Sophie Lewis is a London-born writer, editor and translator from French (since 2005) and Portuguese (since 2012). She has translated works by Stendhal, Verne, Marcel Aymé, Violette Leduc, Emmanuelle Pagano, Noémi Lefebvre, João Gilberto Noll and Sheyla Smanioto, among others. She was Senior Editor at indie trade publisher And Other Stories from 2010 to 2016. In 2016 she co-founded Shadow Heroes, a workshop series introducing aspects of translation to GCSE-level students. She is now Managing Editor at the Folio Society. This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, published by Les Fugitives on 16 September, is her latest translation.
Where did you grow up? Have you always lived in London?
I grew up in Islington in North London. I’m happy to call myself a born and bred Londoner, though my parents were not from here, nor were their parents from where they grew up.
I spent my childhood and adolescence in London, and was back and forth between Oxford, Paris and London as a student. My big, very sensible adventure was a move to Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of 2011. My husband got a teaching job there and we took a weekend to decide this was a great plan, despite never having set foot on the continent before. It was a great plan. We stayed for four and a half years. Now we’re back in London we can’t help speculating about making another similar move, though to somewhere as different again. Languages play their part, of course.
Were the members of your family big readers?
Everyone had a book on the go, always. It wasn’t the main thing but a part of life. I became known as the biggest reader. How to stock me up with enough books for a summer holiday was always a challeng; how to stop me reading other people’s books when they were still in the middle of them too.
What books had an impact on you as a young reader?
I suppose it’s the transitional books, the ones that felt as though they were pointing somewhere bigger. Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, an Australian children’s novel about ghostly experiences of nineteenth-century Sydney, brought many things together for me: it was a proper novel, a thick book; it had that contact with history that I also craved through fabrics, clothes, books as objects, all kinds of antique finds; it was dark but realistic and magical, the critical viewpoint of a girl my own age; it also had Sydney, my mother’s birthplace and family place, our holiday place, in a perspective that still linked it strongly back to London – so it made sense of my background, implicitly, in a way that few books have done for me since.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Publishing seemed the obvious choice but as I began gathering evidence, it emerged clearly as the place where book-lovers went to overwork and die, far from the sight of their beloved books. I went first into political/literary magazine editing. And then was re-seduced by publishing from the oblique and persuasive angle of Dalkey Archive Press.
How much hands-on editing did you do as a publisher at And Other Stories?
Lots! That was the major element of the job.
Were you taught author management or did you just learn on the job?
Who teaches author management? I could still do with learning more. I think everyone learns that on the job. But it’s of a piece with learning discretion in person and online, as you hone a professional approach.
Why did you decide to translate?
I suppose I was stung by the wrongness of approaches to translation that were taught at university: the requirements to produce perfectly grammatical and highly styled, elegant language, no matter the rule-breaking or deliberate sloppiness in evidence in our source texts. This got me going. And then possibly it was also to do with wanting to write but a fundamental fear of the blank page. And then also the wonderful kick I got out of getting even closer to texts that I hero-worshipped than you can get as a reader.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
No strategy, just pushing away at it. I translated short reviews for the Institut Français website. Then someone at the book office put me in touch with Melissa Ulfane at Pushkin Press and I did a translation repair job for her. That was the beginning. Reader’s reports, availability, taking the jobs others didn’t want or couldn’t fit in: uninspiring beginnings led to good jobs that gave me contacts and opportunities
How important is the relationship between author and translator? When you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive, what needs to be addressed – and how?
The relationship can be huge or minimal. It’s great when it’s a strong one. I can sense when an author would rather I leave them alone and translate essentially without their input. That’s always a pity but I respect their need to move on from books they have published a while ago. It’s much more exciting when you can work directly with the author, understanding closely and reshaping their book in English.
With a dead author, I tend to feel my way towards a kind of communion in my head, that is mainly driven by the textual style. When I’m starting to speak how they write, I’m happy that I can hardly get closer. It’s a shame I can’t ask them what they meant by certain word choices. But without that opportunity, I make do rather happily with the most valuable thing they have given me: their writing. And I read around, widely, in their other fiction first and then in essays and whatever else seems to come closest to the period and interests at play in my text.
What are you most proud of translating?
That’s a tough question. It’s probably a toss-up between some of the shorter pieces that have worked me really hard – maybe especially sections of Jean-Luc Raharimanana’s novel Za for Words Without Borders, for which I worked out a very precise linguistic approach – and the books of Noémi Lefebvre, whose writing also works me hard but where I feel I have a good enough handle on her oeuvre that I can see in a broad, incremental way, what she’s driving at between the books, not just within each one. I also think she’s an incredibly incisive, powerful satirical writer, with an ethical approach that I admire.
What are you working on at the moment which we can look forward to?
I’ve just today begun a new book by Noémi, working title: A Poetics of Work! And just submitted my translation of a new non-fiction by the rather sensationally successful novelist Leïla Slimani. This one is smartly titled Sex and Lies and is a series of interviews around the subject of attitudes to sex in Morocco.
Your views on book publishing and 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?
It’s hard to be sure of a change over the last fifteen years – I was so keen just to get work, in the beginning, so relatively unaware of a wider economic context and cultural perception of translation, despite the public-facing aspects of my Masters and my parallel work in publishing. It’s possible that more books in translation are achieving success among British readers but it’s equally possible that roughly this number always were successful but were not analysed as translated books, but rather as thrillers or YA books or other popular successes primarily viewed in terms of other genres. I think there is a greater focus on translations as such and there is certainly much more interest in the work of translation. There’s a rash of books and essays about the nature and detail of translation and also its implications as the essential medium between cultures published in the last few years alone and this seems to be continuing. There have also been changes in the prizes available: perhaps a diminution of profile for the language-specific prizes at the same time as an increase in profile for prizes that can reward translations from any language, and also prizes that accept both translated and non-translated books, which I think are extremely interesting. It’s certainly not all gloom, though a very mixed picture.
Your views on how new technology and social media have (or have not) affected your working life?
There are practical ways in which online technology has massively affected my working life. I now use online dictionaries, thesauruses and other word-and-phrase-related forums far more than I did in the first few years, when I doubt these were really around. I remember buying a CD-Rom of the Collins-Robert Dictionary, which was proper technology in 2006 or so but ridiculous now. I also use live social forums to discuss queries and vocabulary ideas with my peers – I mostly mean Facebook here but there’s also the Translators’ Association forum, which is often more concerned about contractual and rights questions, but equally valuable for providing community support. All these things are absolutely invaluable and I’m glad to live in their time.
Your favourite literary journals?
Since spending a summer working at the London Review of Books, I’m a devoted reader and that will probably be for life. My first idea of a real-life job I really wanted to do was the internship there. There’s nothing like the space – and the style – they give to books anywhere else. I also welcome the political coverage. Otherwise, I read what comes into my hands. I love a good zine or small mag. But I have cut back on buying journals – I have to give my reading time to books as much as possible.
Your favourite prose authors?
Ursula Le Guin, Matthias Enard, Harry Mathews, Andrey Kurkov, Flann O’Brien, Etgar Keret, others . . . I’m always surprised that I don’t like Angela Carter more and continue to think I should read more of her books.
Your current bedside reading?
Robert A Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Faruk Sehic’s Under Pressure, trans. Mirza Puric, You Would have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke, trans. Jamie Bulloch, The Catalan Poems by Pere Gimferrer, trans. Adrian Nathan West and I’m trying to fit in some of Rosanna McLaughlin’s essays in Double Tracking.
Our exclusive review of This Tilting World is HERE
Our exclusive interview with publisher, Cécile Menon, is HERE
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