Translator interviews are endlessly fascinating. I’ve always imagined the career was a passport to being stuck behind a desk in academia land … Well, here’s an interview that proves that that is just not so! But what it does prove is that no-one knows a work better than its translator.

Translator photo credit:

How did you become a literary translator?

By accident. And by falling in love with a country (Mexico). I first arrived in Mexico City, riding a Greyhound bus bound from New York, on a travel scholarship to study contemporary history at Berkeley, California. I was 18 and it was the 2nd October 1968, the infamous ‘Noche de Tlatelolco’ – the night on which an estimated 500 students and fellow demonstrators against government corruption surrounding the Olympic Games were mown down by the armed forces. I became involved with the student movement, and stayed in touch after I returned to England. As soon as I graduated, I returned to live in Mexico.

It was then, in 1970, I began reporting on political prisoners for Amnesty International and working with solicitors for their release. Among the prisoners was José Revueltas, a lecturer at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), a writer well-known for his radicalism. His prison diary, El Apando, referring to the “black hole” of Lecumberri Jail, is a famously brilliant stretch of writing and a nightmarish indictment of a democratic state’s treatment of its prisoners. Revueltas’ seventh novel, it was published in Spanish in 1969, acquiring legendary status in Latin America. It took nearly another half century for it to appear in English, translated by myself and Sophie Hughes as The Hole. (New Directions, 2018).

By the 1980s I had become involved in testimonial translations for Nunca Más (‘Never Again’), a report by the Argentine Human Rights Commission on the alleged 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ under the military dictatorships of Generals Videla, Viola and Galtieri. It was chaired by the eminent novelist Ernesto Sábato, reinforcing how cultural and political activism can combine, and how ‘in Latin America there is no such thing as apolitical’.

Also by the mid-80s, at the height of civil wars fomented by US Contra forces, I was involved in Central American solidarity campaigns, editing Central America Report, published by the Human Rights Committees in London. As the Latin American military dictatorships finally toppled, I found my contributors included writers relieved to return to creative writing, among them Claribel Alegria (El Salvador); Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua);and later Elena Poniatowska (Mexico); and Isabel Allende (Chile). Instrumental in this process was the remarkable and courageous Ros de Lanerolle, whom Frances Howe described as “the doyenne of feminist publishers”. In 1981 she founded and for a decade directed The Women’s Press. In 1987, she called me in and, in a leap of faith (poetry was a far cry from translating testimonies), proposed a Latin American series of essays and novellas/short stories by women authors.

In those days the provision of training for literary translators did not exist, and rates of pay reflected its lack of status. It was something most of us first learnt through practice, not theory. It was mainly ‘women’s work’, and could combine with being a single parent. Since it was unrealistic for me to be able to support a family by literary translation alone, I took on day jobs compatible with nursery/school hours. At first that meant working with kids: jobs running a nursery, then a youth club; driving a double-decker playbus for the Islington Bus Company; organising holiday playschemes in Hackney. As my four children grew older and I remarried, I shifted to being the first international literature officer at Arts Council, England; a senior research fellow at Cardiff University; director of the British Centre for Literary Translation; then professor of literary translation at the UEA and City University, London. Over the past 25 years, working with a variety of translation organisations, literary translation has at last come to be taken seriously, academically and professionally, and support provided for training and development.

Alongside literature, I had a lifelong interest in photography: my mother was a photographer and my father editor of a photographic weekly magazine (Picture Post). I enjoyed selecting images for Central America Report, and from there I began also curating photography. There were a number of Latin American photo exhibitions for The Photographers’ Gallery, the Barbican Gallery and the South Bank Centre (London) and the national museums of Wales and of Scotland, among many other mostly smaller venues. I wrote a number of books on the subject in general (from I50 Years of Photojournalism (Könemann, 1996) to the Gale Anthology of Photography, Gale, 1997) and in particular, starting with a biography of the great pioneer of Victorian photography Julia Margaret Cameron (Virago,1986) followed by Martín Chambi (2001) and Manuel Alvarez Bravo (2002, both published by Phaidon).The alternation of working with photography and literature, the interplay of visual and verbal – that both could be viewed as forms of popular culture – appealed and later would come to inform a more academic approach.

