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Interview with Literary Translator Chris Andrews


Chris Andrews is a prolific Australian writer, translator and academic. He has also published original poetry, winning the 2011 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize for his second collection of poems Lime Green Chair. In 2003 Chris published By Night In Chile, the first translation into English of the work of Chilean novelist Robert Bolaño. Since then then he has also translated a further nine books by Bolaño, as well as publishing a monograph on his work entitled Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. As well as translating several works by Argentinian author César Aira and the novella Melodrome by Marcelo Cohen, Chris has also translated Our Riches by Kaouther Adimi from French into English.

How many languages do you know, and which have you translated from?

Two, apart from English: French and Spanish, and I have translated from both.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator, and how did you get started?

When I was a postgraduate student, I thought I’d like to be a literary translator, but it took me a while to get going. When I started my PhD, the topic was in translation studies, but then I changed tack and headed off in a more philological direction. The first books I translated, in the 1990s, were non-fiction travel writing, published by Lonely Planet in Melbourne: Full Circle by the Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda, and Black on Black, by the Catalan writer Ana Briongos. Sadly, Sepúlveda died in the Covid epidemic this year: his was the first documented case in Asturias, in Spain. The first two fiction books I translated, in the early 2000s, were Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and a murder mystery, Little Indiscretions, by Carmen Posadas. So I had a taste of working at the literary and commercial ends of the market at the start.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

How much chance and the gut feelings of a few individuals determine what gets translated, at least at the literary end of the market (at the commercial end, the sales figures for the book in its original language speak more loudly).

Over the course of your career you have translated ten books by Roberto Bolaño and nine by César Aira. Are there any particular reasons you’ve chosen to focus so extensively on these authors,  or certain themes or stylistic preoccupations which draw you to their work and pose interesting challenges and possibilities for translation?

I’m a fan of both Bolaño and Aira, but I didn’t really choose to focus on them rather than other authors: I was lucky enough to get a chance to translate them early on, and then I was lucky again because the publishers wanted to stick with them, and offered me more books to do. So I kept saying yes, when I could.

What draws me to both authors is perhaps not so much theme as style in the broadest sense, ranging from word choices to life choices. Both invented extraordinarily effective ways of inventing stories: exploding the already written and joining the fragments (Bolaño); improvising slowly and resolving plot problems by adding retrospective explanations or jumping to a new genre (Aira). That’s very crude and structural. To be just as crude at the sentence level, I’d say that Bolaño’s prose has an energy that seems to come off the page at you, and Aira’s has a powerful blend of visual vividness and an intellectual rapidity. Trying to preserve those effects poses challenges that change from sentence to sentence.

How would you describe the experience of working so closely with a single author and their work over a long period of time, and being largely responsible for their introduction to anglophone audiences?

In both cases, there have been other translators doing as much or more: Natasha Wimmer in the case of Bolaño, and Katie Silver, in the case of Aira. An author’s chances of being translated again often sink along with their first translated book, so at the start, you feel responsible for giving them their best shot.  I felt that way with Bolaño’s By Night In Chile and with Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (which wasn’t actually Aira’s first in English, but The Hare, published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK, hadn’t reached many readers).

I corresponded with Bolaño in the last year-and-a-half of his life, and he was very generous in answering my questions: the answers were sometimes like additions to the book, rather than explanations, as if he couldn’t help expanding it from within. Aira has been very helpful too, although less expansive.

How has your life as an academic related to your interest in translation and your work as a translator?

There have been some positive synergies. Translating Bolaño prepared me to write a book about his fiction, and maybe one day I’ll try to organize my thoughts about Aira (without trying to survey the whole body of work: it’s too big!). When you spend so long with an author, you do feel as though you are developing a sort of X-ray vision: it’s as if you can see the inner workings; you notice subtle patterns. That can nourish critical writing. The problem, of course, is time. Being an academic is not a bad way to subsidise translation, because the job still allows for a lot of flexibility and freedom, but there’s also a lot to do, and you may have to keep publishing “proper” academic outputs in order to maintain your research allocation and have time to work on “non-traditional” outputs like translations. So the balance can be delicate and difficult to strike.

Can you give us some insight into your translation process?

I think it’s pretty similar to the way many translators work: the first draft seems to take less than half the total time, and the second draft often seems to take almost as long. Then it begins to move more quickly. I use the standard tools: paper and electronic dictionaries; the internet as super-corpus; Reverso and Linguee, with circumspection, for examples of words and expressions translated in context. I like getting stuck, and pottering around with the wonky sentence in my head, trying to rearrange its elements mentally while drying dishes or putting out the compost. Often a better solution will present itself, perhaps not definitive, but definitely better. When working through late drafts, I like to take little breaks and read a page or two of something deliciously written. I don’t know if any stylistic virtues actually rub off, but it can’t hurt, and it’s a very pleasurable way to avoid rushing.

Could you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

In César Aira’s How I Became a Nun, the first person narrator refers to herself consistently as a girl, whereas he/she is dressed as a boy, named César, and referred to by everyone else accordingly. This ambiguity is nicely captured by Rodrigo Corral and Gus Powell’s cover design for the English translation. Nowadays we would immediately categorize this is as a trans novel, and it is, but in 1993 when César Aira was writing it, his intention, as he has said in interviews, was to produce an interesting dissonance, a little ping that would unsettle the reader every now and then. A problem for translation arises from the much higher frequency of gender markers in Spanish than in English. The protagonist’s gender is grammatically marked seven times in the first chapter of the original text. In a straightforward translation into English the marking would have disappeared in all seven instances, and the gender ambiguity would not have been set up at the outset. In consultation with the author I did a little tweaking in the places where feminine gender and masculine gender are first marked, introducing lexical items that don’t appear in the original: daughter and son.

Yo iba bien predispuesta. Adoraba a mi papa. (Como me hice monja, 10)

My frame of mind was positive. I was a devoted daughter. (How I Became a Nun, 2)

“A todo el mundo menos a vos, que sos un tarado” (13)

“Everyone except you, son, because you’re a moron” (6)

This is only damage limitation, really: the ambiguous effect is produced, but instead of four subtle pings in the first chapter (in dissonance with the first three gender marks), we have one rather loud clang.

What is the last title you translated and do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?

The last title is Our Riches, by the Algerian-French novelist Kaouther Adimi (New Directions, 2020). And I’m working on The Divorce by César Aira.

What advice would you give to aspiring literary translators?

Don’t be disheartened by missing an opportunity to translate a text that you love: it has happened to most of the translators I know. Keep reading lots of good writing in your target language. Be very cautious about starting work on a big project before you have signed a contract.


Interview with Literary Translator Alison Entrekin

Alison Entrekin is an acclaimed Australian literary translator from Portuguese into English. She
studied creative writing in Australia and literary translation in Brazil, and has translated many of Brazil’s famous and talented writers. Her translations encompass a wide variety of works, including short fiction and poetry for anthologies and literary magazines, as well as novels,
children’s literature and biographies. Her publications include City of God by Paulo Lins, The
Eternal Son by Cristovão Tezza, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, Blood-Drenched
Beard by Daniel Galera, The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy, and Budapest by Chico
Buarque. Her work has been shortlisted for a number of awards, and she is the recipient of the
2019 NSW Premier’s Award for Translation. She is currently working on a new translation of
Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa.

How many languages do you know?

Sadly, only two (English and Portuguese), though I can read Spanish reasonably well.

Which languages have you translated from?

Mostly from Brazilian Portuguese, as I lived in Brazil for 24 years and am very involved with the
publishing industry and writers there.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I have a degree in Creative Writing from Curtin University, and my original plan was to write and
teach but then I fell in love with Portuguese and decided that the best way to inhabit both worlds
simultaneously would be to become a literary translator. So I did a two-year diploma in
translation in São Paulo and began to translate short stories by Brazilian writer Augusta Faro.
The first short story by Augusta that I translated – “The Ants” – had me hooked.

Your translations encompass several different forms of literature, including poetry,
novels, children’s books and biography. Which is your favourite to translate and what are
some important considerations compared to other types of literary translation?

I don’t think I’m attracted to a specific genre so much as I love a puzzle, so the more
linguistically challenging the work, the more fun I find it. Often, with poetry and children’s
literature, in addition to the meaning you also have to contend with rhyme and metre – which I
find endlessly entertaining. I will happily spend hours trawling thesauruses and rhyming
dictionaries for a word or combination of words that ticks all the right boxes. (Incidentally, it is
very hard to rhyme in English compared to some other languages. Just pick a word and go look
it up in an online rhyming dictionary and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes there are only a few
rhyming options to choose from and, even then, the chances of them being words that have to
do with your subject matter are quite remote.)

Additionally, with children’s literature, the text usually sits alongside pre-existing illustrations,
which can complicate things even more. In one book that I translated by writer-illustrator Eva
Furnari, there was a rhyming poem that was keeping me up at night. I fiddled and jiggled and
tried for days to get it to rhyme and stay true to the subject matter, but there was one tiny
element I just couldn’t resolve, so I asked Eva to change the illustration! I wish I could
remember what it was, but it wasn’t terribly relevant to the story. Let’s say it was a teacup that
ended up as a saucer in the new version, or something to that effect. In that case the rhyme
itself was more important than what it was.

Similarly challenging are song lyrics. I recently translated 12 songs for the soundtrack of a
children’s animated film. The songs are by legendary Brazilian poet and songwriter Vinícius de
Morães and were originally published as children’s poems in the book Arca de Noé (Noah’s
Arc), and later set to music and recorded by Toquinho (Antônio Pecci Filho) and other
musicians. Not only was there the usual meaning-versus-rhyme wrestling match, but the issue
of metre was particularly complex. Everyday words in Portuguese tend to be longer than in
English, and stressed syllables fall in different places, which makes it hard to keep the metre
exactly the same as in the original… but I had to, no matter what, because the songs were going
to be recorded in English over the chassis of the original song. The arrangement would be
different, but the underlying metrics weren’t going to change. Additionally, Portuguese words
tend to have more of a consonant-syllable-consonant structure, which is great for singing,
whereas English words are often convoluted clusters of sounds which, if you’re not careful, can
be quite unsingable. I only became aware that there was a pronunciation problem when I tried
to sing my own translation and found my tongue tied up in knots. It fit the metrics of the song,
but not at full speed. So it was back to the drawing board for me. I had to find a combination of
words that the poor singers could get their mouths around at high speed.

This kind of translation makes biographies and most novels feel like a walk in the park.

You’ve translated contemporary titles as well as created new translations of classic texts
by well-known authors. What do you consider the main differences between the two and
do you enjoy one more than the other?

I have published two translations of classic novels – Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
and My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos – and I am currently working on a
third: Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa. The contemporary titles that I have
translated tend to be more current in terms of language use and cultural references, whereas
the classics sometimes contain older turns of phrase and the odd cultural reference that has
been lost, which is compounded by the fact that the authors can’t be consulted because they’re
no longer with us.

In My Sweet Orange Tree, for example, I spent a long time researching something called a mão
de couro (literally “leather hand”), which is used to mete out corporal punishment. I thought it
might be some kind of whip, but couldn’t find it in any dictionary or encyclopaedia and no one in
the translation forums I consulted had ever heard of it. As a last resort, I asked some Brazilian
writers and was relieved when a woman wrote to me confirming that it was indeed an old-
fashioned whipping device, one of which she had seen hanging behind her grandfather’s
kitchen door when she was a girl. Somewhat hand-like in appearance, it had five long leather
“fingers” designed to multiply the effects of the lashing.

References to money can also be tricky with older texts. In My Sweet Orange Tree I decided to
standardise all references to it, as Brazil has changed currency no fewer than eight times since
the story took place, and the relationship between the different coins in circulation back then
would probably be lost on anyone but a numismatist. For ease of understanding, I converted
everything into tostões, roughly equivalent to pennies in the 1920s. José Mauro de Vasconcelos
certainly didn’t mean to be confusing. He was simply writing about the currency that he had
used as a child, and which would have been understood by people reading the book when it
was first published.

I can’t say that I prefer classic over contemporary literature, but classic texts do tend to be a
country’s finest literary offerings and they are a joy to translate.

How do you choose which works you translate, and are there particular authors and/or
themes to which you are drawn?

Most of the works I have translated were offered to me by publishers and I agreed to do them
because I liked them.

I particularly enjoy translating Chico Buarque’s novels because of their word play and
immaculate internal architecture. The first of his books that I translated was Budapest, the tale
of a Brazilian ghost writer who goes to Budapest and remakes his life as a ghost writer in
Hungarian. It is a quirky little book of mirrored realities and a celebration of language, with an
undercurrent of humour that really appeals to me. The novel opens with the line, “It should be
against the law to mock someone who tries his luck in a foreign language.” How can a linguist
not be smitten with this?

