Frank Wynne talks to winstonsdad

Frank Wynne is one best translators about. An Independant foreign fiction prize winner in 2005 with his translation of frederic Beigbeder’s windows on the world and longlist this year for Kamachatka .you may like to look at franks site
• Can you introduce yourself and how you got into translation ?
Frank Wynne, born in Sligo, Ireland and variously miseducated, I grew up with a passion for books and became a translator by misadventure – having  no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I have variously worked as a radio journalist,  a bookseller, an editor, a comics publisher and with AOL at the inception of the internet, where I finally became editorial director). Books were the one constant in my life and the three years I spent living in Paris in the 1980s 1984 left me with a fascination for  language –  not the lexical differences, but by the way in which language shapes thought and imagination. My first translation (done purely for myself and to give friends a chance to read a book I loved) was of Romain Gary’s La Vie devant soi.
So I took to translating furtively, by night, never expecting anything to come of it. My first published translation Somewhere in a desert (L’Hypothese du désert) was well received and a couple of years later, when Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires) won the IMPAC, I decided I could throw in the day job and make a living translating full time. That proved foolishly optimistic, but has allowed me to spend the past decade travelling, living in central and South America and anywhere else I could afford to.
• how long does the average book take to translate and what is the process of translation ?
There is no average book, and the time required to translate books (for me at least) varies widely. It’s sometimes assumed that books with a sustained, poetic register are most difficult to translate but I have often found that these are precisely the books where finding the voice is easiest – and once I have found a voice, that informs many of the decisions I will need to make when translating. The corollary is that sometimes books in simple colloquial language prove hardest to carry across – I don’t want a gritty book set in Zavaleta (a poor suburb of Buenos Aires) to sound as though it’s set in Brixton, or give a bordelais farmer a west-country accent, but I have to find some way to convey accent, class, slang  and, most importantly, the music of spoken language in such books.
The process of translation can vary to. I generally read a book several times before beginning, make a first draft with copious footnotes to myself on phrases, words or images I feel will need work. I usually do a significant amount of research (I don’t know how I translated before the internet and online libraries existed); sometimes the research is necessary because the novel has a historic backdrop or setting, sometimes it’s necessary for me to feel I have a sense of place. When translating Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged (Allah n’est pas obligé),   narrated by a child soldier from Côte d’Ivoire, I had Human Rights Watch send me tapes of interviews with child soldiers in French but also in English (from Liberia) to have a sense of what voice to give the narrator (Freudian slip, I nearly typed my narrator).  Once I have a clean second draft of the translation, I will generally approach the author with any questions I have, and submit this draft to my editor for comments. Based on these twin responses I will come up with a final manuscript.
• how close do you work with the orginal writers ?
Writers vary enormously in the extent to which they wish to be involved in the process. When I first started out, editors did not usually put me in touch with writers and I felt too shy and too self-conscious to ask for contact details.  It was a neophyte’s  mistake and one I quickly overcame. many  authors have been generous and unstinting in their help in resolving translation issues (beyond the purview of Anglo-Saxon literature, I have worked with many  authors who are also translators too, and enjoy this collaboration). Equally, I have worked with authors who had little interest in or understanding of the translation process. The easiest writers to work with are those who understand that any translation is a version of their work, that no translation can be definitive.
• what book of yours are you most proud of and why ?
I nurture of my translations – they’re a little like children – when they go out into the world I worry about them, watch them stumble or succeed and  try hard not to have favourites, but those I am most proud to have translated are probably Ahmadou Kourouma’s bitter, blistering, hilarious and  poignant account of post colonial Africa “Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote” (En Attandant le vote des bêtes sauvages) and Houellebecq’s  Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires). The voices and the worldviews of the two books could not be more different, but each in its way takes a cold hard look into the heart of man and finds it  wanting. Kourouma’s language was exultant and attempting to convey it was difficult and rewarding, Houellebecq at times almost made me wet myself  laughing, and I tried hard to make English language readers lose bladder control.
• Is there a book you wish you could translate ?
There are many… but two immediately spring to mind: Céline’s Journey to the End of Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit) to my mind one of the major novels of the 20th century (and a book without which the writings of  Henry Miller,  Jack Kerouac,  Joseph Heller and Will Self  would have been very different ). There are two extant translations ( John H. P. Marks (1934) and  Ralph Manheim (1983)); I don’t know Mark’s translation but Manheim seem to me to miss the vituperative  immediacy of the invective, the vernacular… In part, this is because English  has changed enormously over the course of the 20th century, while the French slang of 1932 still has the ability to shock the modern ear. The second, which I’ve already mentioned,  is La Vie devant soi by Émile Ajar –   (also translated by Manheim as The Life Before Us, also published as Madame Rosa) which I have loved since I first read it. Romain Gary’s late, pseudonymous career as Émile Ajar is  is linguistically playful and immensely moving – both in this novel and in the untranslated Gros-Calin. His books are peopled by curious people who narrate in a fractured French that manages to be quirky and funny,  while being profoundly moving.  To my ear, Manheim misses some of the playful, chaotic language of the original. But as I’ve said, a translation is only ever a version of the original – to quote Peter Fawcett  ” Translation quality assessment proceeds according to the lordly, completely unexplained, whimsy of “It doesn’t sound right” –  so what I’m really saying is “I wouldn’t have done it that way”
• how important are awards like the IFFP to translated fiction ?
Translation has historically been an ‘invisible’ profession (no one talks about reading Constance Garnett or Louise and Aylmer Maude or Anthony Briggs, instead we say we’ve “read Tolstoy”);  what the IFFP and other awards have done is focus not simply on works in translation, but on translation itself in a way that celebrates the craft but also provokes discussion about language, ideas and stories. Without such prizes it would vbe even more difficult for the tiny percentage of books translated into English to find an audience
• what would you say to readers that are maybe nervous about works in translation ?
Get over it! You’ve been reading and have been familiar  with works in translation all your life (Greek and Norse myths, fairy tales (Grimm Brothers via Perrault) and quintessentially ‘English’ stories like the Legend of King Arthur, the list is endless). Like the Anglo-Saxon fear that subtitled films must be  Art (capital A) rather than entertainment, there is an assumption that books in translation must be Difficult. In fact they can be as funny, moving,  irreverent as anything written in English (nor should translated works be accorded some special respect –  writers in any language are equally capable of  being  dull, unreadable or meretricious); read and make up your own mind. Kafkaesque
• what are you curently working on ?
I’m just finishing a translation of The Blue Hour, a wonderful Peruvian novel by Alonso Cueto that deals with grief and guilt, family and reputation, set against   the vicious war waged against Shining Path
• what is your favourtite translation by another translator ?
I’ll pick two:  Barbara Bray’s magisterial translation of Michel Tournier Le Roi des Aulnes (published both as The Erl-King and as The Ogre) and – though I have many reservations about some volumes of the new Penguin translation of Proust’s  “In Search of Lost Time” –  Lydia Davis’ The Way by Swann’s (Du côté de chez Swann) is an object lesson in literary translation, which  Wittgenstein called ‘an exact art’.
(I don’t feel it appropriate to select translations where I don’t know the original – if I did, then I would certainly include William Weaver’s translator of Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller”)


April 2011


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