The Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 provided an opportunity to listen to two renowned international exponents of the art and craft of literary translation talk about their work: Ros Schwartz, who translates from French to English, and Daniel Hahn, who translates into English from Portuguese, French and Spanish.
The keynote address at the “Found in Translation” session at Jaipur Bookmark 2019 was delivered by Ros Schwartz, who is a writer and translator of fiction and non-fiction from French to English. She has been a recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2009, and the John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence in 2017. Schwartz’s new translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince has been published recently.
Daniel Hahn wears the hat of translator most prominently, but he is also a writer, editor, researcher and translation activist. Hahn, who translates both literary fiction and children’s books from Portuguese, French and Spanish into English, has in the past chaired the Translators Association, been a Director at the British Centre for Literary Translation, and an editor of the journal In Other Words.
His commitment to translation goes beyond his contribution through the practice. After winning the International Dublin Literary Award – one of the many awards he has won as translator – for his translation of A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, Hahn donated half his award towards establishing the TA First Translation Prize for debut literary translators and their editors.
Schwartz and Hahn spoke, separately, to Scroll.in about their own trajectories as translators. Some of the questions were common, and some, unique to each of them. Here is a mash-up of excerpts from their separate interviews.
What do you find most exciting about translation, and what drew you to it first?
Ros Schwartz (RS): My love of languages comes from my parents, who instilled in me a love of French that became a lifelong passion. They were both ardent Francophiles, which was quite unusual for 1950s England. The songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand and Mistinguett. They sang me to sleep with En passant par la Lorraine and taught me sing Au Clair de la Lune before I knew my ABC.
When they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about, my parents would speak to each other in French, so naturally I made it my business to decipher and master that language very quickly.
At school, an inspirational French teacher passed on to me her love of French literature, and I embarked on a French degree. But I wasn’t cut out for academia, and so I ran away to Paris where I spent eight years doing a variety of odd (and I mean odd!) jobs. During those years I steeped myself in every aspect of French life, from enrolling at the radical university of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence, unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. My friends in Paris taught me street slang.
Returning to England in the early ’80s, I discovered that I was completely unemployable. Speaking fluent French was not considered a valuable skill in the workplace. So I launched my career as a translator. Publisher Pete Ayrton, formerly of Pluto Press and then Serpents Tail, gave me my first commission. I took myself to the Frankfurt Book Fair and discovered an untranslated book by the great Senegalese film-maker and novelist Ousmane Sembène which Heineman commissioned me to translate, and my career took off.
Daniel Hahn (DH): I wasn’t drawn to translation, exactly – I fell into it by chance. A friend of mine who works in publishing asked me to translate a novel for her, and I said yes, not thinking too much about it. And it turned out that I wasn’t bad at it, and it was fun! It was a book by a writer whose work I loved (we’ve gone on to do another five together) and it’s a huge treat being able to write books like that! I could never write anything half as good on my own.
Ros, what was your first work of translation?
RS: My very first translation was accidental: Paris 1979. Intrigued by the title, Je ne lui ai pas dit au revoir, I devoured the book that same evening. It comprised a series of interviews with Jewish men and women who had been very young children during World War II. Their parents had all perished in the concentration camps, but had somehow contrived to save their children by hastily finding a gentile family to take them in just before being rounded up.
Now in their forties, these people spoke openly to the author, Claudine Vegh, herself a survivor, about the devastating effect not being able to say goodbye to their parents had had on their entire lives, and about the conflicting emotions of guilt, gratitude and anger they felt towards them. Until speaking to Claudine, they had never been able to talk about their feelings to anyone, not even to their spouse.
There are certain books that resonate deeply at a particular point in one’s life, for reasons that are not clear at the time. This was such a book for me. I felt compelled to translate it. To bear witness. It took me five years to find a publisher, but eventually I Didn’t Say Goodbye was published in the UK by Caliban Books, and in the USA by EP Dutton. Both publishers are now defunct, and the book has recently been republished in my revised translation by Plunkett Lake Press in the USA.
