I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Clare Dupont-Monod’s historical novel The Revolt with which to start my Plantagenets and Plague reading project. As part of this week’s social media tour (further details at the end of this post), I was given the opportunity to interview the novel’s translator, Ruth Diver.
Welcome to the blog, Ruth.
You were working as the Head of Comparative Literature at the University of Auckland until 2014 when you decided to move into literary translation. What was your motivation for trading the stability of a professorship for the insecurities of literary translation?
Unfortunately, the ‘stability’ of tenured academic positions is now largely a thing of the past, no matter where you are in the world. I’d worked in and out of universities throughout my professional life, including over ten years in various roles at the University of Auckland, but always on adjunct contracts.
My last few years were spent leading a vibrant collaborative, mostly postgraduate programme in Comp Lit, teaching courses with an exciting array of reading, and supervising the research of wonderful students, from whom I learned so much. But in New Zealand, as in many other countries, university funding for the arts and humanities had shrunk, as the focus turned to vocational or STEM subjects under the previous government. Meanwhile, language-learning in schools was no longer supported as it once was, so there weren’t as many students taking languages and literature.
Budget cuts meant that redundancies were looming across all departments, and with my husband’s work mostly in Europe, the opportunity to move back to Paris, where I had grown up, and never having to attend another Wednesday morning faculty meeting again was too good to pass up.
I wasn’t at all confident that literary translation was something I would be able to break into, especially at my advanced age. But the publisher of what would be my first book, Christopher MacLehose, once told me that he considered the ideal age for a novice literary translator to be seventy years old: “that way you can be sure that they had read everything they need to read in order to do a good job.” Well, I’m ever more keenly aware of what I should have read but haven’t, but I’m now discovering the delights of translation as a different kind of reading – it requires such depth, such precision and commitment. And I’ve relished the creative writing of literary translation, of fine-tuning other people’s voices in another language.
2019 saw the publication of your first full length literary translation, The Little Girl on the Ice Floe. What were the milestones that got you to this point?
I attended Translate at City (now Norwich Translates) three years in a row, tutored by Ros Schwartz, who has been a great mentor to me, as well as the BCLT Summer School and Arvon translation course, with Daniel Hahn, likewise. The other aspiring translators I met on those courses have been an enduring source of support too. Winning the Asymptote Fiction Prize in 2016 came as a completely magical, affirming surprise, as did a couple of French Voices Awards in 2017. I had been pitching various projects to publishers I had been introduced to by mentors and colleagues, but I got my first two contracts on the strength of submitted samples for books those publishers had already chosen.
Were there any tough why-am-I-doing this moments, and what helped you to persevere?
My first book, The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, is the autobiographical account of the author’s childhood rape and the prosecution of the perpetrator nearly twenty years later, so yes, there were plenty of tough why-am-I-doing-this moments with that one. What helped me persevere was my awe at Adélaïde Bon’s resilience in overcoming that trauma, her courage in publishing her story, and her consummate skill in using the beauty of the language to make it uplifting despite it all. I felt entrusted with such an intimate responsibility in bringing her experience into English. So I did my utmost, for her sake, to keep writing and revising through tears, to pace myself so I wouldn’t burn out, translating to a very short deadline what had taken her years to write. When I finally met her to discuss the last few edits, I told her how I had an uncanny sense of knowing everything about her, but of her not knowing me at all. Surprisingly, she said that after reading my translation, she felt exactly the same way about me. Persevering was worth it.
The Revolt is your third published full-length translation. (We’ll come back to the second.) How did you get the contract?
My editor at MacLehose Press, Elise Williams, who had so sensitively delivered The Little Girl on the Ice Floe into the world, had bought the rights to The Revolt for Quercus Books, and commissioned me to do the translation – such a delightful follow-up!
The author has spoken of being haunted by the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine for many years. What’s your relationship with her? Has it changed through translating the novel?
Before I started on The Revolt, Eleanor wasn’t a figure I knew much about – she never featured in of my school history lessons, and I hadn’t been an avid reader of historical fiction – but I did feel connected Richard the Lionheart, in a very tangible way. His stronghold in Normandy, Château Gaillard, which is often mentioned in the novel, was a favourite place for family outings when I was a child growing up in Paris. I have happy memories of my brother and sister and I chasing around the battlements, trying to imagine what life was like in those days.
But through this translation, I’ve come to hold Eleanor in great respect. The account of her refusal to submit to men’s violence and injustice, her resilience in first challenging and then outliving both her husbands, and especially during lockdown, her strategies in dealing with her long imprisonment have been most fortifying in these uncertain times. Hopefully the book will go some way towards restoring her to her rightful stature in the eyes of many other readers.
