Literature, love and languages: celebrating Women in Translation Month
1st August, 2018
To celebrate Women in Translation Month we’ve invited some of the most esteemed translators around to answer some questions about the industry, their occupation and their favourite works of literature.
What is your favourite author or book you’ve ever translated?
Sweet Bean Paste. I think it’s a book that does real good in the world, and the majority of readers feel better for having read it. Alison Watts
The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska, the beautifully-written story of four women from four generations of the same family whose lives are at the mercy of the place and times they live in. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
It’s very hard to single anyone out, almost like picking a favourite child. But one of the writers whose work I feel closest to is Inka Parei. I’ve translated all three of her novels, The Shadow-Boxing Woman, What Darkness Was and The Cold Centre. Each of them showcases her incredibly precise eye for the details of the world around us, and the inner lives of her characters. Beautiful writing! Katy Derbyshire
I love all my books and each has something that makes it my favorite for some reason or other. Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, though, is a favorite as a book to read, as a book to translate, and as a book to live by. I love the setting, the language, and the observations about life and death, plus Laurus was my introduction to Eugene’s writing. And to Eugene himself, who’s become a friend. Whatever book I’m translating is always my favorite, too, and right now most of my energy is going into Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky, a warm and lovely novel about people in a remote Armenian village. I especially enjoy the characters: the women in Maran are very strong and resourceful, which makes translating them especially fun. Lisa Hayden
I’ve translated literary crime, historical fiction, popular contemporary fiction, narratives at the frontiers of fiction and travel/memoir… so it’s very hard to say. But if I had to pick one so far, it would probably be Gabrielle Wittkop’s 18th-century Venetian poisonfest Murder Most Serene (Wakefield Press), for its lush prose, very dark humour and tremendous sense of place and character. The book was described as “the most fun you’ll have reading this year” when it was shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award in the US. And it was brilliant fun to translate. Louise Rogers Lalaurie
That’s a bit like asking a parent which is her favourite child, in which case one should say: I love them all equally! But it’s not true, of course. I’m a full-time translator and sometimes I translate books that I don’t love, but I hope that even they have something to recommend them to another reader. My favourite books have been the ones where the translation process was shared, so working with Laia Jufresa on Umami was a delight, as was working with Margaret Jull Costa on a new novel by Enrique Vila-Matas (Mac’s Problem): reading Margaret’s translations from the inside out—seeing how she translates—has changed the way I work forever. Sophie Hughes
So hard not to say the one I’m working on right now, so deep into their world… Can a toss-up between Marcel Aymé, Stendhal and Noémi Lefebvre be permitted? Sophie Lewis
The author or book you’d most like to translate?
It’s not fiction, but I’m dying to translate Akita ni tsutawaru oiwai no hari shigoto: Yomeiri dogu no hanafukin. Which means: ‘Needlework for celebratory occasions handed down in Akita prefecture: Hanafukin cloths for a bride’s trousseau.’ Whew, quite a mouthful, isn’t it! It’s a collection of patterns used in traditional Japanese sashiko stitching. The author assembled them by visiting farms and households in rural Akita, sitting down to stitch with the women, then going home and recreating the patterns by memory on hanafukin cloths. The patterns are gorgeous, truly unique. Complex and dazzling to the eye, it sets my heart beating fast every time I look at them. This is more than a handicraft book, these patterns are true art, and I would love to translate this book. Alison Watts
Anna In in the Catacombs by Olga Tokarczuk, a cyberpunk re-telling of the ancient Sumerian myth about the goddess Inanna, imprisoned in the underworld by its ruler – her sinister sister Ereshkigal – but finally rescued. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Right now that would be Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula. I’ve just spent a week working with her at the British Centre for Literary Translation’s summer school, and again I love the precision of her prose. In this case, though, she explores a family story of her own and the book is part-memoir, using fiction to fill in the gaps left in her identity by her grandmother, who never revealed the father of her child, the writer’s mother. Katy Derbyshire