Daniel, Between writing non-fiction and writing for children, what do you enjoy the most and why?
DH: I like the mix, really – I translate for adults and children, I’ve written some non-fiction books and occasionally for papers and magazines, I’ve done some children’s books work (writing about them, especially) – but also bits of teaching and public events and all manner of other things, and it’s really the combination. The variety that comes from that combination makes it easy to prevent myself from ever becoming bored!
Ros, how did you come to translate one of the world’s most widely-read and translated novellas, The Little Prince? How would you say your translation is different from the one by Katherine Woods, or from earlier English translations?
RS: The book found me. The publisher, The Collectors Library, got in touch and asked if I’d like to make a new translation. I didn’t look at the Woods translation until afterwards but I think the main difference is that Woods focused solely on translating the meaning of the words, whereas I paid great attention to the music of the language.
The book is written in exquisite French, which sounds light and airy, and I find Woods’s translation clunky because she has ignored that aspect. Sometimes you have to prioritise music over meaning to replicate the effect. For instance, when the pilot tells how he’d crashed his plane in the Sahara desert, “à mille milles de toute terre habitée”, that translates literally as “a thousand miles from any inhabited land” which loses the alliterative musicality of the French. So I translated it as “miles and miles from any living soul”. In 2000, Richard Howard produced a modernised version of The Little Prince, whereas I was aiming for a timeless quality that sounds neither quaint and old-fashioned nor too up-to-date.
Can you take us through your translation process – are there any fixed methods you follow? How do you decide on the appropriate language style and tone?
DH: The process is very similar, whatever I translate, pretty much. Where possible I try not to have read the book before I start, so I can race through a first draft, discovering the book as I go. The first draft is very quick and very bad, but once I’ve got something down I can start what for me is the more fun part – making a bad text into a good one. Things like style and tone tend to come along the way – some cases get themselves pretty right in the first draft, when I’m lucky, others come into focus very gradually as I edit away. It’s not something I deliberate about very much, it just becomes clear, slowly, somehow.
RS: First I read the book and think about overall style, tone and register and make a note of any particular challenges (use of slang, whether the setting is particularly French or will need adapting, any issues to discuss with the editor beforehand, etc.). My aim is to arouse the same response in the reader of my translation as that created by the original text on the French reader.
Then I start drafting my translation. I set myself a target number of pages to translate each day/week/month, counting back from the deadline and building in plenty of editing time. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Each book is different and requires its own strategy. I like to work fast on this initial draft, resolving as many difficulties as I can quickly but leaving the rest until the second pass. Often knotty problems at the beginning resolve themselves as I become immersed in the book.
Once I’ve drafted the translation, the real work begins. At that point I put aside the French book and wrestle with the English. I will do three, four or five drafts, and each time I fine tune the translation a little more. Every translation is a fine balance between paying careful attention to what the author has written and creating an enjoyable reader experience while not “colonising” the text. This can involve a wrangle with publishers, some of whom are much more reader-oriented and want to make revisions for commercial reasons.
Ros, how should translators tackle “untranslatable” elements? Do you believe in using glossaries?
RS: Translators would contend that nothing is untranslatable! Otherwise we’d be out of a job. When I come across a word or phrase I don’t know, I research it to see how it’s used in the original language, in what context, by whom, etc. And then I ask French mother-tongue friends. Specialist glossaries can be useful, but you have to research very carefully and double-check.
My favourite dictionary is my very first one, bought with my pocket-money at the age of 15, a 1932 Harraps two-volume bilingual edition. It’s been invaluable for my translations of George Simenon, some of which were written in the ’40s and ’50s and are full of objects that no longer exist and can’t be found in contemporary dictionaries.
Daniel, is there something you’ve discovered about yourself in the process of translating?
DH: I never want to write a novel. (I mean, not one of my own. Always happy for the chance to write other people’s.)
Who has inspired you the most, by way of a writer or translator or even someone else?