Over the years I have also translated a fair amount of poetry by novelist and poet Adriana
Lisboa (whose novel Crow Blue I also translated). Several of the poems were published in
anthologies and literary journals, and last year Poetrywala, in India, published a collection of her
poetry entitled Equator. There is a kind of spare aesthetic to her work and keen observation of
subjects that I find deeply relatable and satisfying to translate.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

When I was translating those songs I mentioned earlier, there was one called “Galinha da
Angola”, about a speckled guinea hen who goes around the barnyard complaining to her friends
about her hard life and squawking, “tô fraca,” which is Portuguese for “I’m weak.” “Tô fraca” is
an onomatopoeia known to any Brazilian who has ever had the pleasure of meeting a guinea
hen, and once you’ve been taught to “hear” it you really do! The song lyrics in Portuguese hinge
entirely on you hearing it. Ney Matogrosso sang it in 1981 decked out in feathers, strutting
around the stage squawking, “tô fraca,” and the poem and song have become a part of Brazil’s
literary and musical canon (tradition and cultural belovedness weighing heavily on the translator’s shoulders here). The problem is that no amount of wishful listening can squeeze “I’m weak” out of that bird in English. It’s also hard to sing-squawk, “I’m weak!” (Believe me, I’ve
tried.) After spending a good hour or so listening to guineafowl in YouTube, I eventually decided to have the hen wandering around the farmyard clucking “Enough!,” to rhyme with her grumbling that she’s “really had it rough,” which ties in with the gist of the verse. (“Enough!” is also satisfyingly squawkable.)

You’ve worked very closely with some of the authors of the titles you’ve translated. How
would you describe that process of communication and collaboration, and how does it
inform your translation approach?

Whenever possible, I like to go to the author with specific queries about aspects of the original,
and I always offer to let them read and comment on the translation before I submit it to the
publishers. Some writers don’t speak English well enough for this last step to be worthwhile, but
I think they feel reassured to know that their translator is open to dialogue and isn’t going to shut
them out of the process or play fast and loose with their text. The author I have worked most
closely with is Chico Buarque, whose last three novels I have translated. I often send him the
translated chapters as I go, marking up any queries, and I know he goes through them with a
fine-tooth comb, as he comes back with some very specific questions. It is an enriching process
and the translation is always the better for it. This dialogue with the author (and my own multiple
revisions) are the book’s last line of defence before editors and proof-readers – who usually
haven’t read the book in the original – begin to work with it. It better prepares me to argue on a
book’s behalf when editors make suggestions that stray from the intention of the original, which
can happen when the text is non-standard or doesn’t meet target-language cultural

What is the last title you translated and do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to
share with us?

The last novel I translated was Chico Buarque’s My German Brother, published by Picador in
2018. Since then, I have been working on a new translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s
modernist classic Grande Sertão: Veredas (the English title is a work-in-progress). It is written in
an blend of backlands dialect, crooked oral syntax and neologisms to give Carroll and Joyce a
run for their money. It dishes up platefuls of translation quandaries with every sentence and is
by far the most difficult text I have ever translated. Actually, it’s more what Brazilian intellectual
and poet Haroldo de Campos dubbed “transcreation” – a recreation of the work in English,
seeing as how so much of it doesn’t lend itself to straightforward translation. I spend hours
pulling apart portmanteaus, tracing their DNA back to their original words, and then chopping up
words in English and playing Frankenstein with them until I find something that works like the
original does. And that’s the easy part. Recreating the syntax is much harder!

When I was trying to get the project off the ground I published an essay and a short sample of
the translation in Words Without Borders in a last-ditch attempt to find a patron of the arts to
sponsor me, as the degree of difficulty was so great that it would have taken me forever and I
couldn’t have done it on standard industry fees. The Itaú Cultural in Brazil came forward and
sponsored the translation for three years, which was a godsend, as I have been able to work on
it in complete immersion for the last three years. Whether or not that sponsorship will continue
now isn’t clear, as COVID19 has turned the world upside down, but I am incredibly grateful for
the support I have received to date.

What advice would you give to aspiring literary translators?

I would say do a course in creative writing, if you haven’t already, as it will hone your writing
skills and give you the writer’s perspective. Then I would say study literary translation and read
a lot about translation: theory as well as essays by translators discussing their own work. And
practice a lot, working on short texts in different genres and seeking feedback from teachers or
peers, wherever you can find it. Translation workshops are a lot of fun and will give you access
to other points of view. The discussions will take you down rabbit holes from which you may
never emerge, but I think that is why one translates – to become deliciously lost in language!

Thanks, Alison!


Interview with up and coming Literary Translator, Elizabeth Bryer.


Elizabeth Bryer is a literary translator and creative writer. She was awarded a 2017 PEN/Heim grant to translate Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests (Godine, 2019). She has also translated Blood of the Dawn (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016), Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, 2019), as well as numerous shorter pieces which have appeared in GrantaLitHubAsymptote, Words without BordersOverland, and Nashville Review. The inaugural translations editor of The Lifted Brow, Elizabeth is now an editor of Brow Books and is undertaking a Doctorate in Translation at Monash University. She published her debut novel From Here On, Monsters with Picador in 2019.

How many languages do you know?


From which languages have you translated?


When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

When I read Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s first novel, La sangre de la aurora (Blood of the Dawn), and wanted to press it into the hands of everyone I knew. Before then, I’d been doing my best to resist the temptation of literary translation, instead sticking to professional translation to support my writing habit.

After translating Blood of the Dawn I was hooked, and now I can no longer imagine life without both writing and literary translation in it. And, I’m conscious of the fact that I write my own work in geopolitically dominant English, with all the attendant ill-gotten gains and privileges. This motivates me to do what I can, with the skills I have, to bring authors who don’t write in English into the same space I’m occupying.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

The stimulus to creativity that the editorial process can provide. Recently, I had a fantastic experience with a Granta editor while revising my translation of Karina Sainz Borgo’s story ‘Scissors’Having translated Sainz Borgo’s novel It Would Be Night in Caracas earlier this year, I was familiar with her writing style—one of its signatures is her rich use of metaphor. It can be tricky to hit the right notes when recreating those metaphors in English.

For her story ‘Scissors,’ I began with the following:

Original: ‘…mecía en brazos a una criatura-granada que estallaba en llanto de forma inesperada hasta reventarle el tímpano a la familia entera’

Gloss: ‘…she was rocking in arms a grenade-baby who exploded into crying in an unexpected way until rupture the eardrum of the entire family’

My translation: ‘…cradling a grenade-baby whose explosive screams kept on until the whole family’s eardrums were shot’.

The editor’s confusion around the term ‘grenade-baby’ (i.e. a baby that lobs ‘grenades’ in the form of piercing wails, and not, as Lucy Diver wondered, an orphan whose parents were killed by grenades!), led me to rethink how to stay true to Sainz Borgo’s vision while recreating her meaning in a clearer way, because it seemed the link between ‘grenade-baby’ and ‘explosive screams’ was too tenuous.

Eventually, I opted to shift the concept of bombardment to later in the sentence: ‘…cradling a baby whose explosive screams kept on until the whole family was shell shocked’. To my mind, the use of ‘explosive’ reanimates the dead (or ailing) metaphor ‘shell shocked’, recalling the literal meaning of that figure of speech. I wrestled with the loss of ‘eardrums’ but in the end felt that it was a worthwhile compromise. Debatable, but isn’t each of the million decisions we make as translators.

And, this is not to suggest that clearer is always better. Retaining ambiguity can be really important, I think, but in this case there was a danger that the spell would be broken for the reader, and the story is a fast-paced, emotive one about survival that doesn’t lend itself to such pause. None of this would have happened without Lucy Diver’s editorial sensitivity.

How does your creative writing relate to your translation practice?

Before I say anything, I want to point out the many, many brilliant translators who are not creative writers. Doing both activities comes with as many hindrances as advantages, so don’t be discouraged if what you really love is translation alone.

But, to answer the question: I write better as a translator than I do as an author. When I’m translating, I can pay far more attention to the line, to vocabulary and sentence rhythm, to reflecting the themes and the characters through language. Translation is a beautiful narrowing of focus. I really relish that.

When writing From Here On, Monsters, for example, there were so many ideas to grapple with, as well as characters and scenes to build and storylines to interweave, that I had to quell my distaste towards the words I was putting to paper, draft after draft. I discarded so many words from one draft to the next that I don’t think I would have finished if I’d been more attentive. Even so, a part of me wishes I’d had the time and finances to pay as much attention to every word of the novel as would have been the case had I translated it.

One other instance I can think of: my brilliant agent, Melanie Ostell, pointed out at one stage that I wasn’t grounding scenes in enough detail. There is that incredible learning curve of hearing feedback, nodding and thinking it’s valid and something you want to take on, and then being left on your own to work out how the hell to do so. A friend told me the headspace is called the ‘zone of confusion’ in early-learning literature, and she told me this at a time when I was really floundering about a bigger issue in the work. That term felt like a life raft, a way to be okay with having no idea how to proceed, of sticking with the discomfort and knowing that it’s part of the process, not something to be fixed or a signal that it’s time to give up.

But back to Melanie’s comment: this made me realise that I’m not a visual person. I have a hard time picturing a scene in my mind’s eye, and so struggled to imagine details and to know how and where to include them. It just so happened that the author whose novel I was translating at the time, while a very different writer, did this remarkably well, and there is no closer reading than translation. Translating her, I was able to appreciate how and why she included telling details, which almost felt like an apprenticeship for endeavouring to improve this aspect of my own creative writing.

Can you tell us about your experience in the Translation Studies Doctoral program at Monash so far?

I completed a Masters of Translation at Monash eight years before embarking on the PhD, so I’ve had enough time out in the wilds to truly appreciate what a luxury it is to have the time and space to reflect on my translation practice. (It’s also the first time in my life I’ve had paid annual leave: I could definitely get used to this.)

When I was undertaking the Masters, there was a real buzz—I think the program was only 5 years old. There was all the energy of a new endeavour, and so much was happening. For example, I had the opportunity to do research assistance work on projects that excited me, as well as to listen in rapt attention to visiting Italian scholar and raconteur Alessandro Portelli: experiences I hold dear to this day.

So, going back to study translation at Monash is a thrill, and my supervisors, Rita Wilson and Gabriel García Ochoa, are very much the dream team. I feel so invigorated, my mind so stimulated, at every single meeting, and I am acutely aware of how precious an experience it is. And, I get to work on a translation project I am passionate about, Ecuadorian author Mónica Ojeda’s first novel, La desfiguración Silva (‘The Silva Disfigurement’).

What is the last title you translated, and do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?

The last title I translated is Polish-born Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests, an erudite, madcap romp of a novel that Godine published in the USA in late October. I’m extremely fond of this one.

Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic, said nice things about it, including that its protagonist is ‘an imaginary hero/survivor from the mad, beautiful, unbearable, funny, tragic, hilarious, tender, suffocating, lovable world of his exile and his mind. Aleksandra Lun has produced a virtuoso concerto in these pages, the kind of verbal music that is strangely relevant for our moment, and yet also for any moment.’

It took us several years to find a publisher. I spoke a little bit about translating the humour of that work in an interview earlier this year, and in a translator’s note in the book.

An upcoming translation is José Luis de Juan’s Napoleon’s Beekeeper, due for release through Giramondo in February 2020.

What advice would you given to up-and-coming literary translators?

Practise as much as you can. Practise with texts that have been translated already: How do your choices differ from the published translator’s choices? How does your strategy compare with the published translator’s, as far as you can glean from their translation choices? Read widely and critically in English (or your target language, if not English). Read widely in your source language. Find a project you are passionate about.

Thanks, Elizabeth!


May 2020: A joint interview with Alex Skovron and Josef Tomáš, who recently collaborated on the translation of a special bilingual Czech > English translation of the Elegies of Jiří Orten.

Alex Skovron was born in Poland, lived briefly in Israel, and emigrated to Australia aged nearly ten. His family settled in Sydney, where he grew up and completed his studies. From the early 1970s he worked as an editor for book publishers in Sydney and (after 1980) Melbourne. His poetry has appeared widely in Australia and overseas, and he has received a number of major awards for his work. The most recent of his poetry collections, Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems (2014), was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Skovron’s collection of stories, The Man who Took to his Bed (2017), and his novella The Poet (2005), have been published in Czech translations; The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013, and a bilingual volume of Chinese translations, Water Music, in 2017. His work has also appeared in Dutch, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. The numerous public readings he has given have included appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, Macedonia, Portugal, and on Norfolk Island.

