Pierre Lemaître’s The Great Swindle is probably the best novel I never reviewed. I have fond memories of a summer’s driving back and forth, to and from the Edinburgh Book Festival, held captive by every second of a narrative 15 hours long. Trouble with audio books and driving, there are no notes to help review afterwards. Still that was a summer I’ll never forget, and I urge you not to miss out on The Great Swindle – it’s terrific, and the film (See you up there) is pretty good too.
All Human Wisdom, released earlier this month, is the second in Lemaître’s between-the-wars trilogy, and my review will appear on the European Literature Network sometime today. Both books have been translated by Frank Wynne, The Great Swindle winning the CWA International Dagger in 2016, an award which Frank Wynne has won 4 times … to date. 😉
In fact, it’s a rare translation prize list that doesn’t include a Frank Wynne translation, and it’s becoming increasing common for him to feature not once but twice on a variety of longlists as he translates from French and Spanish. I won’t list all the awards he has won – I’ll let him do that. 2021 has already delivered its first “Wynner” in the form of Animalia which is the recipient of the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize.
So I am absolutely thrilled to welcome Frank to the blog today,
How did your career in literary translation begin?
Like many people of my generation, completely by accident. I have had half a dozen “careers” before I stumbled into literary translation. Having worked in radio in Ireland, I left for Paris at the age of 22 (having never set foot in France, and never spoken the language – since there was no oral exam at leaving cert). I quickly fell in love with the language and the literature, and spent more than three years living in Paris (working in a bookshop). I moved to London with a passion for French and for bandes dessinées, and I ran a small French bookshop in Kensington, where I stocked bandes dessinées. In a world before Amazon, I came to meet many graphic novels and comics artists. This led to another career in comics published (the term graphic novel had not yet been coined – it was coined by someone I met on a train journey to Angoulême festival). I translated some bandes dessinées for Fantagraphics/Fleetway/Penguin and other publishers, and ended up working as an editor in comics publishing, first at Fleetway and later at Deadline. By this time I was writing reader’s reports on French novels for a number of authors. I was working for AOL in the mid-90s, adding the first lego bricks to what we now call the internet, when an editor first decided to acquire a book I had provided a report for (L’hypothese du désert) and asked whether I would like to do a sample with a view to translating it. I did. My first literary translation, Somewhere in a Desert, was published in 1998. I’m tempted to say that the rest is history, but I continued to have a day job for some years, and it would be almost a decade before I could (more or less) eke out a living from translation alone. I spent most of that decade living in Central and South America (Costa Rica, Argentina), where I learned Spanish, though it was some years before I dared to attempt a translation from Spanish.
In the early stages, as so many translators have found, I had to treat a passion as a hobby – there simply was not enough work
Which of your translations do you regard as career milestones?
Translations are like children, I love all of them (almost) equally, but differently. That said, a number can be considered milestones in one way or another. The second novel I translated, Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (US The Elementary Particles) was hugely successful in the UK (much less so in the US). It is one of the only translations from which I have ever earned royalties – and indeed for five or six years, those royalties made ends meet! It also meant that I was offered other work – not because editors suddenly knew who I was, simply because someone might say “why don’t we get whoever it was who did Houellebecq?”. In a very different way, the translations of Ahmadou Kourouma’s last two novels are supremely important to me. These are among the most difficult challenges I have faced as a translator, and among the most rewarding. I wrote a reader’s report for En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages for Faber, who decided to pass, but some months later I managed to persuade another editor to take it on. By that stage, US rights had been acquired and a US translator selected. I was hugely disappointed. When the US translation was delivered the UK editor asked if I would “polish it”, finding it a little rough and unmusical. I said I wouldn’t, since it would be an act of profound disrespect to the work of another translator, but I offered to translate the book again from scratch. There was no fee available for a new translation, so I did the work for the price of the proposed edit. It is a book I love to this day, and am proud to have been allowed to translate. Live Forever (my translation of ¡Qué viva la música!, the cult novel by Andrés Caicedo) was one of the most difficult I have ever undertaken. What I imagined might take six months (it’s a very short novel), eventually took me more than two years – my first reading failed to alert me to the difficulties which required an in-depth knowledge of Colombian culture, and, more especially of salsa, guaguanco, and the lyrics and music of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. More recently, two utterly different yet extraordinarily powerful authors stand out – Virginie Despentes, whose novels, whose essays and whose mind are a joy to inhabit, and Jean-Baptiste del Amo, where translating the novel Animalia felt like swimming in a slurry pit to a soundtrack by J S Bach. Earthy glorious, repellent, sensuous, fascinating and human.