RS: Mireille Gansel, the French writer and poet, whose book Translation as Transhumance I had the privilege of translating. She has dedicated her life to translating persecuted and exiled writers – from East German poets during the Cold War to Vietnamese poets during the Vietnam War. Each time she actively sought out those writers, taking herself off to war-torn Vietnam in order to learn the language and bring the voices of the poets to the West. There is no boundary between her life and her art, which she pursues with total dedication and integrity. For her, translation is hospitality, and that is the ethos that underpins everything she does and which I find so inspiring.
DH: So many people – there are so many writers and translators whose work I admire. But it’s also the translator community as a whole – not just the actual translating work that translators do, but the community’s way of being supportive, generous, collegial. It’s one of the reasons I could never stop doing this job. I’d miss the gang much more than the act of translating, I think.
Ros, what has been the most challenging translation you have done – and what were the difficulties you faced? How did you overcome these challenges?
RS: Every translation is challenging in a different way. The Little Prince was much, much more thought-provoking than I had anticipated because of the need to weigh up meaning versus music throughout.
One author who pushes me out of my comfort zone is the Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé. She writes in French but has a Middle-Eastern sensibility. Her fiction writing is non-linear and impressionistic, sometimes quite abstract. I have worked closely with her on all four of the books I’ve translated and she has taught me a lot. At the end of the process, I feel as if I’ve translated from Arabic!
Daniel, which is the work of translation that’s closest to your heart, and why? This could be something that you enjoyed working on the most, or something that left a deep impact.
DH: The ones that leave a deep impact aren’t always the good ones, of course. But I have a lot of favourites. Just last year I did two really terrific novels, one by a Brazilian writer (Resistance, by Julián Fuks) and one by an Angolan (The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, by José Eduardo Agualusa) – one’s just out and the other comes out this year, and I’m so excited to be sharing them with people.
Do you find that translators receive more recognition of their work in now? Or do we still have a long way to go?
RS: Yes, most definitely, and for a number of reasons. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a strong and vibrant translation community with the main professional organisations all working closely together. Translators are increasingly active and visible, campaigning on issues such as being named in reviews.
Today there is an influx of emerging translators bringing fresh energy and ideas to the scene, encouraged by mentoring programmes, prizes, translator residencies which help engage with the local community, and annual gatherings of the profession such as International Translation Day, which attracts newcomers.
Despite the general gloom and doom in the publishing world, new independent houses spearheaded by passionate and committed publishers are appearing. And these publishers are making a splash. They work closely with their translators to produce and promote translations of the highest quality. And their books are receiving critical acclaim and have a strong presence on the prize lists, especially the prestigious Man Booker International.
All these things are interconnected in a virtuous circle: proactive translators, higher visibility, improved training, higher quality translations, better working conditions. Things are getting better in some countries, but there is still a great deal to be done.
DH: The answer is both, I think. Things are absolutely better now than they were, at least in the part of the Anglosphere in which I work; but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a lot of progress to be made. Things could be better in those respects – of course they could. But we’re moving in the right direction.
Daniel, what is it about children’s literature that makes it such a promising and meaningful space to work in?
DH: Children’s books are perhaps the most thriving part of the book market in the UK, so there’s a lot of excitement and energy around them. But beyond that, books for children themselves do of their nature have a particular significance, for the impact they can have on their readers (the bonds we form with books we meet as children are deeper than anything we encounter later), and to be working with writers and artists who know how to make these kinds of books really brilliantly is thrilling.
One language you wish you knew?
DH: Oh, you can’t make me choose! I keep running into others and thinking, ooh, that would be fun to learn. (Being in India at this moment, I’ve got another two dozen added on to my fantasy languages-to-learn list.) If I one day decide to commit myself to some proper hard-core language learning, though, I think I’d like to spend time on the languages I do already speak a very little bit, to make them really good. I have at various points learned some Russian and Greek and bits and pieces of others – I wish I spoke those a lot better than I do!