Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Interview with Florence Thomas, translator

Why are you personally attracted to translating literature?
In two different languages, the same words can have a total different meaning. In order to "translate" an atmosphere, the translator sometimes needs to completely change the sentence.
It’s like cooking: the same recipe but the results are different, depending on the chef. Translating is like that. I can give my own emotions to someone else's book, if I am given the right to let my creativity flow.

What’s your process? Does it differ from work to work?
It only differs when the writer has special wishes. I first read the book, talk to the writer to get the feeling of what was behind the book (interestingly enough, not all writers are interested in sharing this with a translator), and also assess how free I am with the translation. I then make a first draft, word for word kind of. Then I write "my" book.

Some of my most-beloved books are translated works (Durrenmatt, Haas, Yoshimoto, Kundera). Why do you think translation is so important?
It is always better to read in the original language. However, no one will ever know all the languages but everybody has something to say. Translation is vital to get books known internationally. Books are words and words are thoughts, feelings, and more widely history, testimony. Without translation the word would be just a stain on paper to the outside world. When it is written, it is worth reading. Translation brings other cultures to your coffee table. How fantastic is that!

Do some works or even genres lend themselves more easily to translation?
In my opinion, everything can be translated, but every translator is not comfortable with every genre. I like literary translation because it is flowing, and because I am a writer. If I was a medical writer or a financial writer, maybe literary translations would not interest me.

When I watch movies with subtitles, it is always interesting for me to compare the two versions and also fascinating to hear the people laugh. Depending on whether they are listening or reading, the laughs take place at different times, but they all cry at the same parts. My opinion on this is that humour and jokes are harder to translate because they are linked to culture.

Obviously a translator must be familiar with two languages, but how much does knowledge of culture play a part?
If you know two languages, you can translate, words are words. This would be fine for technical writing. More than the culture, you need to be a specialist of the subject. In literary translation, you need to understand what is behind the words.

An example: I once translated a book by a Chinese writer. The paragraph depicted a young girl looking at the falling snow through the window.

When you "see" the picture in your mind, with a Western mindset, this is a romantic scene. The girl looks at the snow and she is transported by memories from childhood, making snowmen and endless snowball fights ... scarves and mittens and hot chocolate.

In northern China, looking at the snow would not bring the same feelings. The snow falling means cold, freezing weather, cold houses and apartments with very little (if any) heating. Cloudy sky for months and months. It is a sad atmosphere.

I translated this by having her look at the rain falling in strings on the sinister roads. It rendered the atmosphere.

Another example is young adult fiction. Somehow French translators think that YA speak is arrogant and impolite. So they translate the stories (books or movies) with an awful lot of slang and words taken from the familiar language, when actually in the original version, the language is rather moderate. This always puzzles me.

I imagine there are many different ways of working with an author. Do you have a preference?
Most of the authors now are email addresses and websites to me. I am a 21st century translator. I can get on board with anything. Some writers give a lot of freedom, some others are very strict with their work and want an exact translation with no flowers and butterflies. I don't have a preference.

But I do not enjoy translating my own books. I find this a very tough exercise, because I constantly "rewrite" the book. This is exhausting.

Which translators do you most admire?
I admired my university professor, Mr. Andre Levy. I have no idea what he does now or if he is still alive, but he was so prolific through his career. He translated encyclopediae and ancient literature dictionaries etc... Being in his presence, studying with his guidance was always humbling for me.

I read Charles Baudelaire's translation of Edgar Poe when I was a teenager and I had no idea that Mr. Poe wrote in English. To me, he wrote in French.

What is the hardest thing you’ve had to translate?
The hardest thing to translate is as always in human interactions, words I do not agree with, or words (and by word, I mean the large meaning of word: idea, concept, opinion) that are wrong (in my opinion) or conflicting with my beliefs..

Once I accept a translation, I go on with it. However, I find it extremely difficult to write words that do not make sense to me. This is a struggle.
An example is an American writer whose books I translated in the past. The writer was obviously deranged (not dangerous), and I often discussed this with the other translators (Spanish, Hebrew etc) because at times, it was troublesome to continue working on his texts.
Translation is a lonely job most of the times, but when I have colleagues I can talk to, it is comforting.

How do you cope with idioms? ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’, to give an English example. How would you tackle something like that?
Just like the lawyers do in court cases, they look for a precedent. I always go for the accepted translation of an idiom, they have all been translated. Sometimes, there are several meanings, according to the context, so I chose what makes sense to me. We have Internet groups where you can submit questions and get feedback from colleagues. Translation is not an exact science. I see so many translations that miss the spot.

An example (not from the literary translation world, but still interesting). An interview from Michael Jackson. The journalist asked "Are you homosexual?", MJ answered "Hmm. I have sex at home." Subtitle: "Yes, I am."
More than idioms, humour is difficult to translate, because sometimes, it does not make sense at all in another language, unless you have all the clues to go with it.

If you had the choice, which work would you most like to translate?
Biographies, love stories, and young adult books. I find love stories and YA lit casual and natural to translate.

Earlier this year, Burton Pike said, ‘A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders.’ Do you see an erosion of the border between literary and everyday language, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Burton Pike is a translator of literature. he called it "creepy" so I guess he does not like the development he mentions. I am not worried about anything going global, I am actually very happy with the internationalisation of books, concepts, ideas, ways of life, experiences... We do not exist in a bubble.

However, I like these differences, the various levels of languages. In the written language it is important, in my opinion, to know the different levels, to accept them and to use them accordingly.

There are ways to preserve traditions, in life as in literature. Translators like Mr. Pike are working on that. As far as French is concerned, there are still several levels of languages, and I believe it will always be so. School still teaches those different levels. High standards literature was never written for the common people, so this is a reality, which also waters down to translations.

I was fortunate to study French classical literature in the university and the possibilities to read a text with different angles are infinite. in our modern literature, there are experimental writers, who are judged either phenomenal or useless by one reader or another. Literature should cater for everyone.

As far as English is concerned, it is maybe different. English is a communication language, hence prone to alteration, above all when foreign authors write in English.

As a translator, one needs to always wonder if it makes sense in his/her culture to translate the book exactly as is, or if the writer would accept a transformation of the book so that it fits in more with local expectations.

I am an experimental writer, I like to change points of view, and rewrite the same story to see where it takes me, change the style of writing and let my pen carry my words somewhere unexpected. It is the same when I translate.

JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.


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