Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Scotland and moved to the US with my family at the age of four. We lived in the heartland of the US, in Nebraska, for several years, before moving to Texas, where we settled. I became an American citizen during my first year at uni. I started learning German, took lots of Spanish literature courses, and studied abroad in Berlin, Madrid, and Mainz, but in the end I became an English major because I wanted to access the creative writing courses offered by that department. I wrote a collection of short stories for my senior project. By the time I graduated I had gorged on literature for so long that I felt like I needed to do something completely different, so I went to work for a bank. I ended up in the Latin American group of an American bank, helping companies from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil access the US markets. I loved the clients but I didn’t love the work itself, which was incredibly demanding — I didn’t have the time or energy to read a book for three years — so I left that industry for publishing. I worked for Andrew Wylie as his assistant for a year, then for Francis Coppola, launching his literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, finally settling at Words Without Borders, which published its first issues of writing from Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, six months after I began working there in 2003.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
It’s so lowbrow that it’s slightly embarrassing to admit, but I loved the Nancy Drew mystery series; I read every one, some multiple times. I think what appealed to me was the girl power — that these three young women were daring and fearless in the pursuit of truth and justice was quite inspiring. The book I probably read the most times was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess. I was captivated by the character Ram Das, who would sneak across the rooftops into the little girl’s garret with carpets and firewood, pillows and blankets, to make it a more pleasant place for her to live. It seemed utterly magical to me. I suppose I’m still rather fanciful.
Why do you translate?
One of the lasting impressions of emigrating as a young child was that I did not fit in, and in the end I became neither fish nor fowl, neither thoroughly British nor American. My British aunts, uncles, and cousins called us The Yanks when we came to visit, while at home in the US kids would say things like “Why do you pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘what’? That sounds weird!” (They said “wut”). So from an early age I was fascinated by the differences in culture and the differences in language that were thrown into high relief by my personal experience as a go-between. In translation I’m in my element as a go-between, moving from one language/culture to another.
Your advice to new translators just starting out?
Read, read, read — (you must have a vast vocabulary!) in both your mother tongue and your source language(s). Language can be used so many different ways as a tool, and I do believe languages have their own distinct personalities. The more tools you have in your toolbox (as in modes of using language) the more adept you will become at recognizing tone, which is one of the most critical elements of a literary text — it’s the imprimatur of the author. This helps the translator choose the most apt words, to recreate the mood of the original.
How did you kickstart your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I didn’t have a strategy at all. I was doing an MFA in Fiction at the New School in NYC and launching Words Without Borders at the same time. The founder of WWB, Alane Mason, who’s an editor at Norton, asked me if I would look at a book by a Spanish author for her. I loved it, wrote a glowing report, and then she asked me if I would translate a piece of it to give her the flavor of the novel. I loved doing that translation so much that I asked the MFA director if I could do some translation for the critical component of my thesis. He agreed on the condition that I do several translations with an eye toward comparing and contrasting them, and I was off.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
In today’s publishing environment the translator often facilitates communication between the author and the editor, an obviously vital role. Many translators act as advocates — almost as agents — for their authors, trying to get publishers interested in their work, arranging review coverage, even arranging events if possible.
I believe funding is critical, because the translation cost can be the single greatest expense in the production of a book, in a market where profit margins on books are diminishing year on year; if there is funding to support the translation it takes a huge burden off the publisher. The downside of this is that countries that can afford to support the translation of their cultural patrimony for export (like Germany, France, and many northern European nations) have a leg up on countries that don’t have the ability to support their own cultural treasures abroad. So we can end up with a bit of a trade imbalance in the market, in terms of which countries/languages are represented in literature in English translation.
What are you most proud of translating?
I loved translating Landing because I felt I knew these characters inside and out. Both of the main characters suffer a shocking loss — a girl loses her parents in a tragic car crash and an old man loses the wife he adores to cancer. My mother died very suddenly, several decades ago; one moment she was alive, the next moment she was gone, and I had tremendous empathy for this girl who had lost both her parents in that way. It was different for my father, who had been married to my mother for decades, and as I was translating the book I often thought that what the male character was experiencing must have been quite close to what my father experienced. I think Laia did an incredible job of depicting how both characters cope with traumatic loss.
What is your biggest failure?
I’m incredibly impatient and I don’t think I have a very disciplined mind, it just flits all over the place most of the time, except when I’m translating. Perhaps that’s why I like translating so much.
What are you working on at the moment?
Carmen Boullosa’s latest novel, Anna’s Book, which is the novel that Anna Karenina wrote for her son before she jumped in front of the train, couched within another story about revolutionary-era Russia. I love translating Carmen’s work because, like me, she’s quite fanciful (at least in her writing) and unpredictable. After decades of reading and editing, I sometimes feel a bit jaded and bored by writing, as if I’ve seen it before, but that never happens with Carmen’s work.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
Most importantly, translators are writers. In many countries the major writers are also translators, bringing great writers from English into their own tongue; that tradition doesn’t seem to be as strong here, perhaps because of the role English plays as a global lingua franca. But I do think translation sharpens your writing skills and broadens your horizons. I’m no expert on artificial intelligence, but I’m skeptical that a computer would ever be able to grasp the fine nuance of language to the extent that it could produce a translation as artful as a gifted, disciplined translator’s. Perhaps we’re not at a stage yet where a translator can truly make a book (few translators ever achieve “brand name” recognition), but it’s certainly true that a poor translation can break a book. I’ve often reflected that it must be a slightly terrifying situation for an author, to entrust your work to another writer, and hope that they are as faithful to the original work as they can be.