You translate from French, Spanish and Portuguese.  How did you career develop in this way?

I was raised with French and read it from an early age. It was integral to my university studies in philosophy and history. A BA Philosophy degree course, even at the new University of Warwick, ended with early twentieth century Oxford Linguistics. Student demand for a module in Existentialism landed me in some unintended early French translation. Still dissatisfied with what I interpreted as the irrelevance of the course, I switched to History. This provided my first real experience of translation, in assisting tutors with their research documents on the Spanish Inquisition and on insurrections in the Vendée during the French Revolution. The title for my PhD thesis became the cumbersome Theatre as Propaganda in the French Revolution.

In terms of creative literature, I had translated only some Caribbean short stories from the French when, in 2006, I started co-translating a French author I particularly like with Ros Schwartz. Dominique Manotti uses a popular genre (the police procedural) to diagnose and expose acute political ills of our time. Her novels are exciting, terse and corruscating, and it has been a pleasure to work together with both Dominique and with Ros. We co-translated three, one of which, Lorraine Connection, won the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association for best translated crime novel of the year.

Spanish was a second language I had studied to ‘S’-level at school, followed up with short courses in Hispanic literature at Barcelona and Valencia universities.  Living in Latin America had inevitably meant reading widely, particularly in a contemporary literature much more absorbing than mass-marketed ‘magical realism’. Portuguese came in the 1990s. I learnt the language in order to curate and translate in Brazil, only later moving on to Portugal. It resulted in two photographic exhibitions: A Hidden View: Images of Bahía, (Barbican, 1994) and Reflections (South Bank Centre, 1996). The catalogues included life interviews with contemporary contributors, and texts by Brazilian and Portuguese authors.

How did you get the contract for Lisbon Tales?

Helen Constantine, series editor of OUP’s City Tales series, approached me. She primarily knew of me as a translator of non-fiction by the Portuguese Nobel Prizewinner, José Saramago and a couple of novels by Paulo Coelho.

Since OUP do not pay their translators advances, I was dependent on obtaining a grant from the Portuguese book institute, the DGLAB (Direçáo-Geral do Livro, dos Arquivos e das Bibliotecas) in order to be able to proceed. I obtained it with the support of the Portuguese Embassy in London.

Describe the process of making the selection included in the anthology.  Was this a solo effort?

I consulted lusophone friends and colleagues, both academic and professional (especial thanks are due to Margaret Jull Costa). Additional suggestions were provided by Victor Meadowcroft, an early career translator who had attended two of the Literary Translation Summer Schools I directed at City University, London. (Translate in the City has now moved on as Warwick Translates, the new literary translation school successfully launched at the University of Warwick in July this year.) Victor grew up and attended school in Lisbon. His familiarity with the capital, its literature and wider culture, has been instrumental in bringing it to life on the page.

Priorities for Lisbon Tales included showcasing lesser as well as well-known authors and tales from around the lusophone world, with the proviso that they be set – or imagined – in Lisbon. There was also the unanticipated complexity of obtaining rights to certain texts: according to Helen Constantine, easily the most complex of any in the City Tales series. The problem was particularly acute with certain twentieth century tales, mainly written under the Salazar dictatorship (1933-1974), when strict censorship obtained and publication was necessarily by underground, often ephemeral, publishers.

