Natasha Lehrer, award-winning translator and writer, talks to Elodie Rose Barnes about translation theory, Oulipo writers, the joy of translating poetry and the brilliance of French author Nathalie Léger’s prose.
Natasha Lehrer is a writer, editor, and translator from French to English. Her recent translations include The White Dress by Nathalie Léger (Les Fugitives / Dorothy), Chinese Spies by Roger Faligot (Hurst), and Memories of Low Tide by Chantal Thomas (Pushkin Press). In 2017 she was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her co-translation (with Cécile Menon) of Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. Her translations have appeared in Granta, 3AM Magazine, and The Paris Review, while her journalism regularly features in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Haaretz, and The Nation.
How did you start translating?
When I first came to France, I translated some scripts for a film producer that I knew. That really gave me a break, and I enjoyed the process of it. One thing I was interested in doing was translating art exhibitions – I kept going to places like the Louvre and the panels on the walls were terrible. I remember thinking, “Who’s doing these?” Then I realised that you couldn’t get a job like that unless you had some kind of translation qualification. The French are very fond of formal accreditation. I ended up doing a Comparative Literature MA in Paris, during which I wrote a lot about translation and fell completely in love with translation theory.
Theory is a controversial subject among translators; many think that theorists don’t understand the practice. Personally, I don’t think that’s true. I think the theory, the conceptualisation, the philosophy, is very important. Translation is a very instinctive practice, but there’s so many ways of doing it that I think some grasp of the various ideas behind it is vital. There’s nothing prescriptive about it, but I think it’s helpful to know why you approach a translation in the way that you do, and to be able to explain it – even if it’s just to yourself. Of course it still has a mystical element about it! All writing does – but as with all writing, it’s fed by what you read, and I think reading criticism and theory can help immensely with your own thought processes.
After completing the MA I decided that I wanted to translate books, and I was incredibly lucky. I met Cécile [Menon] from Les Fugitives, by chance. She was just starting Les Fugitives, I was just starting out without much experience in translation, and she said to me “Would you like to translate this book by Nathalie Léger?” Of course I said yes. I didn’t realise at the time how insanely lucky I was, nor could I ever have guessed what an exciting journey we were setting out on.
Nathalie Léger as your first translation seems a bit like throwing you in at the deep end!
Completely! I think we spent about a year working on that book [Suite for Barbara Loden] together. But I’m not at all surprised it took us that long. Even now, having translated more of Léger’s work, I look back and wonder how we did it.
I’ve only read the English translations of her work – I’ve never dared to try the French! – but her prose comes across as very deceptive. It seems very loose, and yet there’s so much rigour behind it. It’s incredibly nuanced and elegant. How do you go about capturing that?
Absolutely. It’s like packing a suitcase. Some people just throw things in, while others pack incredibly neatly and everything comes out uncreased – Léger does that with a sentence. She packs so much in with so much illusion and uses language in such a rich and complex way, but at the same time it feels limpid. It doesn’t feel like you’re being hammered by someone’s intellect. It’s all there for you, you just have to open the suitcase and unpack it, and a lot of writers aren’t that generous. The real challenge is finding a way of translating that to English!
But once you really inhabit a book you begin to understand what the writer is doing. The time element with Suite for Barbara Loden was very luxurious; Cécile and I together could spend a whole afternoon on a single paragraph. That’s what you need with a difficult writer like Léger. I find now that working with smaller publishers is a treat, because they’re more likely to give you that time. Sometimes when I work with bigger publishers there’s a turnaround of, say, three months, and it can be quite frustrating. So in many ways Suite for Barbara Loden was a brilliant introduction to literary translation – a difficult text that I could completely immerse myself in, the pleasure of working alongside someone who has an exceptionally nuanced ear for French.
Was it easier working on Léger’s latest book, The White Dress?
Yes, because I knew her writing. I’d already translated Suite for Barbara Loden, I’d read L’Exposition, and I started to recognise her linguistic ticks. One example that comes to mind is the word ‘épaisseur’, which basically means ‘thickness’. But she uses it in such wildly different contexts, it never simply means ‘thick’. She uses it more to mean ‘density’, but it could be density of atmosphere, density of emotion, density of experience – all ways in which you wouldn’t normally use that particular word. But once I got used to it, I knew how to creatively work around it. It’s like a paving slab that sticks up. You don’t trip over it every single time, because you know it’s there.
That’s where starting off with Léger was brilliant. She uses language in such a varied way; I had linguistic experiences that I don’t think I would have had with a different book. I feel more confident in my own technique because I had that rigorous, deep immersion. Also with a very literary text like Léger’s, you not only have the challenge of translating the language, but you have to try and find an equivalent literary voice for it in English. You don’t usually have that with non-fiction books.
