I kid around that I do well to speak one language (English) and I don’t do that very well. But it always fascinates me when someone can not only speak another language, but also translate it into beautiful prose as Emily Boyce did with Éric Faye’s English-from-French novel Nagasaki.
Emily comes with an impressive background and I’ve read several of her collaborations. I love Emily’s style and personality. Sometimes in a translation, things can get wonky and you – as a reader – feel as though you’re running over speed bumps. Never with Emily.
Emily studied French and Italian at the University of Oxford with a year abroad teaching English in Turin, home of Fiat cars and magnificent chocolate. After graduating she worked on the BBC’s food websites and translated French literature as a hobby. She was shortlisted for the French Book Office “New Talent in Translation Award” in 2008. In 2011 she became in-house translator at Gallic Books. Her translations and co-translations from French include works by Pascal Garnier, Antoine Laurain, Hélène Gestern and Éric Faye, all delightful authors with delightful books if you want to make yourself familiar.
As writers, many times we don’t think about what goes into making a book available in another territory and language, especially in a complimentary style that sounds as though it came from a native speaking writer. I talked with Emily, who is based out of south London, which – to an American such as myself sounds just way-too-cool – about her job as a translator and how she got into the business in the first place.
Clay – “Emily, what is your native language?”
Emily – “English.”
Clay – “So, if English, what inspired you learn French?”
Emily – “We used to go on camping holidays to France, and my mum had a series of BBC French audio tapes to listen to in the car. Odd phrases and words stayed with me (‘pamplemousse’ remains a favorite). I studied French at school from age 13, and was lucky to have a fantastic and supportive teacher all the way through to the end of high school. As long as you had done your homework (woe betide anyone who hadn’t), Madame Page’s lessons were brilliant. The last lesson of term was especially fun, when we played Tabou and were rewarded with tooth-ruining Carambar sweets. I went on to read French and Italian at Oxford. The course involved a lot of translation to and from both languages, as well as a great deal of literature. I spent most of my year abroad in Italy, but had a couple of months interning in Paris, while living in former maids’ quarters in a Haussmann-era building with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Sort of romantic, mostly just boiling hot, cramped and a bit squalid.”
Clay – “In 2008, you were shortlisted for the French Book Office ‘New Talent in Translation’ award. How does one become a book translator? What has been your career arc?”
Emily – “My other great love, besides languages, is food. So after graduation I started out as a writer/editor for the BBC’s food websites. About four years later I began doing a bit of freelance translation work in my spare time, as I was missing using my languages. I initially contacted cookbook publishers, as that seemed a good way of combining the two sides to my experience. I started researching literary translation using websites like the BCLT, and I think that’s where I saw the French Book Office prize advertised. I translated extracts from two short stories and was thrilled to be shortlisted for the prize. At the awards ceremony, I was approached by a publisher looking for a translator for an alternative ‘rebel’ guide to Paris. This became my first whole book commission, although sadly the publisher dropped the book midway through the project, so it never saw the light of day. I began going to industry events like the London Book Fair to get a sense of who was publishing translations, and it was at the inaugural International Translation Day conference, which brings together literary organizations, publishers and translators, that I met Jane Aitken, MD of Gallic Books, who mentioned she was thinking of hiring an in-house translator… Definitely a case of right place, right time. I was mentored by renowned translator Ros Schwartz when I first started at Gallic. Translating fiction commercially is very different from the academic approach you learn at university: the main aim is to create a readable piece of writing in English, rather than slavishly reproducing every word. It takes some adjustment. The translation community is very supportive and there are now some great initiatives such as mentoring programs run by BCLT. Groups like the Emerging Translators Network offer a forum for discussion and advice for early career translators.”
Clay – “So do you think book fairs are a way for budding translators to get their feet in the door?”
Emily – “There are more publishers of translations these days, and more sources of advice, but I think there’s still no straightforward path into translation, and it remains an activity that few can make a living out of.”
Clay – “Lucky you!”
Emily – “Yes. Although many people find creative ways to make it work for them (teaching, doing editorial work or taking on commercial translations, for example). I’m lucky to have found a rare in-house position which has enabled me to gain experience of other elements of the publishing process, such as editing and marketing.”
Clay – “Your work flows beautifully. What has been your biggest challenge as a translator?”
Emily – “Every book throws up different challenges – sometimes there are a lot of cultural references I might not be familiar with, so that involves a fair amount of research and then deciding how much to explain to the reader. Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat had tons of references to 1980s TV programs and personalities, some of which needed light-touch explanations, some could be glossed. It depends a lot on the context. Many of the books I’ve worked on were outside my comfort zone as a reader – I’m not a big crime reader, but some of the translations I’ve enjoyed working on the most have been the Pascal Garnier noirs. The main challenge in those books is in retaining the author’s pared-back prose. I have to go back over every sentence and weed out all the clutter. Finding the tone and voice for a translation is usually the hardest thing. That was certainly true of Nagasaki, which was very carefully edited after I had worked on it, in order to smooth out areas where the register wasn’t quite right for the character. It took a while to figure out how this middle-aged and stuck in his ways Japanese man (written in French) would sound in English.”
