Alison Anderson on sailing, translating and the perils of l’adéquation.
Alison Anderson is a translator and the author of two novels, Hidden Latitudes and Darwin’s Wink. She has translated numermous novels from French for Europa Editions, including The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane, The Most Beautiful Book in the World by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (for which she was a finalist for the prestigious French American Foundation and Florence Gould Translation Award).
Her most recent translation is Cossé’s An Accident in August, which will be published at the end of this month.
Which languages do you translate?
When/where/how did you learn French?
I lived with my family in Switzerland for a year when I was eleven, and was in a sort of immersion program to learn French - though at that age you pick it up fairly quickly. I continued to study it all through high school. When I returned to Switzerland a few years later I went on to learn the other national languages, German and Italian; I then got passionate about Russian, and Modern Greek, and picked up some Norwegian and Serbo-Croat along the way too…but never enough that I feel I could translate from those languages adequately.
What did you first consider yourself fluent in French?
I went back to Switzerland at the end of high school and spent a wretched year in boarding school - I may not have enjoyed it but by the end of it I was nearly fluent, and got the best grounding in grammar and spelling you can imagine! A year later I could understand a dubbed (in French) film from beginning to end so I knew I’d arrived, as it were…
What was the first book you translated? How did you start a career in translation?
I was an avid sailor back in the 1990s and the French are world class sailors - and they write about it. Mostly solo round the world things, so I translated a book by Olivier de Kersauson who’s a very well known veteran sailor and he wrote a gripping memoir about one of his circumnavigations, Vieil Océan, or The Sea Never Changes. It was published by a specialized nautical publisher. After that, I just kept finding projects I was interested in, nautical or otherwise, and pounding on publishers’ doors until a few of them got published; I also found some great projects - or they found me - through the French Publishers’ Agency in New York. That’s how Europa found me, actually.
What’s your process for translating a novel – do you work in sections editing as you go or do you complete the text in full and then go back and read over it?
I do a first fairly hasty rough draft, then go back over it on the computer ten to twenty pages at a time, then a third time I print it out and use a red pen. An absolutely critical phase, amazing how much you find to improve, because it looks like the printed page. For really tricky texts I go back over fourth time. And I highlight anything I’m not sure of and go over it again and again until I’m satisfied with it.
Are there any memorable words or expressions that you’ve found especially challenging ( or impossible) to translate into English?
There was one in The Elegance of the Hedgehog that Muriel and I went back and forth over a dozen times: “l’adéquation.” Nothing to do with adequacy and adequation doesn’t work very well in English. I believe I had put harmony but it’s not that either; Muriel realized this and I understood that the exact word just doesn’t exist in English, at least for that context. I think we agreed on “consonance” which isn’t exactly the same, but managed to convey her intention. I’m sure there have been others but that was the one that sprang to mind.
What is the greatest compliment a critic can give to a translator?
It’s a mixed bag and a bit paradoxical. Translators want recognition and attention, so if a critic says “beautifully/ seamlessly/ elegantly translated” it’s already a great compliment. But often the greatest is when they merely say, “this novel is beautifully written” without even mentioning the translator! I’ve learned to read between the lines… but then again if they don’t like the book they’ll blame it on us, and find the weakest sentence in the whole book to nitpickingly point out how poorly we have served the author (never mind the thousands of other sentences!
Do you have a dream translation project, ie a work of literature that has not been translated yet?
As an existing project, I would love to find a publisher who is passionate about Christian Bobin so I could do more of his books (I’ve had two short translations of his work published so far, and a short excerpt). And I dream of finding an untranslated, obscure female author from an earlier time period, someone like Irène Nemirovsky (whose works are all being translated by Sandra Smith), so I could do her entire oeuvre…
What was the last good book you read (for pleasure not work)?
Ah, a major classic and it was long overdue on my reading list, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And I have to say it must have been very difficult to translate into other languages. The poetry in English is amazing. The language seems to function on a different level, beyond narration or poetry, extraordinarily vivid and evocative and completely original. A book like that can make anyone working with language feel very humble indeed. It was a pleasure both to follow the story and to immerse myself in her language since it was so different from my everyday idiom.
- August 8 2011 | - Read More →