Could you outline your translation process? How do you know when a translation is finished?
For many years, I’ve simply stolen and paraphrased what Paul Valéry wrote about poetry: “A translation is never finished, only abandoned.” I’m not sure how to outline a translation process. Like some (but not all) translators, I read the book first, so I can enjoy the pleasure of reading untrammelled by considerations of voice, cadence, word choice. Sometimes I may read it more than once before finally starting. I do most of the heavy lifting during the first draft (I know many wonderful translators who work very differently). I do what necessary research I need to do, will wrangle a sentence, a paragraph for hours at a time, will spend too much time considering a particular word choice, or recasting an awkward sentence. It feels like creating a maquette for a sculpture – much of the major work needs to be in place, even though there are details still to be refined and honed. But, in the end, translation, like writing, is about revision. By the time I have completed a first draft, I will (usually, hopefully) have a clear sense of the voice(s) of the book, of the register(s) and the elements that seem to me crucial in the author’s style. This means that the second draft is (often, but not always) easier. Revisiting work I did weeks or months earlier, I am more likely to know how to deal with the challenges of the text, more likely to feel like a collaborator, to have a sense of the author inside my head. On the third draft, I no longer refer to the original. I am reading and revising the text as a piece of English – I will often read aloud, especially passages of dialogue – in the hoary cliché of an actor saying “would my character say this?”. Even then, I will sometimes find myself making changes to the text that undo the second draft and are closer to my first thoughts. But a translation is not finished when it is delivered to an editor. A good editor (and a good copyeditor) are vital collaborators in the creation of a translation. They flag up places where I am unclear or “too faithful” (which is usually a euphemism for “awkward”), they notice words I overuse or favour, force me to make decisions that I have been putting off in order to preserve an ambiguity.
At Edinburgh Book Festival in 2018, you spoke of the time when you had to pay a publisher because you changed more than 5% of a proof text. Tell me more.
This was not a translation, but a non-fiction book I wrote in the early 2000s (I was Vermeer, about the forger Han van Meegeren). The story is, however, translation related. The book was published in hardback (by Bloomsbury) and translated in Polish, Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese and Japanese. Three of the translators had no contact with me, but the Japanese translator sent me a long detailed letter, asking questions about idioms and words choices, but also flagging up details he felt were inaccurate. As a result, I revised the text for the English paperback edition. Had I read my contract carefully (as every writer, translator and contributor should do), I would have noticed that it states that any changes at proof stage, exceeding 5% of the text, would be charged to the contributor. I blithely made changes, unaware ot this fact, and as a result was charged a fee for resetting parts of the book
In addition to literary fiction, you translate a significant amount of crime and historical fiction. In fact my favourite translations of yours are Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Siege and Pierre Lemaître’s The Great Swindle, both historical crime novels, and both winners of the CWA International Dagger (now Crime in Translation Award). I wonder do the pleasures and challenges in translating literary fiction and genre fiction differ in any way?
They are different and yet not different. I have little truck with distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow. Books can be good or bad, well-written or poorly written, books of all kinds can be moving, stimulating, unsettling and even life-changing. The writings of Ruth Rendell, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, or in a different register Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Chester Himes and Walter Mosley soar above many of the so-called literary novels of their peers. It is possible to fault Stephen King for his preposterous plotting, but, at his best, his ability to create believable, flawed, three-dimensional characters is extraordinary. I have always had a love for crime fiction (from Golden Age cosies to hard boiled noir, from the sleazy crime novels of Dan Kavanagh (aka Julian Barnes) to the work of the wonderful Denise Mina and Val McDermid). Some of the challenges of genre fiction may be different – but many are the same: they often rely on voice, on narrative pacing, and they are just as sensitive to matters of rhythm and cadence. When working with an author over many books (as I have with Pierre), the translations can be easier, simply because I know his prose and his mind – even though his books differ widely from crime to historical.