Josef Tomáš was born in Polička, Czechoslovakia, in 1933, completed his schooling in 1952, and in 1957 gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Prague. From 1957 to 1962 he was Assistant Professor at Liberec, Bohemia, and then Research Fellow at the Slovak Academy of Sciences at Bratislava until 1968. In 1966 he had been awarded a doctorate in the Theory of Nonlinear Vibrations by the Czech Academy of Sciences. After emigrating to West Germany in 1968, two weeks after the Soviet occupation of his country, he took up an Alexander Humboldt Scholarship (1968–70) at the Technical University, Karlsruhe, and subsequently (1970–71) taught as Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, USA. Returning to West Germany, he worked as a Research Fellow at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg (1971–76), and after moving to Australia was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering at RMIT, Melbourne (1976–93). From 1993 until his retirement in 2010, Tomáš was owner and director of the engineering company Advea in Melbourne.

How many languages do you know?


I was born in Poland and spent much of my childhood there, so Polish was my first language. When I was eight I emigrated with my parents to Israel, where I quickly picked up Hebrew. Little more than a year later we moved on to Australia, and English took over. I’ve sometimes remarked that over a period of eighteen months I went to school on three continents in three cultures and three very different languages, two of which I had to learn from scratch. I still speak Polish, but at an everyday level, and most of my once-fluent Hebrew has lapsed or is dormant.

Language always excited me. In high school I took up French, German and Latin, plus two more years of French at university. Hence, I can carry on a rather imperfect conversation in French, and to an even more limited extent in German. As for other languages, I can read Italian better than I can follow it when spoken (though I’ve been endeavouring to improve on both counts); and I can understand some Yiddish but can’t claim to speak it. As an editor, I’ve always enjoyed working on manuscripts that enabled me to utilize my interest in languages.


I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933, so Czech is my mother tongue. Czechoslovakia was formed as a new country after the end of the First World War, in the historical boundaries of the Kingdom of Bohemia, in which, however, one third of inhabitants were Germans. All government employees had to be fluent in both languages. From March 1939 until May 1945, Czechoslovakia was incorporated as a Protectorate into the German Reich and most school subjects were taught in German. Immediately after liberation, study of the German language was forbidden. In February 1948, the Communists usurped absolute power and practically incorporated my country into the Soviet Empire. Russian now became a compulsory language in schools at all levels. That is how, without much effort, I became fluent in both these languages.

English I started learning soon after the Communist takeover of my country, by taking private lessons in order to be well equipped for a new life in the West, whereto I had always planned escaping. I had to wait twenty years, until the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, when the impenetrably sealed border to the West was opened for a few months before the Soviet invasion closed it again. So my English had enough time to become fluent.

From which languages have you translated?


I have actually translated very little. My next collection of poetry will include (from Italian) my version of the first Canto of The Divine Comedy, and (from Spanish) a sonnet by Jorge Luís Borges, one of three of his sonnets that I’ve translated. There may also have been the odd poem from French and Polish. However, my work on Czech poetry with Josef Tomáš has been of an entirely different order.


Poetry from Czech into English: Jiří Orten, Elegies (2019); Vladimír Holan, Dream (due 2020), Walls (2012), Yet There Is Music (2011) and Dolour (2010); and my two poetry books, The Return of Agnes of Bohemia (due 2020) and The World in my Mouth (with my daughter Katarina, 2000).

Prose from English into Czech: Alex Skovron, The Man who Took to his Bed (stories, 2019) and The Poet (novella, 2014); Michael Heap, Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul (2013); John Updike‚ ‘Augustine’s Concubine’ (story, 2016); C. M. Kornbluth, ‘The Little Black Bag’ (story, 2014); and ‘The Big Questions’ (essay) by Paul Davies and Phillip Adams (2015). All these translations were done in collaboration with a Czech linguist and translator, Hana Tomková. (More about her below.)

What prompted you to translate collaboratively?


To clarify the nature of my role: I was not the primary translator – that task was the province of Josef. He is a poet in his native language, with a sizable body of work to his name; his English, while excellent, is not his mother tongue, and he ventured into translation of Czech poetry into English at a comparatively mature age. When Josef set out to translate all nine of Orten’s Elegies, with a view to publishing a bilingual parallel edition, he decided to seek out and collaborate with an English-language poet who could help sharpen and finesse his translation, to realize as faithfully as possible the structure, imagery and musicality of Orten’s masterpiece. Josef made contact with me in 2013, at the suggestion of another poet, and we soon found ourselves working together.

Knowledge of my own first language, although it is Polish not Czech, was greatly useful – thanks to certain similarities between the two – in helping me to ‘tune in’ to Orten’s prosody and rhythms. Josef and I established a close rapport as we slowly progressed – line by line, stanza by stanza, poem by poem – through the remarkable landscape of the nine Elegies. The experience for me was challenging, absorbing, and deeply satisfying.


The extreme differences between Czech and English require a full command of whichever language one translates into. In particular, one faces the extensive vocabulary of the English, and the grammatical complexity of the Czech. And I was lucky to have, on the one hand, Alex Skovron, with his extensive practical experience as an editor and much-published writer of poetry and prose in English; and on the other, the assistance of Hana Tomková (in Prague), a professional translator of Albanian and French fiction, and fluent in English – having spent some years as a correspondent for the Czechoslovak news agency in Nairobi, Kenya – with a number of her translations published.

What drew you to Orten’s Elegies in particular?


These next two are for Josef, as I was not familiar with Orten before our collaboration.


Why have I chosen Orten from among a multitude of well-known Czech poets? I had no idea about his existence at the end of my secondary-school years in 1952; he had never been mentioned by our teachers. So it was an incredible surprise to me when, soon after my arrival in Prague in late summer of that year to commence my mechanical engineering studies at the Technical University, I discovered Jiří Orten on the bookshelves of my friend Karel Růžička. Our common interest was basketball; after coming to Prague I played on his team. One day after training he invited me to his home (the apartment he shared with his wife and parents). When I scanned the titles in a small bookcase, one book, the Diaries of Jiří Orten, caught my eye. I had never seen or heard that name, so I started flipping through the book and was immediately fascinated by the first poem. I asked if I could borrow the book. I read it, over and over, for perhaps two years.

And the year is 1952. The show-trial of a number of Communist leaders is in its final stages: loudspeakers clamour day and night, crowds are stirred up to chant death to the traitors. And at school twice a week, we get an hour of the compulsory subject of Marxism-Leninism, timetabled as ‘Discussion’. But I, whenever possible, disappear as soon as my presence has been recorded, because on my mind is my best friend Jiří Mráz, who at age 19 has been sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in the uranium mines in Jáchymov, where I visit him twice …

Such was the atmosphere in which I was reading Orten’s Diaries – reading him like a man possessed. It revived vivid memories of the disappearance of some of my Jewish schoolfriends, as suddenly as if they had been swallowed by the earth; and of the transports, a few years later, of Jewish prisoners on open train wagons in the freezing January of 1945. It’s no surprise that I ended up in a profound depression, which clung to me pretty much all of that year – and that life for me seemed to have lost all meaning. A number of the poems I learnt by heart, and can still recite most of them.

Can you tell us more about Orten himself and his significance as a poet?


For me, Orten represents the tragedy of the Czech nation, where for centuries three ethnicities used to live together: Czechs, Germans and Jews. Orten’s proper surname was Ohrenstein, because his predecessors considered themselves German; as, for example, in the case of Franz Kafka. However, Jiří Orten was born in the new Czech state – Czechoslovakia – and belonged to the first Jewish generation speaking and writing in Czech. If he had not been accidentally killed (at the age of 22), he would very probably have perished in Auschwitz. During 1939–45, the Nazis murdered more than 100,000 Czech and Slovak Jews, and after the war the Czech Communists expelled some three million Germans. Such sudden and radical change to the country’s population can still be felt today, in both its cultural and its political life.

Can you give us an idea of how your collaboration works in practice? For example, if you had a few days to translate a poem, what would they look like?


Assuming the original poem is in Czech, I would first obtain from Josef his English translation and read through it carefully, flagging any words, expressions or images that I want to question or discuss. Next, I would sit down with Joe, with the rough translation up on the computer screen in front of us and the original Czech poem beside us, and we would proceed line by line, addressing all my queries, while at the same time unpacking the whole poem in detail. Going through the poem, we might agree on certain provisional changes there and then, or I might type several alternative solutions into the document for consideration later. Any structural or formal issues, such as lineation, metre and rhyme, would be discussed and our decisions modified or confirmed.

At this point, armed for the moment with the information I need, we would separate, so that I could spend time on my own to work quietly through the problems to be solved, in order (1) to try to do optimum justice to the original poem’s intent, meaning, imagery and (crucially) music; and (2) to try to ensure that the translation works smoothly (in its vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, momentum) as a poem in English. Usually I would endeavour to replicate the rhyme-scheme and, where appropriate, the metrical patterns of the original. All told, I would strive for a translation which is as faithful as possible to the original yet able to stand as a poem in its own right in English.


Alex has answered this question for both of us. I would only add that I always insisted on the rhyming being preserved when the original poem was rhymed.

You have also completed an English translation of Josef’s Prague verse-fantasy The Return of Agnes of Bohemia, as well as Czech translations of Alex’s novella The Poet, and his volume of short stories The Man who Took to his Bed. How do you find working in both language directions?


In essence, our work on Agnes of Bohemia was similar to the Orten process, though more straightforward, as the language in Agnes is less complex and the verse freer, unconfined by considerations of metre or rhyme. With regard to my own novella and short stories, I largely had to trust the translator, and my input then focused on discussing and addressing any specific points that Josef needed to clarify; plus (importantly) pinpointing particular words, phrases and images that were culturally specific and that I knew would be tricky to render for Czech readers (see Josef’s next answer for a few examples). Also, of course, there was the issue of handling the different registers of narration and dialogue across the collection of stories.

As for gauging my broader sense of Josef’s translation: I would often ask him to read out a particular passage, so that I could hear the rhythm and trajectory of the prose in Czech as compared with my original. But this may be a better question for Joe to answer.


Fascinating and mind-boggling, because English and Czech are positioned at opposite ends of the language spectrum: English as an extremely analytical language and Czech a very synthetic one.

Most of Orten’s Elegies are written in alexandrines, lines of twelve syllables, which for some reason are rarely used in English poetry. Therefore, before I started with translation, I studied how English translators handled a typical French ‘alexandrinist’ – Racine – and it was always in pentameter; so I pre-translated for Alex mostly in pentameter. To cite another difficulty, since in English so many syllables are ‘wasted’ on articles, it is really difficult to keep metre, rhyme and rhythm while preserving meaning. On the other hand, free-verse translation can cause problems in bilingual parallel-text editions when it comes to keeping to the same number of lines.

When translating prose from English into Czech, I was helped very much by Hana Tomková. Her command of Czech was invaluable when trying to find the best Czech expression for an English idiom, or when reordering a Czech sentence while adhering to the meaning and sense of the English original.

One standout example concerned the actual title of Alex’s book of short stories, The Man who Took to his Bed. Our struggle to find the appropriate Czech translation of the phrase was so intense that the whole project was held up for several weeks. Hana absolutely refused the version I considered the best, insisting that although it was appropriate, it was so archaic that readers would not understand it; while Hana’s version lacked for me the nuance and gentle ambiguity of the English idiom. In the end we arrived at an acceptable compromise.

A few more examples of the potential pitfalls of idiom: How to translate ‘the lineup for the First Test’ (a common cricket expression), or ‘grandfather clock’ (the Czech term for which translates as ‘tall standing clock’)? Even an innocent statement such as ‘he boiled the kettle’, translated literally, becomes in Czech hilariously absurd.

Has your own poetic practice been influenced by your translation practice?


As an editor working with language in its many varieties over nearly fifty years, I’ve always maintained that my own writing (whether poetry or prose) and my editing of other writers can’t help but feed into each other, in both directions, even when the two activities are kept professionally separate. The same can be said for translation, where all the resources of the target language are harnessed in the quest for the most appropriate and satisfying resolutions among a range of often extremely thorny issues fraught with all manner of traps. It demands a discipline, a concentration of thought, but also a flexible and imaginative openness to the possibilities presented by any given piece of text. The practice of poetry involves a similarly intensive encounter with the creatively possible – except that the poet’s inner ‘source language’ and outer ‘target language’, as it were, interpenetrate; and from somewhere within that dialectic, there can arise the unique mystery that is poetry.