I’ve been so lucky with my authors and books that it’s probably best to say that I’d translate more books by any of my authors. Lisa Hayden
Wittkop has a fabulous backlist, almost any of which would be a joy, but especially her fictionalised memoir Each Day is a Tree that Falls, which was discovered following her suicide in her early 80s (“I intend to die as I have lived: a free man,” she told her French publisher). It combines memoir, travel, a dash of fiction, and there are wonderful evocations of India, Rome, Venice, Paris. It’s a really challenging read in places, but very beautiful, too, and ultimately a hymn to life. An extended extract was published in my translation in Sonofabook #2 from CB Editions, curated by editor and fellow translator Sophie Lewis. Wearing my art history hat, I’d love to translate Adrien Goetz’s Intrigues series of spoof art-world mysteries, with feisty heroine Pénélope Breuil, set (so far) in Bayeux, Versailles, Venice, Rome and Giverny. Brilliantly funny and genuinely informative (Goetz lectures at the Ecole du Louvre and edits the Louvre’s magazine Grande Galerie): think Nancy Mitford channelling Dan Brown. I’m sure they’d find an enthusiastic readership in English. The first-in-series reveals the mysterious connection between the Bayeux tapestry and the European Far Right, and has much else of interest as we stumble towards Brexit and prepare to welcome the tapestry to the UK, as President Macron has promised. Louise Rogers Lalaurie
Eileen Chang (Chinese name: Zhang Ailing), a wonderful Chinese writer (1920-1995). Sadly I’ve never had the chance to translate her but Julia Lovell did a magnificent translation of Lust, Caution: And Other Stories. And the title story, Lust Caution, was of course the story on which the Ang Lee film was based. Nicky Harman
I desperately want to translate Laia Jufresa’s next novel… she just has to finish writing it. Sophie Hughes
There’s an older Brazilian canon I’d love to be let loose on, the classics of a generation or two back. Moacyr Scliar is a classic gently strange writer – who will let me translate him? Sophie Lewis
Your favourite word in a foreign language?
Yoroshiku. ‘Thank you in advance’ is the closest equivalent in English, but doesn’t quite cover it. It’s an everyday word to use in correspondence or conversation when one person does something for another, or asks something of another. You wind up by saying yoroshiku (or variations of that according to politeness level), and when referring to the topic later there’s no need to be explicit. You can say “yoroshiku for tomorrow” for example, and the other person understands exactly what you mean. Alison Watts
I love the Polish onomatopoeias trzask (crash/bang), zgrzyt (rasp/grate), skrzyp (scrape/crunch), szczęk (clang/clank), brzdęk (twang/plonk), zgiełk (a din, racket, tumult, useful for describing riots and battles). Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I have a favourite phrase in German, “Komm gut nach Hause,” which is a simple wish for someone to have a safe, pleasant, unstressful journey home, encapsulated in four stressed syllables. Katy Derbyshire
Some of my favorites are rather creative Russian words that I probably shouldn’t mention here! But the Russian word тоска (toska) is a good one that gets far more use anyway. It’s a soulful longing/ anguish/ despondence/ boredom/ melancholy with lots of nuances that makes it hard to summarize and difficult to translate. Lisa Hayden
I love words associated with light and clarity in any language, like the Arabic word and name noor, or the French word clarté. And words to do with the ‘lightness of being’, which English seems to lack: légereté. insouciance… Louise Rogers Lalaurie
BACÁN, Chilean Spanish, meaning cool, especially a person. The etymology is supposedly from ‘backhand[er]’, given by British capitalists in Chile in the nineteenth century, the receipt of which made you a very cool person. However, it’s also used in Colombia and Cuba and probably elsewhere in Latin America too, so who knows. My thanks to my son for this one. My own favourite Chilean Spanish words are either out of date or unprintable. Nicky Harman
vaíven – it’s a sort of portmanteau from ‘va y venir’ (“to go and come”, or, as we say, “to come and go”). When you speak the word aloud it sounds like the swinging or fluctuation it describes. An onomatopoeic portmanteau… do we tend to get many of those? Sophie Hughes
Paralelipipedo – it means cobbles or cobblestones in Brazilian Portuguese. Sophie Lewis
The best thing about your job?