Including non-native perspectives on Lisbon introduced a natural emphasis on diversity, where necessary at the expense of tradition or history. In other words, the anthology focuses on the twentieth century, since a word limit of 50,000 words made it important to prioritise. While I couldn’t resist opening with a favourite nineteenth century Portuguese author (Eça de Queiroz), and couldn’t, in the end, omit scene-setting by two further names well established in the pantheon of Portuguese literature (Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago), Victor’s suggestions helped to introduce more contemporary writers. Being of a younger generation, Victor had the experience of living with the idioms of recent popular culture, especially apt for translating Kalaf Angelo. The paradigm of not sticking rigidly to ‘short stories’ made Kalaf’s blogs – rich in fusion musical allusions – a natural inclusion. Speaking at the launch of Lisbon Tales at the Portuguese Embassy this year, both Kalaf Angelo and veteran author Hélia Correa remarked on how the mix of genres and styles, the selection of well-known and less well-known writers, work to maximise the scope and range of the anthology.

How well do you think the anthology reflects the city as a whole? (History, geography, diversity of population)

Because it was impossible to select tales from every bairro of Lisbon – the majority are set in Alfama, the district most infused with Arabic history; the Baixa downtown area; or Belem and the harbour area – I added a revised version of a chapter I had previously translated by José Saramago from his Journey to Portugal. Although Saramago’s journey takes in Portugal from north to south, the Lisboan chapter is predominantly a walking guide to the city’s most salient historical and cultural features. Always, of course, bearing in mind that the reader is learning as much about the writer as about the city…

Lisbon is an immensely diverse city, never more so than today. (Hence the tales from Cap Verde, Angola, Brazil.) Even in the days of empire, there were many overlapping populations in this capital city more ancient than London, Paris or Rome. Pessoa, perhaps the most internationally acclaimed Portuguese author (by whom I found a previously untranslated fragment, describing an afternoon in Sintra, just outside Lisbon) was raised in Durban from the age of seven, from 1896-1905. Whatever a chosen writer’s roots, however, the ultimate decisive factor has to be that the writing itself is stands up. For me has to do with originality, veracity and value of a text that may bring either a sense of recognition or of difference, preferably both.

When did it become clear that pieces of non-fiction would need to be included? What are the specifics relating to Portuguese literary history that made this a necessity?

I’m not sure that the inclusion of non-fiction was ‘a necessity’, but for me it allowed the anthology an additional dimension. The series is also for those who may be visiting a city or reading at least some authors for the first time. No doubt another editor would have made a different selection, since all selection is, by definition, subjective.

I chose to take the generic series title of ‘Tales’ to mean stories in a wider sense, rather than limiting it to short stories as a genre. In this I was led by the authors and their subject matter. So it is that we have a chapter drawn from an Eça de Queiroz novel; a purportedly jesuitical argument between Pessoa and an elderly priest; probable personal accounts by Soeiro Pereira Gomes and Orlando Amarilis; Saramago’s walking tour and Kalaf Angelo’s blogs. All, to me, as much tales in themselves as are many short stories.

Were any of the pieces more challenging to translate than the others?

In some ways, any tale with a particular idiom will provide a challenge. Orlanda Amarilis’s conversation on a train between two Cap Verdeans throws up the most examples of mixed idioms, where the language of a whole other part of the world inhabits the Portuguese with Cabo Verde phrases, expressions and rhythms.

It’s an extreme example of that constant in literary translation: how to configure the author’s unique voice, not just the words s/he writes but the way – perhaps even the order – in which s/he writes them. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s always that dread warning concerning the Russian translator Constance Garnett. Entirely self-taught, immensely industrious – she published 71 translated volumes of translation – it was said (by Brodsky, among others) that her Dostoyevsky read like Tolstoy, her Chekhov like Turgenev. All of it, therefore, like Constance Garnett. But the translator’s task is not to redraft but to capture and re-express.

Tone and register, idiom and vernacular, period and context, subtext and intertextuality are not only among the many terms handed out to make students’ lives difficult, but are among the many factors that need to be in deliberate play in the making of a translation. During the 40+ years of Salazar’s dictatorship, for example, certain words and phrases recur in the texts of authors opposing his rule. In tales by Soeiro Pereira Gomes or José Rodrígues Miguéis, there is the language of the workers, often part of the Communist Party opposition, and there is a narrative voice that takes the story forward. While a translator may be accustomed to switching between dialogue and narrative, the political message has here to be clear, implicitly or explicitly, in the coded language of political activists.

