Siân Williams, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a translator and the founder of The Children’s Bookshow, a national tour of writers and illustrators of children’s literature which has been taking place in theatres across England each autumn since 2003. For most of my working life I was a publisher, initially founding, with three others, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
The Old Curiosity Shop, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Ten Twentieth Century Poets (which I remember included poems by Auden, T.S. Eliot, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Edwin Muir, Yeats, Thomas Hardy amongst others, perhaps I didn’t like the others!). I also loved Longfellow as a child and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury I think it was called. Many many more, I’ve always been a voracious reader so a list would take a book!
Later, I came to love Russian literature, so Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Mandel’shtam’s poetry in particular during adolescence.
Why do you translate?
I translate in order to enable books I love to be read by a wider audience, it’s as simple as that.
Your advice to new translators just starting out?
Find a book you’re passionate about and keep trying everywhere to get it published.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator and what was your strategy?
It came about by accident: I was learning Italian (I’d studied Russian and French at University) and at Writers and Readers we’d published a book by Dacia Maraini. The translators of her next book, Isolina, had turned down its translation, so Dacia asked me if I would do it. When I said that I didn’t know Italian well enough, she simply said that I knew my mother tongue very well! So I translated it, worked on it with her in Italy (she has an almost perfect command of English) and persuaded Peter Owen to publish it. It got good reviews and the Women’s Press subsequently did the paperback edition.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Funding is very important, and it’s always possible to get grants: the embassies and cultural institutes all have funding, as does Arts Council England, for translation.
What are you most proud of translating?
It’s always the last book, which is Oh, Freedom! by Francesco D’Adamo.
What is your biggest failure?
I translated a play by Antonio Tabucchi, but it had to be done hurriedly for a magazine and I didn’t do it justice. He was a great writer, and Declares Pereira is one of my favourite books.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m not working on anything right now, because I’ve just finished Oh, Freedom! but I’m trying to translate some poems by Ungaretti for my own pleasure.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
We need more translation!
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?
Yes, a great deal. It’s become much more widely accepted and mainstream now, in part due to the heroic efforts of people like Boyd Tonkin and prizes like the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International Prize), but some publishers still won’t credit the translator on the book’s cover.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
It hasn’t. I always write the first draft by hand, then type it.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
I am involved, because I have experience of promoting writers through the Bookshow tour, and prior to that I organised, with grants from Arts Council England, events such as Russian Women Poets with Vanessa Redgrave at the Festival Hall, and a series of promotions of literature in translation which included Italian, French, German, Russian and Latin American literature. I probably would have continued, but I started the Children’s Bookshow and that took over. Now I introduce a children’s writer in translation into the Bookshow each year. In 2015 for example, it was the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, and in 2016 it will be Italian Fabio Geda and French Canadian Marianne Dubuc.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying it’s difficult to keep me out of the marketing process! For this new book, for example, both Darf Publishers and myself are liaising with the Italian Cultural Institute for the launch of Oh, Freedom! with its author, Francesco D’Adamo, and I’m arranging for an actor to read extracts in addition to Francesco’s talk.
I’m keeping out of the publicity process though. Ghassan Fergiani, the publisher at Darf, has taken on Nicky Potter, who works with the Bookshow amongst other clients, and who is one of the most assiduous and experienced promoters of children’s literature there is, so I know Oh, Freedom! is in a very safe pair of hands.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
John Berger, Tomasi di Lampedusa, Nina Cassian, Anton Chekhov, Antonio Tabucchi.
Your bedside reading?
Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies, Fabio Geda Se La Vita Che Salvi E La Tua and Nikolai Gogol’s Petersburg Tales.
Your favourite prose author?
Your favourite poet?
Your heroes in real life?
John Berger, Michael Rosen.
Your chief characteristic?
Your chief fault?
Your favourite motto?
It’s actually one of Kate Arafa’s, my co-director at the Bookshow: “It’ll be fine.”
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