A Conversation with Ros Schwartz
translator of TRANSLATION AS TRANHUMANCE
by Mireille Gansel
from Feminist Press at CUNY
Interview by Rachel R. Taube
Ros Schwartz has been a literary translator for 36 years and has been an active participant in the evolution of the profession. She has translated over 70 books from French to English by writers as diverse as Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun and French crime writer Dominique Manotti, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. She has presided as vice-chair of the Translators Association, as chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Association and as chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation program. Most recently Schwartz translated Translation as Transhumance, which was reviewed by Cleaver.
In this interview, Ros Schwartz discusses the process of translating a book about translation, including her work with Gansel, her theory of translation, and translation as activism.
Rachel R. Taube: In another interview, you said Translation as Transhumance is a unique project for you because you championed the book and found a publisher for it. What about the original made you decide that you needed to translate this book?
Ros Schwartz: My response to reading the French original was visceral, like falling in love. I was awed, first of all by Gansel’s exquisite style, which combines simplicity, lyricism and elegance, and then by the integrity and coherence in the way she has lived her life, making her translation work the concrete expression of her profound humanity. She has devoted herself to translating the voices of the persecuted, the poets who have been silenced, even to the extent of learning Vietnamese during the Vietnam War so as to translate the work of the poets. She gives herself body and soul, literally, to all that she does, and my admiration for her is boundless.
I also experienced a sense of recognition: my background has some similarities with hers. I too am Jewish—second generation born in Britain—and my grandparents spoke only Yiddish, so although different from Gansel’s experience, I share that multilingual background common to families descended from exiles. Gansel interweaves her memoir with reflections on the art of translation, constantly interrogating and refining her practice. Her ethos chimes with mine and her approach to translation helped me better articulate my own. Translation is the deepest form of reading. By translating the book and being inhabited by it for many months, I was able to engage with Gansel’s ideas in a way that you just don’t as a casual reader.
RRT: Mireille Gansel, as much as possible, attempts to immerse herself in the world of the poet she is translating. I was especially struck by the image of her visiting Reiner Kunze in East Germany to listen to him read his work aloud in his “tiny blue kitchen.” How do you prepare yourself to translate a new author? If the author you’re translating is living, do you interact with them? To what extent did you get to know Gansel and her life?
RS: I work in the same way as Gansel when translating a living author. Capturing the author’s voice is the key that is the essence of translation. It’s not about translating individual words, or phrases or even paragraphs, but conveying the voice beneath them, the spirit of the work. At an early stage of the translation, I invited Gansel to join me at a translation workshop in Cambridge where we worked on an excerpt from the book. There, I heard her read, and spent time getting to know her a little. Six months later, I then visited her home, in Lyon, where we discussed some of the thornier passages and I gained a sense of her world. I also met her friend, Jean-Claude Duclos, director of the Musée Dauphinois, alongside whom she campaigns to protect the culture of the Camargue shepherds, which is fundamental to her book and to her concept of translation as transhumance. All this helped me grasp her voice, her spirit.
I was very nervous about translating Gansel and had planned to send her my translation and spend a couple of weeks going over it with her, to ensure she was happy with it. But after attending my workshop and seeing my approach, she generously told me that she trusted me absolutely and that the book was now ‘mine’ so to speak. She relinquished all control, which is the hardest thing for an author to do and the greatest gift for a translator. Of course, I was able to ask her for clarification and discuss any issues that arose, but she was adamant that she did not need to go over the translation with a fine-tooth comb. When my translation was published, she said: ‘I can feel that you’ve translated this with your Jewish soul.’ Which is a wonderful way of describing empathy. And empathy is the pre-condition for any translation. There needs to be a particular chemistry for a translation to gel and capture the author’s voice.
RRT: I’m curious about the particular challenges of translating a book about translation. This book is full of poems that Gansel translated from German or Vietnamese into French, which now appear in English. She spends pages describing the process of translating a single word. How did you translate these poems and the conversation around them?
RS: For the poems that exist in an English translation, I cited these (with appropriate credits). This was the case for most of the Nelly Sachs poems. For the Vietnamese and other poems that don’t exist in English, I translated from Gansel’s French and worked with her to ensure that my translations accurately reflected the originals. It is made clear in the notes which poems are my translations from Gansel’s French, and which are existing translations.
RRT: Gansel’s focus, in her translation work, is on the meaning or effect of the language, rather than its literal fidelity. She says she risks “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings,” and refers to an interior or soul language, which she hears in “the silences between the lines.” How closely does this idea align with your own theory of translation, and how did you apply that theory to translating this book in particular? Did you ever find yourself swayed by Gansel’s theory as you worked with her words?