Do you have a favourite piece in the collection? If so, why?

I’ve already mentioned some of those I especially enjoy, particularly among the earlier authors. But, as with children, it is preferable not to compare one with another, and critical not to favour one over another. However, based on feedback and bookshop readings from Lisbon Tales, I can say that a regular favourite is Mário Dionísio’s The Whistler. (LS: Yes, it’s my favourite too!) I suspect the reason may be that I read it in a way that reveals my admiration and affection for its gradual pace and powerful hold as it builds to its ambiguous climax (or anti-climax) …

Apropos your other translations, which was the most challenging to translate and why?  Which the most enjoyable and why?

The challenge lies always in whatever I’m working on. The problems may be different in terms of specifics, but tend to reduce once you are involved and have located the authorial voice (with its unique elements of tone and context etc mentioned above). Even then, much depends on how that voice modulates.

An author such as Elena Poniatowska, who described the life of the British Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington not as a biography but as a ‘novel about a close friend’ (one who lived for 65 years nearby in Mexico City) moves from fact to fantasy, at times objectively and descriptively, at others entering Carrington’s creative or disturbed mind. Capturing the distinct and alternating registers was challenging but also rewarding. And not only did I learn about Carrington and Poniatowska, but also much about Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim; Spain in the wake of the Civil War and Vichy France; more even than before about Kahlo and Rivera and company; and the terrifying treatments formerly prescribed for so-called ‘psychotic episodes’.

Challenging and enjoyable do not need to be mutually exclusive. I choose work that speaks to me for whatever reason, and each affords its own challenges. I seem to choose layered texts, unreliable narrators, different registers. Money to Burn by the Argentine author and academic, Ricardo Piglia, is a fictionalised account of an actual bank raid. It incorporates relevant background material (newspaper and police reports and other material in the public domain) alongside reconstructed arguments, car chases, drug sessions. It closes with the robbers, surrounded by police and unable to escape from the apartment where they are holed up, burning the money in a bath they cannot now use. In a futile act of defiance to the police and crowd outside, they send a trail of fiery banknotes wafting into the night sky … The translator’s role has to be to somehow capture the oneiric within the realistic in Piglia’s original source text.

Earlier on, there was also the material on human rights, the victims’ flatly conveyed descriptions of being tortured and witnessing murder by the most horrific means. That was at the beginning, before I had any thoughts of being a ‘literary translator’. Recently I translated material on femicide by some astonishingly brave journalists for The Sorrows of Mexico (Maclehose Press, 2017) and felt the same shock, horror and disgust as when I started out. It never fades and can only intensify, for in the space of a generation much optimism has been lost as the world becomes more frightening and fragile.

In a sense I started at the sharp end: poetry and human rights abuses are an unlikely alternation, and both matter. If no translation is ever complete, then with poetry the experience is heightened, for here meanings can seem multiple without end. Yet if you love – or perhaps like – the work enough, it repays the time and re/search that goes into its recreation. And it may transcend, even at times just possibly help to make sense of, the horror.

I am not the kind of translator who tries their hand at the widest possible variety of texts, for the pleasure of experimentation, or to develop their own repertoire. Instead I choose work that speaks to me, for whatever reason.

Imagine you’re stranded on the proverbial desert island?  Which book would you take with you to translate, and why?

I would like to take not only a new book but a new language with me to my desert island. My mother’s native tongue was German: she fled here in the 1930s, a Jewish Viennese refugee. Unlike French, German was not spoken at home: my elder sister was born during the War, and it was unacceptable to the host community. Yet, always hearing it spoken among my mother’s many immigré friends and on childhood holidays in Austria it’s there inside me like an ear-worm.

So I would like to embark on a project as ambitious as it is vain, and take Goethe’s West-East Divan, without an English translation. I would hope to be taught enough German by one of the world’s greatest poets to attempt to practice my craft in a new language. To see where it may take me, far from the desert island into an old European world and the still older one of Hafiz’s Persia.