Not at all, because I started writing poems at the age of 47 and continued doing so for just twenty-four years – including a break of eight years in the middle, when I was writing in English under the guidance of the late Australian poet Philip Martin during 1986–89. At this time I was not translating, and didn’t start doing so until I had completely stopped writing poems in Czech.

Have you considered writing poetry collaboratively?


In a sense, our co-translations are a kind of collaborative writing, since we are (re)creating something that has not previously existed! But strictly speaking, no: our collaborations on Orten, Agnes and Holan (see below) never extended to the notion of actually composing new poems collaboratively.


No. I had started writing poetry in Melbourne in 1981, but only out of homesickness, as letters to my mother, being sure we would never see each other again. This developed into an intensive ‘learning’ period: in the five years to 1986 I wrote more than 500 poems, mostly on the train from Glen Waverley to the City and back. After the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1989, I continued writing, for my friends, impressions collected during my frequent visits home. Between 1991 and 2004 I published eight books of poetry in Czech; and in January 2004, following the death of a close family friend, I put into verse her diary and published it under the title From the Diary of a Woman. After that I stopped writing completely, as suddenly as I had started in 1981. Since then I have not found any reason to write a single verse.

Can you tell us about any upcoming collaborative projects?


Our third collaboration, virtually completed but as yet unpublished, is a new translation of the verse-sequence Dream by another Czech poet, Vladimír Holan (1905–1980). Dream is a suite comprising 36 ten-line poems, each poem following the same strict metre and rhyme-scheme. It was written in April 1939, the month after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and a year before Orten produced his nine Elegies. Holan’s Dream is an extraordinary work: vivid, powerful, elusive, surreal, even delirious, an apt testament to the ‘passionate intensity’ of the times.


Our already completed translation of Holan’s Dream should appear later this year (whether in parallel text will depend on the reception of our bilingual Elegies). And I have still not given up hope that Alex might find more time to revise my translations of two other outstanding Holans: The First Testament and A Night with Hamlet.

Many thanks to Alex and Josef for sharing your insights with us!

Book reference:

ElegiesAuthor: JIŘÍ ORTEN. Translation: Josef Tomáš and Alex Skovron. First edition: 2019. Pages: 112. Language: Czech and English. ISBN 978-80-88050-09-4


Maria Tumarkin is a cultural historian and the author of 4 acclaimed books: AxiomaticTraumascapesCourage, and Otherland. Her work has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award, NSW Premier’s Award, the Stella Prize and The Age Book of the Year. She is a prolific essayist, a commercial translator, and collaborates with visual artists, psychologists and public historians. She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

What was it like migrating to Australia as a teenager and not speaking any English? 

I hated not being able to speak English. I felt a lot of shame about this inability to represent myself in English. It was almost physically painful and humiliating. I hated being infantilised and spoken down to (as well as spoken SLOWLY to). I hated people saying to me, ‘Well, your English is better than my Russian!’. But you speak NO Russian!

Now, when I think about it, this degree of shame feels perplexing to me – surely, it made sense that I couldn’t speak the language I didn’t grow up with.  In fact, it is and it is not perplexing. Language runs that deep, right to the core of one’s self. I was a teenager and this experience of being mis-seen and mis-heard and of being complicit in misrepresenting myself through language was particularly hard to stomach.

When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

I wanted to be a poet since I was seven or so.  When we immigrated, I felt I had no choice but to kill this dream inside myself. No one cared about my Russian poems and I couldn’t be a writer in English. Took me a long time to allow myself a tiny possibility that maybe I could be a writer after all in English. So it was a decision in two (dramatic) parts J.

Your writing is absolutely beautiful. May I ask why you write in English? How does it feel to ‘inhabit’ your second language as a writer?

Thank you! I write in English because I write better in English. I teach in English. I read more in English. I speak English daily. It’s my stronger leg. But it is not my ‘native’ language and it will never be as natural to me as breathing air, or whatever the expression is. For instance, quarter of a century later, I am still defeated by definite articles – when to use them and when to give them a miss. I am never fully relaxed when I am writing in English, always on guard, expecting to be caught out. It’s not a bad way to be for a writer. Who wants a frictionless existence within the language in which you write?!

Do you still write in Russian? If so, would you translate your own work into English?

I don’t write in Russian anymore apart from emails to my dear friend Alexandra who is still in the Ukraine. I would translate my own work into English. I have always been interested in literary translations. I have been reading – and loving hugely – Kate Briggs’s This Little Art.

As a bilingual writer, can you give us a little insight into your creative process?

I love research: talking to people, going places, losing myself in archives, reading twelve things at the same time.  I have to make myself stop or I would happily research ad infinitum. I find writing torturous – not always, but more often than not. As a bilingual writer, I have access to Russian-language archives and Russian-language media and a way of thinking that is distinctly non-Anglo. This is crucial. In my work, I am constantly examining what passes for self-evident truths and having this other world in my head is a huge help.

Do you find any crossover between the decisions you make as a commercial translator/interpreter and those as a writer?

A very professional translator once said to me that he’d be scared to let me interpret in any high-stakes situation because I would be extemporising way too much. For him, the professional interpreter needs to be not only completely self-effacing but also someone capable of not projecting or getting invested emotionally. It is a noble vision and he is probably right, but I am perfectly incapable of being detached. I always think that my role is to represent my clients in the best possible light and that means occasionally making them sound or seem a little clearer and articulate than they might be on the day. And I do think that this belief that I could use language in this way translates into my work as a non-fiction writer. When I speak to someone for a project, my instinct is always to use their most striking and eloquent statements and musings. I look for little buried gems, for ways to honour the undiluted originality of every mind I come into contact with. (Some minds are anything but original, but, luckily, I don’t write about them.)

What role do you feel translators play in collective cultural memory and trauma? 

The very act of translation reminds us that there are always multiple authors of any given text and that meaning reaches us not in a series of single precisely aimed arrows, but in ways and forms that are far more diffuse, distributed, un(re)marked. What is being translated can never be known fully in another language. The gap will always be there. The gap that is also the wound. Anne Carson says translation can give us ‘a third place to be’ – a place between something existing and something being named, between, as she memorably puts, ‘catastrophe and cliché’. Thinking about this third place to be is really fundamental to thinking about the place of trauma in cultural memory (and in language too).

Could you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I was on maternity leave for the first half of the year and I am on study leave now so I have this blessed burst of freedom to throw myself at a million different things  – I am working on an audio piece with the wonderful audio maker Camilla Hannan, writing an essay for a monograph about artist Sally Smart (Sally is one of this country’s most exhilarating and successful artists), working on a whole bunch of other essays for my next book (at the same time! not recommended!), developing a TV proposal. I am doing quite a lot of mentoring of emerging writers as well. Plus translations as they come. Today I was translating a financial agreement and thinking about couples getting divorced and how rare for the whole splitting of assets not to get ugly. Even the most ho-hum translations could be a cause for philosophical ruminations.

March 2019 – HARRY AVELING

AALITRA’s very own past president, Harry Aveling, is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. He specialises in Indonesian and Malay Literature and Translation Studies. His has translated Indonesian, Malay, and Vietnamese Francophone writing, and has co-translated from Hindi. In 1991 he received the Anugerah Pengembangan Sastera from the Federation of Malay Writing Societies (GAPENA). Harry’s Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry 1966-1998 (2001) was short listed for the NSW Premier’s Translation Award in 2003, and he won the 2006 Khatulistiwa Prize for Poetry, Jakarta for Saint Rosa: Selected Verse of Dorothea Rosa Herliany (2005). He was been short listed again for New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize in 2019.

How many languages do you know?

Beside English … Indonesian, Malay, French and Latin. A small amount of Hindi. There is a saying among translators that it is more important to be competent in the target language than the source language. It may be true, I’m not sure.

From which languages have you translated?

My focus has been on the South and Southeast Asian region. I have translated extensively from Indonesian and Malay (which are closely related languages — like American English and British English), translated three books from Vietnamese Francophone literature (two by Pham Duy Khiem), and co-translated three books of eighteenth century Hindi devotional poetry as well (Charandas and his women disciples, Sahajo and Daya). Outside of that, my Medieval Latin has been reserved for the academic study of authors such as Saint Bonaventure.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I like Helen Waddell’s observation that ‘One cannot say “I will translate” any more than one can say “I will compose poetry”. In this minor art also, the wind blows where it lists.’ I began translating when I first came to teach at Monash in the mid-sixties. I wanted to share the some of the riches of Indonesian literature with a defensive Australian readership. I was also committed to making the political prisoner, Pramoedya  Ananta Toer, better known.

You have translated a wide range of genres, including a great deal of poetry. Are there particular authors and/or themes to which you are drawn? 

I enjoy writers who can offer a different perspective on the possibilities of literature, such as the black humorists Iwan Simatupang and Danarto, both fiction writers, and the feminist poet Dorothea Rosa Herliany. There is little point in translating the sort of texts that are already available in English.

Can you give us some insight into your translation process? Do you read your poetry translations out loud?

I’m a devoted fan of Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation. Bly’s eight stages can be divided into two parts. The first part involves (1) making a very rough translation of the source text, (2) resolving the contradictions in that translation, and (3) rewriting it in grammatical English. The second part, especially with poetry, (4) “relates to the ear’s memory” (Could I imagine anyone actually saying what I have just written?), (5) tone (“high and low, dark and light, seriousness and light heartedness …”), (6) attention to metre and rhyme, (7) checking the translation with some one who knows the language well, and, finally, (8) making the final draft. (There is no final draft.)

It is crucial to read all translations out aloud – or at least run them round and round in your head – in order to know what is a natural translation for the language I speak.

How does your academic work inform your translation practice? 

I believe that the two are closely related. Above all, Translation Studies teaches translators that they have choices in the various ways they can translate, and the reasons for those choices. Most of my teaching and research relate to Indonesian and Malay literature. It is important to keep up to date with current developments.

Can you tell us about any upcoming translation projects?

At the moment I’m looking at the possibility of translating the pre-Second World War Indonesian mystical poet, Amir Hamzah. I’m also open to coming across a new Francophone Vietnamese text. Finally I already have a rather unusual project: looking at texts that have been written in the name of a superior scholar or religious teacher: ‘what is an author?’ as Foucault wonders.

Would advice would you give to aspiring literary translators?

Read widely in the language you want to translate into. Work with young emerging writers in the source language whom you can stay with into the future. Learn to live with criticism of your work. It takes a long time to be a good translator.  Find a day-job that will allow you to translate at leisure.

November 2018 – NICHOLAS JOSE

Nicholas Jose is an Australian author, translator and Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. He studied at ANU and Magdalen College, Oxford, and worked in Shanghai and Beijing from 1986 to 1990, where he taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University and East China Normal University. He was also Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy, Beijing. He has published seven novels and two collections of short stories, including Paper Nautilus (1987; new edition, 2006), The Red Thread (2000) and Original Face (2005), as well an acclaimed memoir, Black Sheep: Journey to Borroloola (2002). He co-translated The Finish Line by Sang Ye with Susan Trevaskes (1994) and The Ape Herd by Mang Ke with Wu Baohe (included in Poems for the Millennium, 1998). He was President of Sydney PEN from 2002-2005.

How many languages do you know?

I have some knowledge of Italian and German, less of French and Spanish, and very little of Russian and Bahasa, which I’ve done courses in. The language other than English that I am most familiar with is Mandarin Chinese.

From which languages have you translated?

A little from Italian and more from Chinese, mostly contemporary writing. Although I am very interested in translation, and endlessly grateful for it and admiring of it, I haven’t done a lot of published translation myself. Maybe that’s because I’m in awe of what’s required. I translate informally quite a lot as part of my research, which is another indispensable role for translation.

How does your voice as a writer compare to your voice as a translator?

My voice as a translator is probably both more literary and a little blunter, a strange combination.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

The best translation quandary I can offer comes not from me but from one of my remarkable Chinese teachers at what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education. His name was Con Kirilov. He was one of those polyglots that the mid-twentieth century produced, a native Russian speaker who joined the French army in Shanghai in his youth, so I believe. He had worked in the Foreign Languages Bureau in Beijing in the 1950s, translating Mao’s speeches. On one occasion Con had to translate the Chinese phrase that is rendered in English as ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’, the slogan Mao used to encourage people to express diverse, even dissenting views on the Party’s policies at the time. In Chinese ‘a hundred’ can mean a large number—a hundred or more—or it can mean exactly one hundred. This ambiguity had to be clarified in Russian. Con sent two versions up the line. It came back with a red dot by the version that meant exactly one hundred. Red denoted the Emperor’s intervention, or in this case the all-powerful Chairman’s. It indicated his strategy—to encourage everyone to express their various opinions and then to pick off those he didn’t like. That’s what became known as the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-59, a foretaste of the Cultural Revolution. In considering his linguistic quandary, the humble translator got advance warning of one of the most duplicitous and destructive political manoeuvres in modern history. From this story I learnt a lasting lesson about the subtle power of words.