At the recent Reading in Translation conference comments were made regarding a change in register in your translations of Lemaître’s Camille Verhoeven novels. It was said that they are more informal with much more banter and many more sweary words than the originals. I wonder what determines a creative intervention of that nature?
Pierre and I have had a wonderful relationship from the first time we met. We love many many of the same books (from Proust’s À la recherche… to William McIlvanney, the great Scottish crime writer and poet). I confess I’m puzzled by the idea that the Verhoeven novels are more informal in register – though I plead guilty to some creative swearing. (Although in the Verhoeven novels few people actually swear – Camille himself almost never does). Pierre and I have had long discussions about certain passages and certain characters. For Irène (Travail soigné), I had to recreate the novel from Pierre’s original manuscript and the French paperback version which had been cut for length, leaving sections that made little or no sense. What seemed/seems important to me – in a way that differs from non-genre novels – is that certain types of genre novel (of which crime is one) enter into a pact with the reader; they offer a blend of the familiar (a puzzle) and the unfamiliar (the characters and plot) best described in W.H. Auden’s essay The Guilty Vicarage. I have been a huge fan of crime fiction all my life, so have a sense of the pace and the relationships between characters in a procedural. I may have been creative in the way I translated certain sentences (especially the dialogue – where I basically asked Pierre to trust me, which he did and does), but I have added nothing (and subtracted nothing) from Pierre’s originals. This is simply my “performance”.
I’ve been anticipating All Human Wisdom ever since I heard that LeMaître was writing a trilogy. But then the wait became interminable (though worth it!) I think your translation was originally scheduled for publication in the Spring of 2020. Was the delay pandemic-related or were there other unexpected snags?
Some of it was pandemic related, some related to my own circumstances. I delivered the translation later than I had hoped for personal reasons, but it was originally to have been published last year. In the throes of the Covid pandemic, with bookshops closed, and little possibility of reviews/interviews/live events, it was generally decided that postponing the novel gave it a better chance of finding a readership – and in the end, the most important thing about translation and about publishing, is not simply getting the book published, but finding the readers who will love it. Mostly, though, I think you can blame me.
Can you explain how the original French title “Couleurs de l’incendie”, colours of the fire, became “All Human Wisdom”.
Couleurs de l’incendie is a quote from a wonderful poem by Louis Aragon called Les Lilas et les roses, which describes the troops coming home after the war. We toyed with the original for months and months – Colours of the Inferno, Colours of the Conflagration, Colours of the Flames. Translators rarely get to decide titles, which are argued over by editors with sales and marketing – what is crucial is that they give a sense of the novel (or conjure a sense of mystery that draws in readers). The problem was the Pierre felt that, in English, the title made it sound like one of his crime novels, rather than the historical novel that it is. This may in part have been about the initial cover designs, which tied it to the other books. I later stumbled on a wonderful translation of the Aragon poem by the great Irish poet Louis MacNiece (see below) which translates the Aragon’s image as “Far-off Conflagrations” which both publisher and author felt gave no sense of the novel.
I went back to Pierre and suggested a number of other images from MacNiece’s translation (The Trouble of Dusk or Bouquets of the Retreat), but a the same time I suggested a number of titles drawn directly from the Count of Monte Cristo – not simply because Dumas is among Pierre’s favourite authors, but because the basic setup of Couleurs de l’incendie is based on the Count of Monte Cristo – someone whose life has been utterly destroyed, who claws their way back and exacts revenge. The titles I suggested (all direct quotes from Dumas) were All Human Wisdom, The Soul Remembers and A Bitter Draught. It was Pierre who chose All Human Wisdom. He also asked me to write a line or two in the English version to directly reference the English title, which is why it appears in dialogue towards the end of the book.
The industry must have changed since you first started translating literary texts in the 1990s. What advice would you offer to someone hoping to start a career in literary translation nowadays?