RS: Gansel eloquently articulates everything that I believe, which is one of the reasons the book resonated so powerfully for me. Translation is a holistic process, it’s not about the words on the page. It’s a complex balance between meaning and music. There are translations that are accurate yet clunky. That happens when a translator focuses solely on meaning but forgets that language is also music and rhythm. So sometimes you need to move away from the literal meaning to privilege music. With every translation, I weigh up where that balance lies. Gansel’s French is exquisite, precise, elegant and poetic. After drafting the translation with the focus on sense, I then reworked it many times concentrating on style and musicality. If I had to sum up the aim of a translation, it is to create the same response in the reader of the translation as that elicited by the source text in its readers. But to do that, you need to work within your own language and draw fully on the rich range of linguistic resources it offers, and those will be different from those of the original language. You may need to play with punctuation, or on the opposition between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon root words, the use (or not) of contractions. All these elements contribute to the texture of the writing. In a way, translation’s like ventriloquism: you try to find the voice you feel the writer would have had if they’d written in English. But that doesn’t mean making them sound English – you need to preserve their individuality and otherness. An almost impossible paradox.
RRT: One theme of this book is the colonization of language, and in particular the way in which German is colonized. Are there ways in which French is a colonized language? English?
RS: I would turn that question around and say rather that French and English are the colonizers. Gansel writes about how the German language was tainted by Nazism, and how writers have had to salvage it. Whereas English and French are dominant languages. The challenge for translators is to not allow our translations to be colonized by copy editors. For example, I translate a lot of Francophone North African writers who often keep Arabic words in the French. Because of France’s colonial history, the French reader will be more familiar with these terms than the English reader. I always fight to keep those words and cultural references in my translation and provide a glossary at the back of the book, since footnotes are not used in fiction. Salman Rushdie put it succinctly when he wrote: “To unlock a culture you need to understand its untranslatable words.” He keeps many Urdu words in his writing, at the same time making them perfectly understandable to the English-speaking reader within the context. That has been my guiding principle in my approach to translation.
Many African authors write in French or English rather than in any of the African languages because it’s the only way they can get published. The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo, having previously written in English, chose to write Matigari ma Njiruungi in his native Gikuyu (1986) as well as his later Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2004) precisely to emphasize this point. The same is true of Indian authors. Little work is translated from the many languages of the subcontinent.
RT: You’ve described Gansel’s work as “translation as activism.” Gansel translated East German writers during the Cold War, and during the Vietnam War, she worked on a book of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. What is the role of the translator as activist? Do you see yourself as an activist, or particular projects you’ve done as activism?
RS: The translator has a huge role to play in challenging the gatekeepers. We can bring writers to the attention of publishers by championing their works, as Gansel has done, as I and other translators do. This is especially important when it comes to languages that publishers don’t generally read. One exemplary translator-activist is Deborah Smith, who translates from Korean and won the first Man Booker International prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Shocked that no one was publishing books from languages such as Bangladeshi, Thai, Uzbek or Korean, Smith set out to redress this single-handedly by establishing a publishing house, Tilted Axis, which is ‘on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature’. (See the Cleaver review of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in Deborah Smith’s translation, and the New Yorker interview with Kang about the act of translation.)
The very first book I translated, I Didn’t Say Goodbye by Claudine Vegh, was an activist project for me. Comprising interviews with Holocaust survivors whose parents managed to save their children but not themselves, I knew the minute I read it that I had to translate it and see it published in English. Translation as Transhumance too is an activist mission for me. I took on this book as a personal passion project and actively worked to place it with a publisher in the UK and the USA, and have been tirelessly promoting it since.
More generally, I’ve been involved in English PEN’s Writers in Translation program (of which I am currently co-chair) since its beginnings. This programme is designed to support outstanding works in translation and help them reach readers and build new audiences. It is vital for translators to actively seek out works in the languages they translate from and champion them. It is also important for translators to work with organizations supporting exiled writers, take part in book festivals and public events and be part of the conversation.
It was translators who instigated the Women in Translation month, which a number of us from around the world took part in, to draw attention to the disproportionately few works by women writers that are translated. Similarly, it was translators who were the movers and shakers behind the first Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched earlier this year.
I also consider myself an activist in translator training (I co-founded a literary translation summer school in London and give regular workshops), and in campaigning for improved working conditions and rates for translators. These things are all interconnected: better training means better quality translations, and better translations means that more publishers will be prepared to take on international titles. Good conditions for translators foster better quality translations because translators are then able to devote the necessary time to each project.
Rachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.
Ros Schwartz’s author photo by Anita Staff