Can you give us a brief insight into your collaborative translation process?

When I’ve collaborated on a translation I’ve done it literally side by side with my collaborator, so we can discuss things, ask questions and make decisions as we go. It’s a creative rather than an editorial process. I’ve been fortunate too, mostly, in being able to consult the original author, as when Wu Baohe and I translated Mang Ke’s poem ‘Ape Herd’ in Shanghai in 1987, which re-appeared in Poems for the Millennium in 1995. When I’ve translated collaboratively, I’ve always acknowledged the partnership.

Considering you have translated collaboratively, have you ever considered co-authoring?

As a creative writer myself, I find the idea of co-authoring difficult. In practice I do it all the time, though not under that name. I’ve edited books as part of a team where we have all contributed, including working on drafts that may eventually have been attributed to one or other of us. In formal co-authorship I like the interplay that happens when you start to guess which of the authors wrote which parts.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you are working on?

I’m researching Lady Precious Stream by S I Hsiung, which is an adaptation rather than a translation of a traditional Chinese play for the English stage, first performed n 1934. It was a triumph in London’s West End and on Broadway in the 1930s, not just the most successful Chinese pay on the English stage, but just about the only Chinese play ever to succeed on the English stage. It was widely performed in Australia too in the post-war decades, often by amateurs. How did S I Hsiung (Xiong Shiyi) manage that, translating language, plot, ideas and stage conventions in a way that worked around the world? That’s what I’m looking into.

What advice would you give to upcoming translators and authors alike?

Translators need to know how important their work is, and how creative it is. There are so many decisions to be made in every translation. Authors might be encouraged to devote the kind of attention to their choices that translators regularly apply. Translators are authors, anyway.

September 2018 – LILIT THWAITES

Lilit Thwaites completed her PhD at the University of Toronto in Spanish Literature. She has extensive experience as an academic at Latrobe University, including Head of the Spanish Program and Deputy Dean of the Faculty, and is now an Honorary Research Associate of Latrobe. She is a Spanish-English Literary Translator, mainly of women writers. Her publications include Tears in the Rain (2012) and Weight of the Heart (2016) by Rosa Montero, The Immortal Collection (2014) by Eva García Sáenz and The Librarian of Auschwitz (2017) by Antonio Iturbe. Lilit was the recipient of the inaugural Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize at the 2015 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and the OMI Translation residency in the United States.

How many languages do you know?

To varying degrees of fluency and comprehension, maybe 6 or 7, plus Latin.

I was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in England, Scotland and Canada, so I spoke Czech (and heard a bit of Russian) at home, and English (with various accents) everywhere else. I added French, German and Latin in high school in Scotland, and more French when we moved to Montréal; and then finally studied Spanish (and some more German and another year of Latin) when I got to university (McGill and then Toronto). My PhD studies required a reading knowledge of 2 additional Romance languages, so I added Catalan and Italian to the list.

The advantage of knowing languages from a number of different language families is that, if really pushed, I can sort of make sense of other languages from the same language family, at least when it comes to reading (e.g. Portuguese, Galician, Polish).

From which languages have you translated?

Much simpler answer: professionally (written), only one – Spanish > English.

I have done English to Spanish, but not with the same “fluidity” and confidence as Spanish to English.

I have been called upon to do on-the-spot sequential (spoken) Spanish > English and English > Spanish translation, and was recently put in the position of doing what was supposed to be the sequential translation of a 45 minute presentation plus Q&A by the Roca brothers to media attending an international gastronomic event, only to discover when I got to the venue the afternoon before the event that it was in fact going to be a simultaneous translation (booth, audience headphones, the lot!). Not sure I’d ever want to do that again!

If really pushed, I can do a “quick and dirty” written translation from Catalan > English, and I have done spoken Czech <> English and French <> English, but I’m not sure how high a mark the native speakers of those languages would give me for most of those attempts!

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision as such, but in hindsight, there were lots of (subconscious) hints it might happen as I was growing up:

My parents (also multilingual, as educated Central Europeans tend to be) always communicated things they didn’t want their offspring to understand, in a language none of us understood. Each time one of us acquired a language, they had to switch to another one. It kept us intrigued and encouraged us to try to figure out what they were saying, no matter the language.

There were often discussions about the meaning of words at meal times and family gatherings as I was growing up – my husband jokes that there was always a place set for a dictionary at the table – and this seems to have continued with our kids to the present day.

I do remember trying to match English subtitles in “foreign” films to the “foreign” languages I was hearing (and knew) from pretty early on, and discovering that numbers in particular were often wrong.

And I guess I consciously began to translate literature (at least in my head) when I started to read and study literature in languages other than English, and compared the originals to their English translations.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

How hard it is to actually land a contract for a translation (especially if you live in Australia), and how much unpaid work and favours you have to put in before you might finally land a contract.

How invisible we translators continue to be: good, in the sense that it usually means we’ve done a seamless translation; bad, because if the translator’s name isn’t on the front cover, the translator doesn’t exist in the minds of the (prospective) readers – unless they don’t like the book, in which case it’s usually the translator’s fault!

The number of comments about translations which start with words along the lines of: “I don’t normally read translations…”, which makes me wonder if they think most of the world’s literature is actually written in English.

How generous and helpful the authors of the books I am translating can be.

And not so much a surprise as a wish (because I can’t think where else to put this): that translators be given a page or two at the back of their (published) translations to list “all the things in this translation (including the factual errors) for which I am NOT responsible”.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

Apart from the obvious quandary about whether or not to correct factual “errors” in the original work – I do it, but it is usually up to the editor whether they accept or reject the corrections – I share Brian Nelson’s choice of “translating titles” (e.g. discussions with the editor regarding what to do with Montero’s La loca de la casa, which in fact refers to the writer’s imagination, and not to some mad Bertha locked up in the attic).

And then there was the play on words and pronunciation – revolving around the use, or not, of the ceceo (sumo, zumo) in Carme Riera’s El verano inglés – which there was no way of reproducing in English.

But I think my “favourite” quandary has to do with the gender-bending tattooist in Rosa Montero’s Lágrimas en la Lluvia, a person who, in the eyes of Bruna the replicant and main character, keeps “slipping” between male and female characteristics, leaving Bruna unsure as to his/her actual gender.

Spanish lends itself to these sorts of word and mind games because, with considerable effort on the part of the author, you can linguistically disguise the gender of a person – although not the word “tatuador/a”, which is, however, gender-neutral in English, and hence can be used with either gender marker, but not constantly.

Most of the time in Spanish you don’t use subject pronouns with verbs, the third person “personal/possessive” adjectives are gender-neutral [su(s)], and there are many adjectives and nouns which don’t reveal gender (alegre/tristeenorme/grandepersona/bicho/replicante). In English, it’s difficult to avoid subject pronouns, and often, the only way to avoid specified pronouns and personal adjectives generally is to use their plural equivalent (something I usually try to avoid doing if the subject is singular), to rewrite the entire sentence/passage, or to make an active sentence passive, which isn’t always appropriate, doesn’t always avoid the gender-specific issue and, if nothing else, usually changes the tone of the passage.

It took quite some time and considerable rewriting to work out a translation solution to the tattooist dilemma, but I knew I’d (almost) succeeded when the first copy reader sent back the comment that I seemed to have confused my subject pronouns in the tattooist section because the gender of the tattooist kept changing! For those who want to judge for themselves, check out Lágrimas en la Lluvia/Tears in Rain, Ch 11.

During your time as an academic at La Trobe University, did you get much opportunity to do literary translation?

Sadly, not much, beyond the odd snippets and short stories for teaching purposes for students in European lit subjects taught in English who wanted to read more by a specific Spanish writer but didn’t have any Spanish.

More to the point, perhaps, I effectively had to wait until I retired to start my new career as a literary translator, because literary translation (straight text, no “academic” or “critical” commentary or notes) wasn’t classified as research (and still isn’t, really), and so it didn’t count as a research activity for workload or promotion purposes. It was something I was encouraged to do “in my own time” if I really wanted to do it.

Given your focus on women writers in both an academic and translation context, do you feel women write differently to men? Does the gender of the translator matter?

No, I don’t think women write differently to men – and most of the (women) writers I know feel exactly the same – but until we talk simply about “writers”, I suspect assumptions will continue to be made along such strict gender lines, assumptions such as that most women (especially if their work has a first person female narrator) are essentially writing about themselves and “their” world, while most men (no matter the gender of their narrative voice), are writing about “humankind”.

I am prepared to concede that, in very broad terms, women may see the world (somewhat) differently to men, if only because their experience of that world is frequently so different to that of men. But at the same time, it is important to recognise that, within, across and between these two gender categories, there are many gender variations, permutations and combinations, and writers in these categories will also have their own perspectives on, and experiences of, the world, which will be reflected in their writing.

Does the gender of the translator matter? 

I’m not sure the gender of the translator is actually part of any publisher’s equation when it comes to making a decision about whether or not to translate a particular work – nor do I think it ought to be. The issue is – or should be – who is the best translator for a particular book. Similarly, I suspect that in most cases, authors are happy to have their work translated by a “good” translator, no matter the gender of that translator.

And we translators rarely get to choose our translation jobs based on the gender of the author, even if we would prefer this to be the case. I think we’re probably delighted if the book in question is one we enjoy translating, for whatever reason; and we are over-the-moon if we get to translate an author or a specific book we have recommended to a publisher, and/or really want to translate.

I have probably read and critically studied more books by Spanish women writers than by their male counterparts, but I don’t specifically choose to translate women writers. It is sheer coincidence (rather than any planning) that three of the four translations I have had published to date have been written by women – and two of them by an author whose work I know well and generally admire. But my most successful translation to date (in terms of sales) is written by a man – about a young woman! – and given that statistics suggest that more books written by men are being published and translated, there’s every chance that my next translation (if there is one) will be by a male writer.

What advice would you give to a novice literary translator? 

Read, read, read – especially in your own language and in the target language(s) in which you specialise.

Check every fact, name and reference in the original text – if they are correct, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain (in terms of your own knowledge); and if they are wrong or inaccurate, it’s in everyone’s best interest that you correct them, even if ultimately, your corrections aren’t accepted.

Stick up for the decisions you have made regarding your translation; after all, you probably know the original text better than anyone else by the time you’ve finished the translation. So be prepared to do battle with the editor(s), have all the facts and reasons for your decisions and choices at your fingertips, and never give in without a fight.

Make sure you have at least one (reliable) person you can call on to read and comment on your translation (ideally early on, but at least in its final (draft) stage before you send it to the editor). Even better if that person is also a good copy editor/proof reader, or at least has a good eye for typos, etc, especially if you don’t. There’s nothing editors hate more than a manuscript that hasn’t been proofread – even if that is part of their job, too!

And finally, since there are so few grants, travel funds, residencies or fellowships on offer specifically for translators, apply for any open to (“creative”) writers and people in the literature industry unless they specify in the terms and conditions that translators shouldn’t apply. You may get one, and if you don’t, at least you’ve helped to remind the people offering and judging these grants that translators are also writers (and need support and visibility), and hence should be considered for this sort of funding. You never know, it might work the next time you apply to them!


Jean Anderson is an Associate Professor of French and the founding Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation / Te Tumu Whakawhiti Tuhinga o Aotearoa at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Educated at the University of Ontago and the Université Paul Valéry III, Montpellier, she has taught in both Canada and New Zealand. Jean has translated and co-translated nine literary works. She was a finalist in the Foreword American Library Association Book of the Year Awards (Literary fiction category) for her translation of Indian Tango by Ananda Devi.

How many languages do you know?

I consider that I ‘know’ my first language, English, and French, although I am aware that I am (still, after half a century of learning) much more sensitive to nuances of tone and register in English than I am in French. That said, doing co-translations into French has allowed me to push my knowledge in my second language in ways that I really appreciate. It has also made me aware that usage varies between native speakers, in other words, there is no ‘standard’ French (which is something I guess I assumed unconsciously prior to these experiences). Nor is there a ‘standard’ English: the English I translate into is my English (which I hope others enjoy as much as I do!)