Clay – “What is your favorite thing about Éric Faye’s Nagasaki?”
Emily – “I’m amazed by how much Éric manages to suggest within so few pages. It’s so much more than a ‘strange-but-true’ story. To go from this loner character noticing his juice is going missing to a meditation on isolation and dehumanization in modern society is so clever. The mystery element carries you through what is also a strange and poetic novel, punctuated by the tormenting cries of cicadas.”
Clay – “What other favorite books are you currently translating? What are some of the other favorite books you have previously translated?”
Emily – “I’m currently working on another Pascal Garnier novel, entitled Too Close to the Edge. This one features a widow who has retired to a backwater in southern France where seemingly nothing happens. She begins the book pootling about in her microcar and cooking vegetable jardiniere in an attempt at living the good life, but we soon see there are desires and frustrations bubbling beneath the surface… It’s brilliantly funny and dark.”
Clay – “How long does it take to compete a translation?”
Emily – “It’s difficult to say, because I work in-house and do other editorial tasks, so some weeks I don’t do any translation, others maybe just a day or two. When I’m cracking on with a translation I aim to do 2,000 words a day.”
Clay – “Are some books easier than others?”
Emily – “I find books with lots of dialogue and a pacy plot much quicker to translate, so I could sometimes do 3,000 words a day when working on those. On the other hand, if I’m having to look up a lot of words and there are very descriptive passages, or a very particular style to get to grips with, I might only manage 1,500 words. I usually start my translating day by going back over what I did the day before. Then once my first draft’s done I go back over the whole thing, ideally having set it aside for a couple of weeks. When I look over it again, I’m usually horrified and think, ‘Who wrote that?’”
Clay – “I was personally told by my agent to cut one of my manuscripts because it was too long for it to be considered for foreign translation? What length of books (maybe manuscript pages or word counts) do publishers of translations typically look for as their max?”
Emily – “Length is certainly a consideration, in terms of the time and money the translation will take. I think that explains why lots of publishers of translations tend to go for shorter novels and novellas (as well as that being a more common form in Europe).”
Clay – “Are there exceptions, my work excluded.”
Emily – “There are obvious exceptions, like Jonathan Littell’s 900-page novel The Kindly Ones.”
Clay – “Wow!”
Emily – “Length wouldn’t necessarily stop us choosing to publish a book, but we’d have to really love it and believe it had big commercial potential to make it worth the initial investment. Of course there are grants that can be applied for, but with more and more publishers in the translation arena, and limited funding available, there’s certainly no guarantee of getting assistance.”
Clay – “So are there any word-count guidelines if one wants to cross the pond to another language?”
Emily – “I would say we’d think carefully about publishing anything over 400 pages. We’re about to publish a two-volume historical mystery by Andrea Japp called The Lady Agnès Mystery, which is set in medieval France. Those are 600-plus pages each, but the translations were done over quite a long period (there were originally four separate books), which meant the spend was spread out. They’ve never been released in the US before so we’re excited to see what the reception will be.”
Clay – “Not asking for actual amounts, but are freelance translators usually paid by the word or the project?”
Emily – “Freelance translators are usually paid per 1,000 words. The rate varies widely from country to country. There are also different conventions for different languages in terms of whether the translator is paid per 1,000 of the source language or target language, because in some language combinations this can make a big difference. Some publishers have experimented with other models, for instance a royalty-based model or payment tied to securing grants.”
Clay – “And, lastly, as a translator do you usually work alone? Or is translating more collaborative than the original writing?”
Emily – “I really enjoyed co-translating The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern with translator Ros Schwartz. It’s an epistolary novel about two people searching for the truth about their parents, and we each took the role of one character in the correspondence. It was quite magical at the end, when the two halves we had been working on separately were put together, and the questions raised in ‘my’ letters were answered in Ros’s. I usually work alone on shorter books, like Nagasaki or the Pascal Garnier noirs. However even some relatively short books have been split between translators for stylistic reasons. For instance the two Antoine Laurain novels we’ve published: The President’s Hat follows the stories of four characters who each have a spell of owning President Mitterrand’s hat, and we had three translators to ‘voice’ the different parts. The Red Notebook has two protagonists, Laure, who has her bag stolen, and Laurent, who finds it in a Parisian street and embarks on a quest to find its owner. I translated the Laure chapters and my colleague Jane, Laurent’s. Afterwards we edited each other’s sections. I find it a very instructive and interesting way of working.”
Clay – “As do I. Amazing. And I’ve learned much from this interview.”
My thanks to Emily for sharing, and to Gallic Books for allowing us the time. For more information on Emily or Gallic, visit http://gallicbooks.com/ for “the best of French in English”.
See you next month!
Until then, read like someone is burning the books!
Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).
Emily Boyce studied French and Italian at the University of Oxford with a year abroad teaching English in Turin, home of Fiat cars and magnificent chocolate. After graduating she worked on the BBC’s food websites and translated French literature as a hobby. She was shortlisted for the French Book Office New Talent in Translation Award in 2008. In 2011 she became in-house translator at Gallic Books. Her translations and co-translations from French include works by Pascal Garnier, Antoine Laurain, Hélène Gestern and Éric Faye. She lives in south London.
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