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?
We launched Words Without Borders in 2003, and that’s when I became quite sensitive to what was going on in the English language market for works written in other languages. As we have moved from the twentieth century into the twenty-first, and globalization progresses ever more rapidly, I think there’s a strange dichotomy occurring: there’s a greater awareness of the world beyond our own communities and ergo curiosity about the “other” while at the same time there’s greater fear and xenophobia. I suppose which way people lean — opening up or closing in — depends upon personal circumstances: does one feel threatened by “the other” or not? It’s crucial that resources are available to help us identify with “the Other” because, like it or not, in the twenty-first century it will be impossible for anyone, anywhere to live in splendid isolation, and, in the end, we’re all human. So I think it’s vital to try to understand a foreign point of view; you don’t have to agree with it, of course, but to at least comprehend where someone else is coming from; that’s a crucial precursor to compromise and cohabitation on a planet whose population is exploding.
I’ve gone a bit off-piste here, but it’s all an attempt to explain not only why the perception of literature translated into English has improved but also why it’s so crucial that it’s available — all art, including literature, has the potential to bring us closer to understanding than facts or reportage — what we get from the media. Perversely, many twenty-first century media outlets seem to be seeking out niches of viewers that espouse a specific view or views, in a bid to boost ratings, as opposed to reporting the news in a truly unbiased fashion. And this is one of the dangers of the internet and social media such as Twitter: you can surround yourself with like-minded people and hear only what you want to hear, what supports or reinforces your own belief system. I suppose in a sense translation is another way for me to get out of my own community and explore the world.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
Technology has certainly made the act of translating easier and more efficient. I often use an online dictionary and online thesaurus when I work, it expedites things tremendously not to have to constantly be flipping through pages, looking words up, though sometimes those old paper dictionaries are the only ones to provide an answer; and there are great translation forums where you can ask a question and get helpful (and not so helpful) responses from other practitioners.
We chose to make Words Without Borders a website so that anyone anywhere in the world, would be able to access the writing we publish with an internet connection; the internet has vastly broadened readership for the “long tail” population — people interested in specific things — and for the most part that’s where literature in translation remains, though there are some exceptions that break through into the mainstream.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I’m a Luddite. I love the physical experience of holding and smelling a book, of turning the pages and making notes on them. Someone gave me a kindle and it took me a year to realize I had lost it.
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I try to support the publication of the books I translate however I can. Social media is a useful tool, but it’s also a little bit silly (cf my previous answer on the book trade and the Media). I’m not convinced that it can make a significant impact on a title’s success, but just because I haven’t witnessed it personally doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
My mother’s father. He was a minister in the Church of Scotland, but from what I could tell he spent much of his time in his study: reading. He was also a linguist (I believe you had to learn Ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew back then in order to be able to read the bible in the original), and he surrounded himself with books. Like many of his compatriots, he was also a man of few words, and took some drawing out, so I never got to know him as well as I would have liked.
My father’s father. I never met him because he died shortly after serving in World War II. His parents emigrated to NYC from somewhere in modern-day Ukraine before the outbreak of WW1 and it’s just as well they did or they would have been exterminated in the holocaust. They’re buried in Queens, next to their son.
Alexandre Dumas. I read The Count of Monte Cristo this summer and was in awe of his command of plot and his skill at drawing characters. But it’s a bit dangerous to pick authors because we’ve all been crestfallen to find out an author we adored is in fact unpleasant, or worse, so perhaps I’d drop him and invite my three sons instead, so they could get to know their great grandfathers.
Your bedside reading?
Mark Strand’s The Weather of Words; I’ve commissioned an article On Translation, his story therein, for In Other Words the magazine about the craft of translation I currently edit.
Carmen Boullosa’s Before, which is one of her earliest novels, translated by Peter Bush.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts for my book club.
And right now I’m working on an issue of Turkish short stories for WWB so I’ve got a stack of those to read; I’ve also got John Freely’s latest book, The Art of Exile, and Maureen Freely’s translation of Hasan Ali Toptas’s Restless and Amet Umit’s Patasana, translated by Amy Spangler, which I picked up when I was in Istanbul in May.
My next big book is Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, and but before that I need to finish Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, which I started when I was in Venice in June.
And I picked up Doris Lessing’s London Observed the last time I was in Foyles, I’ve been meaning to get to that for a while now; she’s such an inspiration.
Your favourite prose author?
I don’t have a particular one. I love old masters like Garcia Marquez and Tolstoy as well as contemporaries like Arthur Golden and Haruki Murakami.
Your favourite poet?
I used to love reading poetry in Spanish and German and could quote you some beautifully simple, short pieces by Amado Nervo and Goethe, but I’m afraid to say my poetry reading at this stage in life is largely limited to the New Yorker. The poets whose work has stayed with me most are Sharon Olds, Deborah Garrison, and Timothy Donnelly, whose poem Diet Mountain Dew is like the love child of ee cummings and William Faulkner.
Your chief characteristic?
Complicatedness or determination.
Your chief fault?
Impatience or fancifulness.
Your heroes in real life?
My mother. My sister. Grace Paley.
Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.