I also learned German for 4 years a long time ago, and am surprised by how much of it I can recall (I like comparing the subtitles to the dialogue in German-language films, and can sometimes pick up that there are particular accents or regionalisms). And I have a smattering of Russian, also of use when watching Russian-language films… but I would never assume I could translate literary texts from these other languages: the nuances are just not there, and in literature it’s all about the nuances.

From which languages have you translated?

Just from French to English, and from English into French. I think I might once, years ago when I was still a student, translated a German study of the eating habits of freshwater crayfish, for which I was paid the princely sum of three cakes of gift-boxed soap, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

Like most of the decisions in my life, I didn’t really make one. We have a writer’s residency in Wellington, the Randell Cottage residency, which is split each year between a New Zealand writer and a French writer. Back in 2005 the French Embassy contacted me to ask if a student might be asked to translate a short extract of a text by the French resident so it could be shown on powerpoint as she read it in French. Since it was exam time, and the text was a pretty tricky one, I volunteered myself and found I was hooked. I’m sure it stimulates endorphins and is addictive!

Apparently I had previously announced to all and sundry that I really disliked translation – but translating literature is a whole other story (sorry, is that a pun?)

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

I have long referred to something I call ‘the translator’s F words’. Not that swearing and vulgarity don’t pose particular problems (because they do, in terms of the genre of the work, the receiving culture’s tolerance of such terms, and the difficulty of anticipating readers’ responses) – but in my system this refers specifically to food, flora and fauna.

One of the biggest struggles we had was with the translation of Patricia Grace’s World War II novel, Tu, into French. Of course there were long lists of military terminology, but my co-translator on that one was the daughter of a French general, so we had a head start there. The most difficult passage was instead a short list of cakes popular in 1930s-1940s Wellington. We probably spent the better part of our day on it. Just seven items, but none of them even close to a standard French ‘pâtisserie’ item: melting moments, butterfly cakes, vanilla slices, sponge drops, lamingtons, louise cake, fly cemeteries… Because they were all in a dense list, the possibilities of paraphrasing / glossing were limited if we were to avoid turning it into a lecture. Finding a semi-equivalent was also problematic – even if a vanilla square bears some basic resemblance to a millefeuille, what would one of those be doing in a cake shop in that time and place? And then the catastrophic realisation hit us: the purpose of the specific names of cakes was to evoke a nostalgic response in the reader (ah, the good old days of classic cakes!). Obviously an impossibility in the transfer between cultures. Maybe we should just have substituted a couple of Proust’s madeleines for the whole shebang…

As the founding Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation, can you give us an idea of what opportunities exist for literary translators there?

Sadly, very few, although we try to stay hopeful. Some publishers feel there is too much extra cost involved in taking on a translation; others would claim, I think, and with some justification, that their chief purpose is to get New Zealand writers into print, and that the market is just too small to risk it with translations.

Mind you, provided initial contact can be made, there’s no real reason why New Zealand-based translators couldn’t work for overseas publishers. Obviously there are examples of Australians working for British publishers.

What is the last title you translated and could you share any upcoming projects with us?

My last major project was the co-translation into French (with Marie-Laure Vuaille-Barcan) of Patricia Grace’s novel Chappy, which took us over a year due to various professional and personal distractions. I am currently working on translating some poems and essays by Flora Aurima-Devatine, a Tahitian poet who was awarded the Académie française Heredia Prize for poetry in 2017. I also have a couple of novels waiting in the wings, one is a historical crime novel set in Vietnam… Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a job so I could spend more time on translation, but then the bills come in…

What draws you most to Franco-Pacific writing? 

I feel a commitment to the translation of indigenous writing of the Pacific, and given the strong ancestral and cultural connections between Tahiti and Aotearoa I am doing what I can to bridge the colonial divide between ‘Franconésie’ and ‘Anglonesia’. I also particularly enjoy the challenges involved in negotiating the fraught spaces between dominant and dominated cultures. How much translation and/or explanation is too much? To what extent should the reader be required to move towards a better understanding of an indigenous culture, rather than have it all laid out for him or her? Is a kumara the same thing as a patate douce (sweet potato)? Maybe not too far removed botanically, but miles apart in terms of cultural resonance… Sometimes these approximations have led to complete misreadings: a kete or ‘flax bag’ is a long way removed from a ‘sac de lin’ (linen bag), even if flax is referred to as ‘lin néo-zélandais’ (NZ linen). Now that we have the internet at the ready, surely we can afford to invite the reader to do some (hypertextual) exploring of the source culture? Or, if not, why not leave the term in, or even translate it into, the indigenous language (ie turn flax bag in the original into kete in the translation) and have a glossary? (Obviously glossaries are seen as an unwelcome. even patronising crutch when the text remains in its source culture, but perhaps once it’s exported they are more or less the equivalent of an internet shortcut?)

What would your advice be to aspiring literary translators? 

Do it because you love it, because it gives you an addictive buzz, because you can’t not do it. Worldwide, not very many literary translators into English earn a living (even in countries like Canada where you might imagine heavy traffic between the two dominant languages). Do it because you want to share a treasure with those who can’t read it in the original. If you can be paid for it, so much the better…

June 2018 – ISABELLE LI

Born in China, Isabelle Li is an Australian writer and translator. Her short stories have appeared in Southerly and The Best Australian Short Stories and her short story collection A Chinese Affair was published by Margaret River Press in 2016. Isabelle’s Chinese translations of English language poems have been published in World Literature in China. She has also written a script, Mooncake and Crab, which was made into a short film and appeared at the 60th Melbourne International Film Festival.

How many languages do you know?

Chinese is my mother tongue and English is my stepmother tongue. I’m still learning both, and both are treasure troves. I think we are extremely fortunate to have been bestowed with languages spoken, sung and written by generations before us. They are our most precious human heritage. Every word lives with a history, both in its function and its anatomy, a singular spell to a gateway that only it can open. I’m enriched and transformed by each encounter and discovery.

Which languages have you translated from?

I’ve translated both from English to Chinese and Chinese to English. Many translators avoid translating to languages other than their mother tongue. I had thought I’d follow the same edict. But then I met a Chinese poet, whose work I absolutely adore and feel compelled to translate. I’m not sure where it will take me, but I’m a dreamer who’d construct a sandcastle if just for the sea.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

It happened when I started reading poetry in English. As I was drawn deeper into English, I feared for losing my Chinese. English presents established rules embedded in well-defined grammar, syntax, inflections, and articles. It’s analytical, logical and rational, elegant in its clarity and simplicity, understated. Chinese is contextual, and intuitive. There’s more freedom and fluidity in connecting characters to forge new expressions. It omits, implies, and alludes, yet is imagistic and metaphorical, rich with meaning. Literary translation affords the linguistic adventure in both languages.

What is it that draws you to translating poetry?

When I was small, I used to read poetry for entertainment. I also liked to take the alarm clock apart and then reassemble it. One day I went too far and damaged it permanently. I had ‘split the lark’! Today I still love reading poetry, and translating poetry is the closest reading, as close as it gets. I take a castle apart, brick by brick, then put it back, grain by grain. It’s immensely satisfying.

Considering your success as a short story and screenwriter, have you ever done or ever considered self-translating?

Tagore translated Stray Birds from Bengali to English. It’s very beautiful. Ha Jin, a Chinese American writer, has also translated his own poems from English to Chinese. I haven’t thought about self-translating, but if the need arose, I would consider it. I would also like to experiment with writing in English and translate the text into Chinese immediately, to observe how the act of translation might affect my writing in reverse. It will be my way of writing in two languages simultaneously.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

Because of the long literary tradition, Chinese has many readymade idioms. They are descriptions condensed over time, layered with myths and legends, often evoking poetic imagination. When I translate from English to Chinese, I have to consider whether to use them, and when I translate from Chinese to English, I have to consider whether to translate them literally. For example, 衣锦还乡, literally means wearing silken clothes to return to one’s hometown, and implies the intention of showing off one’s success. I recently translated a line from Chinese to English as this: ‘I look at the passengers sitting opposite, in their homecoming sartorial splendour, miserable, exhausted, dripping resinous sweat, drop by drop, clear and bitter, rain-washed.’ Here the misery contrasts the splendour. 

How do you choose which poems and poets you translate?

So far, my translation projects have happened by chance rather than by design. I’ve been extremely privileged to have met poets whose works speak to me, who have entrusted me with their poems. I would like to translate more poets, but because poetry is profound and it takes much time to know each poem, I’ve been focusing on one poet at a time.

What is the last title you translated and do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us? 

My translation of Australian poet Mark Tredinnick’s poetry collection, Almost Everything I Know, was published by ASM in Macau. I also wrote an article introducing Tredinnick, which was published in World Literature in China together with the translation of his ten poems. Last month I translated four prose poems by Zheng Xiaoqiong, a Chinese poet, which I hope will be published by Mascara. The upcoming project is a collection of Zheng’s essays.

What advice would you give to aspiring poetry translators?

It’s important to read not just the poems to be translated, but the poet’s body of work. If possible, also find out what has influenced or inspired the poet. You’ll find it edifying and gratifying to explore the origins and evolution of their poetry.

April 2018 – BRIAN NELSON

Brian Nelson is Emeritus Professor of French Studies at Monash University. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has held teaching positions in France and Wales before coming to Monash. Brian is a highly regarded scholar and translator of Emile Zola’s works, including The Cambridge Companion to Émile Zola (2007) and the translations His Excellency Eugene Rougon (2018), Earth (co-translated with Julie Rose, 2016), The Fortune of the Rougons (2012), The Belly of Paris (2007), The Kill (2004), Pot Luck (1999) and The Ladies’ Paradise (1995) – all translations were for Oxford World’s Classics. He has also translated Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is the winner of the New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize and PEN Medallion (2015).

How many languages do you know?

French and French (he said facetiously). Well, actually, I also did Spanish as part of my modern languages degree at Cambridge and spent several months in Spain as a student. I can still read Spanish quite easily, but I lost the ability to speak it years ago. I know a little – lamentably little – German and Italian.

The majority of your translations are of the novels of Emile Zola. What is it that draws you to his work? 

Zola occupies a distinctive place in the great tradition of French (and European) realist fiction. I was knocked out by his great working-class novels, L’Assommoir and Germinal, when I first read them as a student. Zola and I have stayed together, so to speak, ever since. I was attracted by the political dimension of his work (he never stopped being a danger to the established order) as well as by his visionary power and the vitality of his language. Contrary to certain literary-historical stereotypes, he’s a great narrative artist.

How has your life as an academic related to your interest in translation and your work as a translator? 

In various ways. There’s a very close relationship between my work as a critic/explicator of French literature and the fact (as I see it) that literary translation is, as Proust said, literary criticism ‘in action’. Years ago I found myself defining literary translation as ‘a close reading of a text in its totality’. Another way to put it is to say, as I firmly believe, that the kinds of judgments and decisions bound up with literary translation make it one of the higher forms of criticism. Also, the attraction of presenting French literature (Zola, Proust) to a large general public through a series like Oxford World’s Classics is enormous. As an academic and administrator I’ve done a lot of work to promote translation and translation studies both within the academy and in the community at large. The importance of translation is, after all, pretty obvious: it’s intrinsic to language learning and engagement with cultures other than our own; for universities, engagement with the globalized contemporary world requires the development of programs designed to increase awareness of the diverse cultures and languages of the world, and of globalization itself. There is increased recognition within the academy of the significance of translation and the implications of the fact that translation, by its nature, is transnational. Translation Studies as a distinct disciplinary field continues to grow.

Can you tell us about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

Titles can be tricky. I didn’t know for a while how to translate the title of Zola’s novel Pot-Bouille, which I translated in the late 1990s. The novel is about bourgeois hypocrisy, especially sexual. The bourgeois are very concerned to maintain the segregation between themselves and the lower classes, whom they portray as dirty, promiscuous and stupid. But Zola shows that class difference is just a matter of money and power, barely holding down the forces of sexuality and corruption under the surface. What we’re left with is a kind of stew, a world where there are no clear boundaries. This is expressed in the novel’s title. Literally, “pot-bouille” is a culinary term; its nearest English equivalent is a stockpot containing leftovers bubbling on the stove. In nineteenth-century France it also meant, by association, the ordinariness of everyday life. And two further associations are exploited by Zola: ‘faire pot-bouille avec quelqu’un’ meant ‘to shack up with somebody’; and ‘faire sa pot-bouille’ meant ‘to feather one’s own nest’. So Zola’s title embraces several central elements of his novel: the dirty kitchens and stingy meals; the urges and frustrations simmering ‘under the lid’ of an artificial domestic respectability; the satirical versions of ‘shacking up’; selfishness and self-interest; and the dull routines of bourgeois life. Some translators have simply kept Zola’s original title. I decided to call the novel Pot Luck – in an attempt to echo the original while evoking some of the confusions and contradictions of bourgeois life as well as the activities of the novel’s philandering protagonist, Octave Mouret, who runs up and down the stairs ‘trying his luck’ with the various bourgeois ladies he encounters.