Set in the second-half of the C12th, with several regal narrators including Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor herself, I imagine the medieval courtly register to be very different from that of The Little Girl on The Ice Floe. What were the delights/challenges in translating The Revolt? Any particularly troublesome words or phrases?
Yes, the two worlds are certainly very different! Before I started, I looked into the author’s own research sources, and I took myself off to my local library to dip into some of the other historical fiction in English about Eleanor. There’s lots of, ahem, highly colourful stuff out there! I was glad to come back to Clara Dupont-Monod’s lean, muscular prose. Most of the novel is narrated in Richard’s voice, sometimes in short, brutal sentences in which you can almost hear the clanging of swords. Getting that tone sounding right in English was a challenge sometimes. I was unfamiliar with some of the English technical vocabulary around medieval architecture and warfare – lots of poring over drawings of fortresses on the web – and there was some head-scratching about the the right register for terms of address, and dialogue, and so forth. But again, this felt very much like a team effort between me as the translator and Elise as commissioning and line editor, with her giving me her sense of what the book should be overall, and making suggestions on particular points, and me trying to find the best possible rendering of each turn of phrase, each image, each voice.
4-5 years from embarking on your new career to your first full translation, and then books 2 and 3 are published within a month of each other! Is this accelerated output typical within the profession?
That was just a happy combination of circumstances. In fact, The Revolt was due to come out in April this year, but was delayed a few months because of the pandemic. And the publication of A Respectable Occupation, which has been in the works since 2018, was timed to coincide with the publication of Julia Kerninon’s latest novel, My Devotion, due out with Europa Editions in August this year, in a translation by Alison Anderson.
I feel very fortunate to have had such a promising start in this endeavour – I can hardly call it a career! – but others in my cohort from Translate at City or the BCLT courses are also producing amazing, sometimes prolific work, and we’ve been cheering each other on, over social media and in regular physical and now Zoom get-togethers.
Tell us a little more about book two, A Respectable Occupation, published July 2020.
At just 80 pages, it’s a wee gem of a book, a nano-autobiography of the author’s writing life. Starting with a visit to Shakespeare and Company in Paris at the age of five, and going on to describe how she worked as a waitress in the summers to have the freedom to write full-time in the winters and finally establish herself as an author, it is utterly enchanting and inspirational.
What’s next? Your biography states that you also translate from Russian and German. I’m just wondering whether I might one day review a Ruth Diver production for German Literature Month?
I’m just working though final edits for book number four, a coming of age story of an intersex character, set in a commune in the south of France: Arcadia, by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, for Seven Stories Press. It’s a rollicking, thought-provoking, topical read.
Then I’ve got another two books in the pipeline for MacLehose Press, again both completely different from anything I’ve done before. The first is a creative non-fiction book by a prominent French woman rabbi, Delphine Horvilleur, a fascinating scholarly discussion of modesty, the veil and religion, entitled In Eve’s Attire.
The second is a project dear to my heart, a novel titled The Competent Authorities, by Iegor Gran, an author whose career I’ve been following ever since he started out in the 1990s and who I’ve been trying to get published in English ever since I started out as a translator myself. Gran is the son of Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, who was sent to the Gulag in 1965 for publishing literary works outside the USSR, in a notorious case that was to be a crucial turning point in Soviet cultural history and international relations. The novel is the story of his father’s arrest, trial and imprisonment, as told by the KGB officers involved in the case. It’s somehow hilarious and heartbreaking, a re-creation of a lost world and a tour de force of storytelling, all at once.
As for Russian and German, I’d love to have a go at literary translation, having done some commercial work in both. I’ve studied Russian since middle school, and went on to take it for my first degree, and still find solace in the poetry I memorised all those years ago. And I’m very fond of German, which I learned as an adult living some seven years in Frankfurt, Vienna and Hamburg, in yet another professional incarnation. During Translate at City, I took the opportunity of attending some of the Russian and German sessions, and was thrilled to see how it all came back to me, almost like riding a Fahrrad/велосипед.
Love it or hate it, it’s time for the Desert island question. You are a castaway on a desert island with only one book to read and another to translate. What would they be and why?
Can I cheat on this question? My one book to read would be one that doesn’t exist: an enormous anthology of women’s poetry from all over the world, in many different languages and with facing page translations, so I could learn and recite them all to sustain myself while scanning the horizon, setting coconuts out on the beach to spell SOS, and tending my smoking fire.
My one book to translate? That would be the one I just mentioned: The Competent Authorities by Iegor Gran. I can’t wait to get started on it!