Speaking of non-fiction, one of your recent translations is The Most Beautiful Job In The World [by Giulia Mensitieri, developed from her anthropological PhD thesis on contemporary capitalism, creative commerce and the fashion industry], which is very different to Léger! I found it fascinating, shocking, depressing…the scale of exploitation and instability in the fashion industry is huge. I was also struck by the parallels with publishing and writing. The system of unpaid internships, the pervasive sense that you’re ‘lucky to be there’, the idea that something creative should be done for the love of it and not for money – I recognised all of that.
It really radicalised me, doing that translation. It’s incredibly clever how she describes the figure of the artist as emblematic of capitalism: as someone who is fully invested in their work and if they fail it’s their fault, if they succeed it’s their achievement. This, despite most artists believing themselves to be outside of capitalism, or at least not a proponent of the system. But Giulia shows how, in our thinking, we are all products of capitalism, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise. It’s a devastating book and I think it has implications for everybody in any kind of creative work. I loved translating it. I feel like it completely changed my outlook.
You obviously take on quite varied projects. How do you choose which to do?
I’ve been very lucky. Most of the time people come to me. I think I’ve only pitched once – I saw that a book had been sold to an English publisher, and I really wanted to translate it so I contacted the French publisher and asked who had bought it. But generally I get asked, and I rarely turn anything down, which has meant I’ve translated a real variety of books. I love doing history books, for example. You briefly become an expert on the subject: you spend three months or so working on the book, ten hours a day, absorbing someone else’s research, and it can be fascinating! I did a book on the Chinese secret services from the beginning of the 20th century [Chinese Spies by Roger Faligot], which was incredible. I love doing non-fiction as much as fiction, which not everyone does.
From a translation point of view, is your process different for non-fiction?
In terms of how I work, it’s always the same. The first draft is basically a case of getting something down on paper. In the second draft, I look at the English without looking at the French, and then in a third draft I work sentence by sentence with both the French and the English, comparing the two, making sure that I haven’t gone too far. I want to make sure that it’s a translation, not an adaptation. I become very focused on that piece of work. I work on it all day, and then read it in bed on my phone – which is a really interesting exercise, because I always pick up on things that I don’t notice on my computer. So I’ll make notes in bed to go back to the next day. I imagine I read every book ten times, going over and over it. That process doesn’t change.
In non-fiction or academic books, though, like The Most Beautiful Job In The World, there are usually a lot of footnotes and references. Often, the original source or citation will be in English, which I then have to go and find because I can’t just “back-translate” what the author has translated into French. That’s very time-consuming. I even find mistakes sometimes, of various levels of significance, which I often end up researching before taking them back to the author. So non-fiction can take longer, and it does require a certain amount of general knowledge.
You also translated a poem for an anthology a few years ago, Enoh Meyomesse’s Jail Verse published by English PEN. How did you find translating poetry as opposed to prose?
That was a really nice project. Meyomesse was imprisoned in Kondengui Prison in Cameroon, and they wanted to highlight the situation and campaign for his release by producing this translated anthology of his work. I haven’t done any since. I enjoyed it, but translating poetry is a whole skill in itself that I don’t have!
I am contemplating trying again with a personal poetry project, though. I’ve just discovered a female poet, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and have fallen madly in love with her work. I’d love to translate it, just for myself. The formal restrictions of poetry are so different. You couldn’t translate, for example, an alexandrine straight from French to English. It wouldn’t work for this quintessentially French form to be dumped into another language. You need an equivalent formal constraint, one that honours the original without distorting it. So the classic would be putting an alexandrine into iambic pentameter, or perhaps a sonnet. It’s a really interesting exercise.
The other thing that’s lovely about it is that a poem is brief. I can work on a single one, whereas with a prose translation I really need to translate the whole thing to find the voice. I’m not going to be able to find it in an extract, whereas I think I could with a poem.
It’s interesting thinking about constraints, and how they can impact both writing and translation. I recently read Sphinx by Anne Garréta, where she writes a seduction story without revealing either of the characters’ genders. I was amazed by it – not only by how she managed to write it in French, which is such a gendered language, but then by how Emma Ramadan managed to translate it into English without losing any of the devices that Garréta used in the original.
Sphinx is a real tour de force, it’s brilliant both in French and in the English translation. One of my favourite novels written with a formal constraint is La Disparition, by another Oulipo writer, Georges Perec. He lost his parents in the Holocaust and in some ways all his work is about that. This novel was written without the letter e, and then his extraordinary translator, Gilbert Adair, translated it into English, also without the letter e, and called it A Void. The best part is when Perec renders, in French, Hamlet’s speech, ‘To be or not to be’, which Adair then has to translate into English – without the letter e – and does it, with great wit and panache!