Which book would you have liked to translate?

Voyage au bout de la nuit or Mort à crédit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Céline is an extraordinary prose stylist (translating him would be a huge challenge) and arguably, after Proust, the second greatest French novelist of the twentieth century.

What is the last title you translated?

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency Eugène Rougon). It’s being published this month in the UK. It’s the sixth novel of Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle. It describes the court and political circles during Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–70) and is surprisingly modern in its representation of the dynamics of the political: the scheming and the rivalries, the patronage and the string-pulling, and the manipulation of language for political purposes.

What are your current projects?

I’m writing two books on Zola, but I’m also contracted to produce a new translation ofL’Assommoir (see above). I’ve been angling for ages to ‘do’ L’Assommoir, and I’m excited by the prospect of being able to get on with it. It’s a particularly hard novel to translate because of Zola’s highly original use of narrative voice: that voice, instead of keeping at a distance from the distinctive, slang-laden language of the workers, often adopts that language, blurring the lines between the characters and the narrator. It’s as if the characters themselves take on a narrative function, telling their own story. The novel’s title, again, is an issue. Many translators keep the French title, L’Assommoir. The problem with that is that readers unfamiliar with Zola and this novel have no idea what it means – in other words, it’s not likely to draw them in. Titles I’m conjuring with are The Boozer and Hammered.

What advice would you give to aspiring translators?

Mainly just read, read and read again, widely and well. I’ve recently been reading some novels by John Banville – The Book of Evidence and Ghosts – and delighting in his virtuoso use of language. Reading him is a verbal work-out every time.

February 2018 – JULIE ROSE

Julie Rose’s career as a published translator spans over two decades. She is a translator of numerous French novels, plays and essays and has been commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company on multiple occasions. Her translation of Victor’s Hugo’s Les Misérables has been called “a masterly translation”, “a new translation […] that is as racy and current and utterly arresting as it should be,” and “Hugo for the twenty-first century.” Les Misérables was shortlisted for the Florence Gould French-America Translation Prize in 2009. Rose has also been awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Translation Prize in 2003, the PEN medallion in 2003, the Browne University Fellowship in 2014 and Chevalier de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres, awarded by the French government in 2016. She is currently working on Emile Zola’s Dr Pascal, commissioned by Oxford University Press.

How many languages do you know?

Three, apart from English: French, German and (rough) Italian. I did French and German at school and a year of Latin, though dropped that when it clashed with Art. I also dropped German when I went to university, which is a shame: I used to clean up on prize night; still have the German prizes, including a book on Germany’s reconstruction after the war which opens with a photo of Frankfurt in ruins… But my German is now very stiff.

I picked up Italian when I lived in the Veneto for a time, but it comes and goes, as languages do when you haven’t learned them formally i.e. mastered the grammar. It’s my heritage, or should be: my maternal grandmother, Caterina Lucia Plozza, was Italian – from the small spa town of Tirano in northern Lombardia, so close to the Swiss border we’re ‘almost Swiss’.

Like many Italians of the grande emigrazione at the end of the 19th century, the Plozzas caught the first boat out of Genoa. They landed in Melbourne and settled in Daylesford, then a thriving Italian spa town itself. Italian would have been spoken in the Plozza household, but Nanna eloped to the Hunter valley with little Tommy Day and that was that – none of her nine children, all looking like catalogue Italians, spoke a word. The Italian connection was buried. When Tommy Day sang ‘I’ll take you home again, Kathleen’, it was Daylesford he meant, not the Valtellina.

It’s so easy to slip into another country and another language and culture when you live in Europe. But for years I lived in Hong Kong, saturated by Cantonese, without really learning the language, though I love its cadences. It needs a lot of head-space, and I was always deep in French. Also I’m married to a man who did Chinese at university and reads and writes it well. China may well be ‘the other pole of human experience’, as Simon Leys called it, but my mother’s best friend when I was little was a HK native – I grew up with Chinese… and Italians, Balts, Yugoslavs. Only ‘White Russians’ felt exotic, turning up suddenly straight from Harbin, without a word of English and looking unbelievably pale.

It all starts with the thrill of the foreign.

Which languages have you translated from?

French, German and Italian.

I’ve used all three in my life as a non-literary translator, such as when I worked as an in-house translator for Spruson & Ferguson’s, patent and trademark attorneys, after I returned to Sydney from living in France, where I often did similar translation work. Translating technical material like patent specifications is very useful if you want to translate literature: accuracy and precision are paramount, and getting something wrong can have serious consequences: you are legally liable for any mistakes and that could be expensive. Whatever you’re translating, all reality is the field, all human endeavour. I also like to think I know something about the real world and how things ‘work’. This transfers to translating literature: it’s always a sort of moral imperative to find the exact word for the thing, or idea, whether it’s a horse-drawn vehicle, or weapon, or riding habit, or prevailing notion of innateness in genetic theory around, say, 1850.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I didn’t. But I didn’t just fall into the job, either, as certain excellent translators have done. I was a French and German scholar and an avid reader of world literature – I’d burned my way through the Russians in translation, for instance, when I was twelve and in a Russian phase. (In my first year at Burwood Girls’ High, I made friends with a Russian girl, who lived close by –­ Burwood was a bit of a Russian enclave then; we’d sometimes take ourselves off to the Russian Club in the city for piroshki and very bad films; I even taught myself Russian, but it died long ago.)

So there was never a time when I wasn’t thinking about literature across cultures. That seems to me the common background for all long-distance translators, along with a strong need to write. When I did French at university (Sydney) there were no translation courses as such and no one talked about translation as a career. It was simply integral to what you did, and thought about. I studied French language, including Old and Middle French, which are fabulous; and French literature and culture generally. The great Ross Chambers was head of department then and one of his protégées, Anne Freadman, briefly ran a seminar on Baudelaire’s famous translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. This is a standard comparison (see Leys’s essay on literary translation in The Hall of Uselessness)in which it’s instantly clear that the translation is better than the original – a useful lesson for any translator (and any serious reader or critic).

I only turned to translation as a source of income when I went to live in France on a French government doctoral scholarship and it became apparent the money wouldn’t keep me in agnès b. I rustled up work translating legal and commercial documents, and teaching English (everyone does this: you become a metro zombie, riding off to Aulnay-Sous-Bois to teach English to people working in toilet-paper manufacture, or at Renault). I also got into simultaneous interpreting for official delegations which was a lot of fun.

But the turning-point was seeing plays I loved and translating them just for the pleasure of it. I had a bit of a background in theatre and close relationships in that world, so Belvoir Street were interested. In the end they chose a Duras,La Musica II. I’d done a few Duras plays, including Savannah Bay; the production at the Théâtre du Rond-Point with Bulle Ogier had blown me away, even though it’s true Duras often sounds like a parody of Duras. But we couldn’t get the rights. Barbara Bray was the titular Duras translator, and Barbara Bray it was; but that was fine by me: she’d earned it.

So, the very first of my dramatic translations to be staged was Racine’s Phèdre, which I was asked to do for the STC’s R & D experimental program. It’s still one of the things I’m happiest with, though I’d lop off a few more adjectives, now. But I try never to look back.

Meanwhile, I was also translating theoretical and philosophical essays in Australia for magazines like Art & Text, and Scripsi. Via Paul Foss, I’d discovered a book on Marie Antoinette by Chantal Thomas, La Reine scélérate, and couldn’t resist translating it – Chantal has such a ringing clear fresh voice. It took a couple of years to find a publisher, but I gained a friend and was launched on what’s turned out to be a career.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

The range of experience. I’ve done Racine and Hugo. Who could be further apart? Hugo hated Racine. Translating, he found him constipated; Racine would have found Hugo diarrhoeic. I get to do both. There’s Proust’s theory that all writing, like all speech, is a translation of inner reality. In that sense, we’re all running round writing our own narratives and translating them. But translators get to write their own narratives in two or more languages and to rewrite others’. I’ve been lucky enough to translate some of France’s greatest writers and thinkers. It feels quite noble, in a Proustian way.

What is your view on collaborative translation?

I’ve had a couple of very happy collaborations, thanks to the calibre and personalities of the collaborators involved. I worked with Brian Nelson on Zola’s Earth. Brian is renowned for his translations of Zola and it was a real pleasure to see how he tackles Zola’s often difficult sentence structure. We’d do alternative chunks but didn’t really sit down – metaphorically – to go through each other’s work until the end. That was such a productive process it justified the whole arrangement, since we brought quite distinct qualities and skills and that enhanced each of our contributions. Brian and I sit at different places along a spectrum that runs from elegance to spontaneity, and maybe the best collaborations require very different approaches, like this, from each translator,

More recently I’ve sat down, physically, with John Bell and gone through my translation of Cyril Gély’s play, Diplomacy. It’s in rehearsal now and will open next month at Ensemble theatre, directed by John Bell, with Bell and John Gaden in the lead roles. It’s been exhiliarating to see how easily he was able to cut through any remaining fluff and reshape the movement to make a stronger piece of theatre. Anna Volska has also contributed the perfect word, discreetly, here and there and now, John Gaden. All that theatre craft pays off, as does their intellectual stamina and generosity.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

Yes. I’m currently translating Zola’s Dr Pascal, which ends the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart saga. It’s always a temptation to improve on the original, but with Zola that temptation is particularly strong and nowhere more so, I feel, than with this novel. It’s not just the excruciatingly tortuous sentences and often hard-to-decipher meanings. With Dr Pascal the more troubling temptation is political correctness. Zola was not politically correct. Not many of the greats were. Imagine what would happen to Hugo, these days. He’d be lynched for his voracious sexual appetite, and we wouldn’t have the world’s greatest novel of social and political rage, with the very first empathetic – heartbreaking – portrait of a prostitute.

In Zola’s novel, Dr Pascal is a pioneering geneticist and a kind and gentle man. His niece was fobbed off on him when she’s only seven and she’s become his surrogate daughter. She also becomes his assistant and ‘other brain’, and of course, grows into a beautiful woman, and they fall in love and have a passionate affair.

The problem is the language in which the relationship is cast, and Zola’s grim insistence on Clotilde’s submissiveness. She is given to calling her uncle ‘Master’ and wondering at his greatness. The temptation is to soften that for a modern sensibility. I’m resisting it, aided and abetted by none other than Zola, who has also made the niece a rebel and a wildly creative spirit. In the end, it’s her story as much as his, but it’s important not to rewrite  the story – or history – to make it more compatible with an ideological agenda, feminist or otherwise.

What book would you like to have translated?

There are so many. But with the retranslating of the classics, one of the great ongoing publishing enterprises, there’s still a chance to have a crack at Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, or Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, or even Proust… Reading Simon Leys on Lucien Rabatet, a Nazi collaborator as odious as Céline, I’ve developed an interest in translating his masterpiece, Les Deux étendards. It’s interesting, this conflict between the person and the work, though only incidentally.

What is the last title you translated?

Philippe Paquet’s prize-winning biography of Pierre Ryckmans/Simon Leys, Simon Leys. Navigator Between Worlds. It was published by Black Inc./La Trobe, Melbourne last September and is a wonderful, spirited book that reads like an adventure story. It is an adventure story, the life of the mind – of a great mind – being the greatest adventure there is. Certainly a great adventure for me, and the editors at Black Inc., who wrestled with me and the text with a gusto that kept me on my toes most usefully.

December 2017 – ALICE WHITMORE

Alice Whitmore completed her PhD in Translation Studies at Monash University in 2017. She has translated three novels by Spanish-American authors: Imminence (Giramondo 2019) and All My Goodbyes (Giramondo 2017) by Mariana Dimópulos, and See You at Breakfast? (Giramondo 2016) by Guillermo Fadanelli. She is the translations editor for Cordite Poetry Review and a founding member of TransCollaborate: Collaborative Translation for Inclusion.

How many languages do you know?

English is my only mother tongue, but I have so far managed to learn Spanish, Italian, French, and some German. Portuguese is next, I think.

Which languages have you translated from?

