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An Interview with Literary Translator Ros Schwartz

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on September 27, 2016
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Ros Schwartz

Ros Schwartz has been in the business of literary translation for 36 years and has been an active participant in the evolution of the profession —literary translations are no longer considered frightening, and translators are no longer invisible. Ros Schwartz has translated over 70 books from French to English by writers as diverse as Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun or French crime writer Dominique Manotti, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and a number of Georges Simenon’s Maigret books. She has presided as vice-chair of the Translators Association, was chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Association and chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation program. She is also an external supervisor to translators in universities in the UK where she also gives talks on how publishing works, how to work with editors, and how, as a translator, one should present projects to publishers. Ros Schwartz will be speaking at International Translation Day at the British Library in London on September 30th, 2016. She kindly spoke to Bookwitty before the event.

Did you actually study translation?

When I began translation studies as a discipline didn’t exist. I lived in France for eight years and when I came back to the UK and found I was unemployable,  I had to reinvent myself. I had always loved reading and writing, so that’s how it started. I have just revised the first translation I did in 1979 (I Didn’t Say Goodbye, by Claudine Vegh) and I ended up having to completely rewrite it. It was a sobering experience.

I learned from having incredibly good editors. They would edit on paper and then you’d sit down with them and go through the translation together. There’s also a difference working with editors who speak French, they’ll pick up tiny little things that you haven’t noticed.

You recently co-translated About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun with Lulu Norman; do you enjoy co-translation as a method?

I like co-translating because nobody reads a text as closely as a co-translator. It’s like having your text reread by yourself ten years later. With the Tahar Ben Jelloun book, because there were two voices, we each took one voice and then revised each other.

Who are some of the memorable authors you have translated?

I’m currently translating Mireille Gansel’s Traduire comme Transhumer (Translation as Transhumance). Her entire life has been dedicated to translation as activism; it’s a memoir bound up with reflections on translation. During the Cold War, she sought out East German writers and translated them, and during the Vietnam War, she went to Vietnam in search of the writers and poets, learning the language so that she could bring Vietnamese voices to French readers; she translated previously unpublished poets.

Dominique Eddé is another writer I’m very fond of. She’s pushed me out of my comfort zone. She is Lebanese but writes in a very elegant French underlaid with an Arab sensibility. It’s a very different literary tradition¬—it’s not linear but is quite abstract and impressionistic. We worked very closely together and it’s been a hugely enriching experience that has taught me a lot.

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Translating Simenon is different because the author is dead. I’ve just finished my eighth Maigret novel. Simenon’s brilliance is in his descriptions—he can depict a whole town in one paragraph. The language is straightforward, but getting it to be succinct in English is a challenge.

How do literary festivals help literary translation? How have readers in the UK changed their attitudes towards translated literature?

Things have changed tremendously. Twenty or so years ago, if you’d gone to a literary festival organizer and said how about a translation event they’d have looked at you blankly.

When the Edinburgh Festival first agreed to include a translation event, at the instigation of Danny Hahn, they probably thought they were just being nice. But the event was a sellout, and translation-related event (slams, international authors, panels) have been an integral part of the festival ever since. And increasingly at other major literary festivals. And now we’ve become more confident—we’re no longer invisible. There used to be a myth in publishing that it wasn’t advisable to put translators’ names on books because you didn’t want people to know the author was foreign. Now we’re seeing translated books on prize and bestseller lists and readers want to discover new writers, especially reading groups.

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Another development is that we’re seeing ‘translators with attitude’ who make things happen, who get involved in marketing, who are part of the conversation. There’s also more communication between translators. Fellow translator Sarah Ardizzone and I generated an event when we realized that she had translated a graphic novel of The Little Prince at the same time as my new translation of The Little Prince came out and we organized a conversation at London’s South Bank.

Young translators are empowered— Deborah Smith, Man Booker International winner with her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, has started her own publishing company, Tilted Axis Press. That’s a far cry from the translators of the past who couldn’t say boo to a goose and were grateful for any crumbs that were thrown their way!

You were chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Associations – do you find that translators have the same concerns, no matter where they’re from?

Yes, the concerns are the same. Our main concern is payment. It’s impossible to make a living as a literary translator. The reality is, even if you’re paid top whack, given the amount of time you spend on a book it’s just not do-able and most of us have some other way of generating income. You can’t translate more than one or two really challenging books a year.

Did you grow up reading translated literature?

I grew up in a houseful of books. My father had a fantastic collection. Two of my favorite children’s books were Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives and The Little Prince. My parents listened to French music: in my cradle I heard songs by Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet. 

In collaboration with Free Word, Words Without Borders and English PEN in celebration of International Translation Day


    Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.


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