Reading books for a living! Alison Watts
Having the perfect excuse to read lots and lots of books. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Getting to write my own versions of great literature! Katy Derbyshire
There are many: working with my authors, the literary translation community, translation itself (especially the first half of the process), working with Russian, working at home, and the book world in general, including the publishers and editors I work with. The book industry itself fascinates me so I love going to book fairs. Lisa Hayden
Finding new books to translate, tackling the nitty gritty line by line, the meeting of minds between author, translator, editor; seeing books hit the shelves, getting reader feedback. Louise Rogers Lalaurie
I love English as well as Chinese, so creating an English version of a lovely piece of writing is an absorbing process. Plus, I am insatiably curious. I love learning about the weird and wonderful things that my translation work requires me to research. Nicky Harman
I’ve just become a mum, so my translation time has been hacked up beyond recognition (5 minutes here, 45 there). But what this has allowed me to see is that I don’t need long working sessions of consecutive hours to get a book translated: I need a laptop, a seat, and willpower to really utilize every minute I’m gifted each day. Sophie Hughes
The closeness you can achieve to the thinking-writing process of a great writer and fascinating works. Sophie Lewis
The worst thing about your job?
The pay. Alison Watts
Not having enough time to read all the books I want to read. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Having to do it on my own. Katy Derbyshire
Literary translation is pretty labor-intensive. The first half of the process is very creative but the second half tends to involve a lot of nitpicking—by the time I get to a final draft, which I read electronically, I already know the text by heart, which means it’s difficult to pick out mistakes. Of course all those drafts are necessary for avoiding errors of various kinds, but it can get very tedious toward the end! Lisa Hayden
It’s too sedentary. Pitching books to publishers and feeling frustrated… Spotting things that only jump out at the proof stage, and praying I can get them changed. And juggling my non-literary (mostly art-based) and literary work, both tremendously satisfying in their different ways, but which jostle for attention, leaving me stressed! Louise Rogers Lalaurie
Translating from Chinese can be quite physically and mentally tiring! Nicky Harman
It never ever stops. I am always worrying about work: where it’s coming from, if that book I just delivered was any good, if I’m worthy of translating the next one, if we should maintain the verblessness of that clause in the final sentence, ad nauseam… Sophie Hughes
The very occasional disagreement with the author who thinks they know how they should read in English – this is very rare but so painful to deal with. Sophie Lewis
One author or book everyone should read.
Janet Frame. Because of the delightful imagery, and the way she plays with words and makes you see the world through multiple perspectives. She was the first author I ever read that expressed for me the contradictions of growing up with a mother language that wasn’t rooted in the environment around me. Alison Watts
Wisława Szymborska, the Polish Nobel-prize-winning poet, whose poems are wise, amusing, inspiring and beautiful – the best possible consolation prize for all of us human beings in this often troubled world. Antonia Lloyd-Jones
You know, right now I’d say Anna Seghers’ Transit, newly translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo. It was completed in 1942 when Seghers was in exile in Mexico, having fled first Nazi Germany and then France. And it combines the boredom of exile in the “giant waiting room of Marseille” with a thriller-like plot and great empathy for the narrator and his fellow refugees. Katy Derbyshire
My favorite book of all is Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I love War and Peace because it’s about just about every aspect of life including, of course, toska. Lisa Hayden
E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India changed my life at the age of 13. It took me out of my Euro-centric worldview, and the things it has to say on cross-cultural understanding, colonialism, mankind’s place on the planet and in the cosmos, mysticism – and the condition of women – resonate as strongly as ever. And for Women in Translation month: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which (confession!) I still need to read in full. I haven’t read the English versions, but the publishers of the incomplete H. M. Parshley translation of 1953 issued a new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier in 2009, so I would go with that. Louise Rogers Lalaurie
The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin, translation by David Hawkes and John Minford. A wonderful novel in several volumes, in a fabulous translation. (This novel is also known as The Red Chamber Dream, or Dream of Red Mansions) Nicky Harman
One book I know I should read (I won’t tell anyone else what they should read when I’ve got such a long to-read pile myself) is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, incidentally the first ever translation into English of the poem by a woman. Sophie Hughes
Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style – and if reading in English then Barbara Wright’s translation Exercises in Style. It’s silly fun but brilliant, and it’s also a textbook to approaching the world with verbal care, appropriateness and élan. Sophie Lewis