Spanish, mostly, although I’ve done some informal translations from Italian.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I think when I was 15. I was living in Italy at the time, although I was only just beginning to decipher the language, and I was attending a rather austere Liceo scientifico (scientific high school). The maths, physics and Latin teachers decided I was unteachable and left me to my own devices for most of the day, so I used this time to discover a number of incredible Italian poets and novelists – Cesare Pavese, Umberto Saba, Italo Calvino. I was so taken by some of the poems I read that I began trying to render them (clumsily) into English. Since then, my compulsion and passion for translating literature has grown exponentially.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

I’m always pleasantly surprised by how cordial, and how honoured, most writers are when I approach them as their prospective translator. I have been lucky enough to work with some truly incredible poets and writers over the years, and all of them have generously granted me their time, expertise, and even, on occasion, their hospitality and friendship.

Having recently completed a PhD in Translation Studies at Monash University, can you tell us what it was like working on a PhD Project in Literary Translation?

The Monash PhD in literary translation is such a wonderful program – it allows candidates to complete a major translation project, as well as providing them with the space and support to craft a significant theoretical component that could, eventually, become the basis of an academic monograph. I had the support of two excellent supervisors throughout my PhD – Leah Gerber from Translation Studies and Stewart King from Spanish and Latin American Studies – and they encouraged me to run with the slightly unconventional, interdisciplinary framework that naturally seemed to form around my work and my writing. This is a rare (and quite new) freedom in the academic world, and I am truly grateful for it.

The novel you translated for your PhD, Te veré en el desayuno [See You at Breakfast?], has now been published by Giramondo. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of developing a PhD thesis into a published novel? Did the publisher make many changes?

The novel’s publication was a bonus, something I never expected to come out of the PhD project. I finished the translation fairly early on in my candidature, and immediately began to send it out to a select number of publishing houses. Unsurprisingly, the manuscript was roundly rejected by all of them. So I sent it out again, to different publishers, and after many months Giramondo got in touch with me and said they were considering the manuscript. I was offered a relatively small amount of money as a translator’s fee, and then began to work with editors on minor changes and proof-reads.

I was lucky to have the novel accepted by a publishing house like Giramondo, who don’t shy away from unconventional and commercially unpromising texts – this is partly because they are funded by the University of Western Sydney, and therefore aren’t buffeted quite so fiercely by the fickle winds of the book market, but it is also because their founding editor, Ivor Indyk, has made a firm commitment to publishing unknown and unorthodox texts. Not only did Giramondo agree to publish a rather short, strange novel by a hitherto unknown Mexican author (and a barely emerging translator) but they were completely on board with a number of stylistic and foreignising elements in the novel. The one change the book’s editors made was to italicise most of the Spanish words I had left in the translation – words I had purposefully left unmarked, in order to achieve a kind of alienating, Junot Díaz-esque Spanglish effect. But this was a small price to pay, I suppose.

How does your research interest into the “literary imaginings of urban space in the postmodern city” inform your translation practice?

My interest in literary imaginings of the city and urban space determines the kind of texts that I seek out for translation. I am interested in contemporary, urban literature from Latin America – literature that reflects the hybridity and fragmentation of the Latin American metropolis, and thus is capable of lending English-speaking readers a different perspective on Latin American literature. So much of what is translated from Mexico, for example, focuses on drug violence in poor, rural states, or deals with the tension and poverty that exist along the Mexico-US border. I am not interesting in translating more of that kind of literature. I want people to also read the diverse, modern, conflicted, urban Mexico that I find so fascinating, and I want to help readers experience that foreign vision of Mexico through a translation style that is unafraid to sit in spaces of difference, strangeness, and otherness.

Do you have any more translations coming out in the months ahead?

My translation of a novel entitled Cada despedida [All My Goodbyes], also published by Giramondo, was just released in August. It is by an Argentinean writer named Mariana Dimópulos, and it is a really remarkable novel – succinct, fragmented, deeply personal, and exquisitely written.

November 2017 – KEVIN WINDLE

Kevin Windle is Emeritus Fellow in Translation Studies and Russian at the ANU and a translator from numerous languages. In 2014 he won the AALITRA Translation Prize (Spanish, Prose section) and he was recently awarded the 2017 Aurore Boréale / Aurora Borealis Prize for Outstanding Translation of Non-Fiction Literature.

You’re unusual in that you know and translate from quite a number of languages. Which ones are they? (so far!)

I’m a Slavist by training. My original academic field and the focus of my teaching career was Russian, the language, literature and history. My doctoral studies at McGill University in Canada required some familiarity with other Slavonic languages, in particular Polish, and I later obtained NAATI accreditation in Czech and Serbian, though I don’t often work with them these days. When I became involved in a Macedonian dictionary project in the 1990s I needed to acquire a good working knowledge of that language, and I’ve published a certain amount of fiction and memoirs from Ukrainian, some of it in the AALITRA Review. But my introduction to languages, at school in England was by way of Romance languages: French and Latin, and later Spanish, and at university Portuguese (my first degree was at the University of Liverpool, where Spanish and Portuguese Studies were a particular strength). When required I’ve also worked from Italian and German.

Do you have a favourite language to translate from?

Not really. I’m very fond of all of them, but I get most practice in Russian, as a translator and speaker.

Is that also your favourite language to speak? 

In the sense that I’m more at home in it than in most other languages, yes. That’s because my wife Ludmilla is a Russian speaker.

How did you manage to master so many languages?

Actually, the word ‘master’ makes me a little uneasy. There’s no real end to the business of learning a language; there’s always more to be learned, even in the languages one knows best. And since I’m not an interpreter, I don’t need oral fluency in my source languages. I need a good reading knowledge of them. As for acquiring them, I’ve found that the study of any language leads logically to its next of kin, so Russian led to Polish; French and Latin to Spanish, and so on. And patterns of change (phonetic and morphological) have always seemed interesting to me.

Have you ever translated into any language besides English?

Only occasionally, and I avoid doing so for publication. When I write independently for publication in Russian, I like to be sure of competent editorial back-up from a literate native speaker. That applies equally to translation. I think I can claim a fair degree of fluency in Russian and Polish, but I know my limits. I will never have the range of expression in writing them that I have in written English, and to my way of thinking that requirement is at least as important as knowledge of the source language.

You’ve done both literary translation, and translation of scholarly and academic books. What do you consider the main differences between these two activities and do you enjoy one more than the other?

At a purely practical level, the main difference is that a scholarly book needs to have its apparatus (references etc.) transferred and often recast for the new audience. Many of the footnotes will be replaced by others, perhaps referring the reader to English editions if those exist. And quotations need to be traced and checked. All of that usually needs some familiarity with the subject area, its literature and its terminology.

In the case of fiction, there won’t usually be any scholarly apparatus in the original, although – depending on the text and the publisher – one might supply some for the translation, in the form of translator’s notes etc. At the textual level the difference between the genres is very marked, and some of my work has involved play scripts, so the product has little in common with an academic work. The translator of drama has to produce credible and performable dialogue – the Germans use the terms spielbar (playable) and sprechbar(speakable) – and often replicate humour. That’s a very different proposition from, say, a historical account of the excavation of Troy or the life of Julius Caesar, but I find both kinds of translation and interesting rewarding in their own way.

How did you get into literary translation? Was that where you started out, or did you do other kinds of translation first?

I started with short fiction, and chance had quite a lot to do with it. As a graduate student in Montreal, I translated some short stories by a contemporary Polish writer, Andrzej Brycht, which I thought worked well in English. It turned out that the author had recently left Poland and was living in Toronto, and looking for a translator, so was very glad to have found one in me! I proceeded to translate other works of his, including a short novel which was published in Toronto, and a television script. Those translations led to other things and new projects. I found myself working on plays by Ireneusz Iredyński and Jerzy Lutowski, which occupied my attention for quite some time. So I learned something of the complexity of translation for the stage, with Iredyński and Lutowski the unfortunate victims of my experiments. Of Iredyński, I never did manage to get the major plays published or staged, but did eventually have some success with his shorter pieces: radio productions by the BBC and ABC and a volume published by Routledge in 2002 with my introductory article. Lutowski’s major play Love Thy Saviour was eventually staged in full in Toronto, and published, unfortunately long after the author’s death.

What was the interaction between your translation work and your teaching when you were a full-time university lecturer, or did you find they were largely separate aspects of your academic work?

Some particular projects, a minority, have been closely related to my teaching. When I taught Russian literature of the 20th century, I found that one of the best studies of the novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was by a Polish scholar, Andrzej Drawicz, and inaccessible to readers who had no Polish. So in that case my work on the translation informed my teaching, and I hope benefited some Bulgakov scholars and students. Juri Apresjan’s Semantic Lexicography (OUP, 2000) also fed into my teaching in Translation Studies at ANU.

How do you choose the works you translate? Do publishers come to you with projects, or do you select a work that you think need to appear in English, and then seek out a publisher?

Both, but of late predominantly the former. My attempts to promote foreign-language writing and persuade publishers to take up particular projects haven’t always been successful. In recent years, many of my major projects have resulted from an approach by a publisher. That has been the case with six books for Oxford University Press and three for Edinburgh University Press.

Do you have any more translations coming out in the months ahead?

Within the next few months I hope to see one historical work in print. It will be called A New Rival State? Australia in Tsarist Diplomatic Documents. It’s a collection of dispatches from the Russian consuls in Melbourne in the years 1857-1917. Most were written in Russian, some in French, and a few, by honorary consuls, in English. The compilers, Alexander Massov and Marina Pollard, published a Russian edition in Moscow in 2014 and asked me to take charge of the production of an English edition, i.e. translate the documents or revise translations by other hands, and re-edit and re-annotate for the new audience. The work is pretty much done and I’m hoping it can now proceed to publication. And my translation of a short story by Marek Hłasko, from Polish, should make its appearance in the next issue of the AALITRA Review.

August 2017 – BRIGID MAHER

Another past AALITRA president, Brigid Maher is a Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at La Trobe University, a successful translator, and one of the Associate Editors of the Routledge journal Translation Studies.

How many languages do you know?

English and Italian (and some Spanish and German)

Which languages have you translated from?

Only Italian. It’s taken many years to get to the point of being confident translating between just two languages and in just one direction, so I have great admiration for those who work with multiple languages.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a literary translator?

I think it was around the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Italian and Linguistics. I recall translating a Stefano Benni story one evening just for fun, and finding it utterly thrilling. But a few more years of travel and work went by before I actually got seriously involved in translation, enrolling in a PhD in Translation Studies at Monash University. And I still didn’t really think I would actually get to be a translator myself until a job came along a few years after that.

What has surprised you most about being a translator?

The editing process is really fascinating. You polish your work over and over before submitting it to the publisher, but after that a whole other multi-stage process lies ahead of you, as the editor tweaks and checks and queries all sorts of details. My experiences with four different publishers have all been very different, but it’s definitely a positive process overall. Sometimes you see an ugly duckling of a sentence (whose ugliness you’d overlooked because at the time you were so engrossed in some other detail) transformed into something more beautiful. But it can also be perilous because sometimes the editor’s smoothing out works against what is present in the source text.

Can you tell us an anecdote about a translation quandary you’ve had to deal with?

One of the biggest challenges was for Bringing It All Back Home, my 2015 translation of Nicola Lagioia’s Riportando tutu a casa. In many ways, it’s a story about shared memories, as a man in his late thirties tries to come to terms with his adolescent years. I had to re-create in English the narrator’s recollection of cheesy jokes from a terrible TV variety show called Drive In. Translating humour is hard, but translating bad humour is even harder – because how do you get something just unfunny enough?

Which book would you have liked to translate?

I love literature with a strong narrative voice, challenging language play, or some kind of linguistic or cultural variety. For example, Laila Wadia’s delightful tale of migrant women in Trieste, Amiche per la pelle, would be great fun to translate, and in fact I once led a translation workshop in which we tackled a particularly challenging section of the novel, which was later published in The AALITRA Review.

What is the last title you translated?

La tempesta di Sasà by Salvatore Striano, a novel/memoir about the author’s years in prison. From a young age, he was a member of a Neapolitan street gang, stealing watches, dealing drugs, and much more. But during his imprisonment he discovered the theatre, performing Eduardo De Filippo and Shakespeare – and used their stories, particularly The Tempest, to make sense of his own background, circumstances and decisions and, ultimately, to begin to atone. He’s now a fairly well known actor in Italy. My translation will be published at the start of October by Text, with the title Set Me Free: The Story of How Shakespeare Saved a Life.

If you could change something about the world of literary translation, what would it be?

I’d make it bigger! I think it would be good if those of us in English-speaking countries read more books in translation. Not just because it would mean more work for translators, but because I think it would make those countries more active in global conversations. If we only read books originally written in English, there is the risk that we will end up just talking to ourselves. •