You read a lot in translation. Do you find that you read differently, being a translator yourself?
I guess so. I can be quite critical. It’s wonderful when you read a good translation – I love Jennifer Croft’s work, for example, and Sophie Hughes. They’re working in languages I don’t know and are brilliant translators and writers. Their work is a joy, and as a translator I think one is particularly attuned to the skill involved. There are too many terrific translators to name them all! I would never be able to read the books they translate without them, and I really appreciate that. But not every translator is a good writer, and we don’t talk about that enough. When a translation is good, people get very excited. but when a translation is not very good people don’t get upset about it. It’s almost as if they don’t have very high expectations.
Do you think that perhaps they don’t feel able to critique the translation because they don’t read the source language?
Maybe – but then I agree with Tim Parks, who says you can tell the quality of a translation even without knowing the source language. He’s a controversial figure but I think that a lot of what he says makes sense. When a text is difficult or clunky to read, or when the voice is inauthentic, it spoils the experience for me, and that is arguably the fault of the translator. Everyone wonders whether they should blame the author. That’s a valid question, but ultimately as a translator you should want to render a text in the best way possible. I’m not saying you have to improve the writing, per se. But I think you are under an obligation to, for example, make dialogue sound like something someone would actually say. If it was genuinely inauthentic in the source language, then you have to ask why. Was it deliberately like that for stylistic purposes? Or was it lazy writing? If the latter, then really I think translators have an obligation to go back to the author and say that this isn’t coming across well in translation, so what can we do to improve it? We were talking about non-fiction earlier, and how I sometimes find mistakes in citations and so on. I could ignore those mistakes. But when they’re easy to put right, I can’t justify reproducing them simply because they’re there in the source language. Translation is not a word-for-word transposition. It’s another iteration of the book. In a way, you are acting as another editor.
I think a lot of people don’t realise that. Often, they do think that translation is simply a shifting of words from one language to another; there’s a lot of misunderstanding around what a translator actually does.
Absolutely, I think you’re right. But then take, for example, The Odyssey. You only have to look at Emily Wilson’s translation compared to, say, Simon Armitage’s, and it’s obvious that two different translators have produced two very different translations from the same text. An engaged reader will realise that they are two different iterations of The Odyssey, each wonderful in their own way. And it’s important that new translations are done, to keep the text alive and fresh for another generation. Who would still read The Odyssey in English if all we had was a translation from the eighteenth century? New translators are actively involved with the original, and they’re doing a service to the original by making it the best that it can be in this new language at this time.
There’s a lot of emphasis on what translation can do for the target language, but it’s interesting to then think of what it can do for the source language as well, in keeping those texts new and making them the best that they can be for a new audience.
That’s very true. And translators are also acting as an emissary for the source language. You have a responsibility – a very layered responsibility to the author, the book, the culture, the literature, the country – and you have to think about that.
It’s interesting, too, what comes to mind when thinking about translation and the way it’s viewed in different countries. Take the Bible, for instance. As a literary (as opposed to religious) text, it doesn’t have the same status in France as it does in the UK. So many of our English sayings come from the Bible, and we know that the King James Version is ‘the’ definitive translation that informed so many others. We know the history of its translation, the Tyndale version that came before it, and how it still impacts the language that we use every day. I think translation is respected in the UK partly because of that. In France, though, that isn’t the case. Despite translated literature making up a far greater proportion of the market – around 30% – translation doesn’t seem to have the same status. It’s seen as manual labour, almost, something that gets the job done.
What other projects have you got coming up?
The White Dress is about to be released in America, which is exciting, and I’ve got another lovely book coming out soon called The Last Days of Ellis Island, by Gaëlle Josse. It’s about refugees, the idea of home, and what America represented at that time, which feels very pertinent at the moment. There’s a bit of magical realism in there too. I loved translating it, and it posed a new challenge in that I had to make it sound like it had been written in 19th and 20th century American English. Usually I try and make sure that some sense of foreignness is retained in a translation, but here it was the opposite. Everything that sounded even vaguely French had to be erased. It was the most extraordinary experience.
During lockdown I’ve been working on the translation of Consent, by Vanessa Springora. I’ve been really grateful to have that to focus on – it’s her memoir of being in an abusive relationship when she was a teenager with a much older writer, a known paedophile.
I’ve also been doing book reviews, and I’ve edited a book for Profile Books. That was fascinating: it’s about a book published by the Gestapo, containing the names of all the people who were to be arrested and even executed in the event of a German invasion of Britain. When I’m translating I miss writing, when I’m writing I miss translation, so it’s lovely to be able to do both.
This interview was completed for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now open for this series. See our Submissions & Contact page for full details.
Lucy Writers and Elodie Rose Barnes would like to express our sincere thanks to Natasha Lehrer for this interview.