (for five years) until I found a publisher.
Then, having decided that I wanted to translate, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and unearthed a couple of books that I wanted to champion. One of them was Sembène Ousmane’s Le Docker Noir, which Heinemann bought and commissioned me to translate. I just kept knocking on doors and eventually received more commissions, made more contacts and built up a portfolio of translations.
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 have an important role to play in bringing works of interest to publishers’ attention. We read a lot in our source language, we’re sent books by friends and writers, and we can be pro-active in championing an author. Publishers are too busy to keep up with everything that’s being published all over the world, and we can act as a valuable filter. It’s important to build relationships of trust so that we know what books to pitch where.
Funding is vital. Many of the translated books we see would not make it into English without funding, either from national bodies of the source language, or through English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme, funded by the Arts Council, or through the EU’s Creative Europe programme.
What are you most proud of translating?
That’s a difficult question. Every book presents different challenges. Translation as Transhumance has a special place in my heart because it’s a project that I championed and found a publisher for, both here and in the USA (Les Fugitives in the UK and The Feminist Press in America), and whose theme resonates strongly with me. The French is exquisite, and I owed it to the author, Mireille Gansel, to produce a translation worthy of the original.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m translating a Simenon novel, Maigret and the good people of Montparnasse. I’m fortunate enough to be one of the team of translators working on Penguin Classics’ new translation of the Simenon’s entire oeuvre.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
I feel quite optimistic about the growing number of translations being published at present, and the increasing diversity of languages being translated. We’re seeing books from languages never or rarely translated: Kurdish, Burmese, Occitan, Galician, Uyghur, Tamil… Since 2012, PEN Translates has supported titles from 42 languages. Despite the doom and gloom, we’re also seeing the rise of indie publishers with a strong or exclusive focus on translated literature: Peirene, And Other Stories, Les Fugitives, as well as that of indie bookshops with curated displays foregrounding translated books: Caravanserail, Ink84, Burley Fisher, Belgravia Books, Dulwich Books.
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?
Most definitely yes. When I started out, in the early 1980s, there were publishers who said to me: ‘We don’t do translated books’, as if translations were a genre. There was a general sense that ‘readers don’t like foreign books’ and ‘readers don’t like books by authors with unpronounceable names’ or ‘translations don’t sell’, and there was massive resistance to foreign literature, which existed in a sort of ghetto. Then came a few books in translation that were huge commercial successes (The Name of the Rose, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Scandi crime, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels), and now publishers recognize that there is huge commercial potential in publishing translated literature. This is also helped by the buzz around the Man Booker International Prize which has given more visibility to books in translation. The profession itself has become more professionalised and there’s a lot of translator training and mentoring, so the quality of translated literature has improved enormously. One thing that put readers off was the number of poorly translated books published. I think too that the appetite for translated literature has been boosted by the growth of reading groups, which by definition are full of people wanting to expand their horizons. Literally and metaphorically. Publishers are also acquiring more mid-market titles and sloughing off the image of translated books as being elitist and inaccessible, and often unreadable.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
I wonder how we managed before the internet. It’s so much easier to do research now. Whereas once you’d have to spend days in libraries, now you can find out almost anything at the click of a mouse. And there’s voice recognition software, which I used for one book. But I don’t think Google Translate will be taking over the literary translator’s job, if that’s what you mean.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
No, but I do read them sometimes because I’m running out of shelf space.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
Hugely. Especially with small publishers. I suggest and take part in events, suggest contacts to send the books to, and use social media to help create a buzz. I don’t let social media take over my life, but I think they have a valuable role to play in networking the profession. One example was how the Women in Translation month was created, through the Facebook group. Within 48 hours, contributors from all over the world had provided suggestions for titles, put together a list, produced a logo and contacted bookshops. And WiT month was born.
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?
Hopefully there’ll be even more translated titles in an attempt to promote openness and diversity. Sadly, UK publishers will no longer have access to Creative Europe support, but very few apply anyway. Which is a pity, because there’s a generous pot of funding there.
Your bedside reading?
A huge pile. Every time I buy a book I start reading it and then I buy another one and start reading that. On my pile at the moment: Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Danny Hahn), East West Street by Philippe Sands.
Your chief fault?
According to my daughter Chloe, I’m not good at sharing because I forget to ‘share’ the crossword clues with her. According to my son Leo, I’m a bad loser, I hate being beaten at backgammon.
Your chief characteristic?
In a crisis, make food.
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