I refer you to the title: “All human wisdom is contained in these two words—’Wait and Hope’.” In many, many ways, the world of literary translation (into English) is much healthier than when I first stumbled into it in the late 1990s. The work of many people at the Translators Association (including Danny Hahn, Maureen Freeley and Shaun Whiteside), the creation of the Emerging Translators Network (by Rosalind Harvey) and the flourishing of a dozen independent presses focussed on, or alert to literature in translation has meant that literary translators are better paid, more likely to receive royalties and have residual rights, and have a network of colleagues, mentors and friends supporting them. What has not changed is the hegemony of Anglophone culture – while translations as a percentage of books published annually may have risen from ≈3% to ≈5%, that is a very far cry from comparable figures in France (23%) or Spain (26%). Fitzcarraldo, Istros, Charco, Comma, And Other Stories, Tilted Axis and many others have shone a spotlight on translation, highlighted languages and literatures all too often ignored, and celebrated not only literature from other countries but the act of translation itself. But, meanwhile the “Big Five” publishers (who, in turn, comprise dozens of imprints, and dominate the market, the bookshops) have turned away from translation – as attested by a cursory glance at the long- and short-lists for the Booker International prize in recent years. So, swings and roundabouts – many things are better, but the Anglophone publishing world remains stony ground. The publishing ecosystem is far from ideal. Some, but few, editors read in a second or third language; many will have little if any experience in commissioning a translation; all will have targets that they need to meet in terms of sales and profits.
Diversity in publishing (whether in regards to gender, race, sexuality or the diversity of languages published) requires not only a greater diversity of editors, but a greater diversity of those working in marketing, sales and other aspects of the business, and in booksellers (both bricks and mortar and online) if real change is to be achieved.
As with any creative profession, being a literary translator – like being an actor, a musician, a performer or a novelist – requires passion, talent, skill and discipline, but there are factors beyond your control, getting the right breaks, finding the right editors… The best advice I can give to anyone starting out in literary translation is to get to know as many editors as possible (in their source languages and in their target language), get to know their tastes, the sort of books they published, get a sense of the industry (and publishing – for better or worse – is an industry, one of the many manifestations of late capitalism: the primary aim of publishers is to make a profit.)
Having done your research, contact likely editors and offer to do reader’s reports, contact publishers in your source language and offer to do samples in the run-up to Frankfurt and the London Book Fair (these are standard tools they use to sell foreign rights ). If you plan to pitch a book, consider the publisher, the editor and the imprint – does it fit? – and as part of your pitch, find out what the book sold, not only in its home country, but in translation in other territories, talk about how you think it might work in the UK/US market (use “comps” – comparisons to other titles – to get an editor interested). And don’t give up. Translation is challenging, fascinating, and hugely rewarding. But try to be realistic: to make a living wage as a translator (earning TA recommended rate – which is as much as I ever earn) means translating between 4 and 5 books every year. In the first four or five years, the few translations I did were done working evenings and weekends while I had a full time job (as were the dozens of readers reports for various editors, and the pitches that came to nothing). When I decided to quit my job to be a full-time translator, it took almost seven years before I could scrape a living (and even today I still do build websites and take on other work to make ends meet.)
The Lilacs and the Roses
Louis Aragon (1897-1983)
(translated from the French by Louis MacNeice)
O months of blossoming, months of transfigurations
May without a cloud and June stabbed to the heart,
I shall not ever forget the lilacs or the roses
Nor those the Spring has kept folded away apart.
I shall not ever forget the tragic sleight-of-hand,
The cavalcade, the cries, the crowd, the sun,
The lorries loaded with love, with Belgian gifts,
The road humming with bees, the atmosphere that spun,
The feckless triumphing before the battle, The scarlet blood the scarlet kiss
And those about to die bolt upright in the turrets
Smothered in lilac by a drunken folk.
I shall not ever forget the flower-gardens of France—
Illuminated scrolls from eras more than spent—
Nor forget the trouble of dusk, the sphinx-like silence,
The roses all along the way we went;
Flowers that gave the lie to the soldiers passing
On wings of fear, a fear importunate as a breeze,
And gave the lie to the lunatic push-bikes and the ironic
Guns and the sorry rig of the refugees.
But what I do not know is why this whirl
Of memories always comes to the same point and drops
At Sainte-Marthé….a general…a black pattern…
A Norman villa where the forest stops;
All is quiet here, the enemy rests in the night
And Paris has surrendered, so we have just heard—
I shall never forget the lilacs nor the roses
Nor those two loves whose loss we have incurred.
Bouquets of the first day, lilacs, Flanders lilacs,
Soft cheeks of shadow rouged by death—and you,
Bouquets of the Retreat, delicate roses, tinted
Like far-off conflagrations: roses of Anjou.