An Interview with Tina Kover
By Oisin Harris, Kate Williams and Toby Smollett
Tina Kover is an American-born, literary translator from French, specialising in both classic and modern fiction. Her work has won the Albertine Prize, the Lambda Literary Award and the French Voices Award, and has been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the (U.S.) National Book Award for Translated Literature, the PEN Translation Prize, the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize. She is also the co-founder, with Charlotte Coombe, of the YouTube channel Translators Aloud, which spotlights literary translators reading from their own work.
Could you tell us how you got to where you are now?
I have always been a voracious reader. Later, when I gained fluency in French and began doing commercial translations, it seemed only natural to move into literary translation, as it was the perfect marriage of my love of languages and my love of books. My first literary translation, George Sand’s The Black City, was self-published initially and then acquired by the mainstream publisher Carroll & Graf in 2004. For several years after that, there were long periods of time between projects for me, so I did commercial translation and worked all kinds of side jobs to pay the bills. It’s only in the last five years or so that I have begun to have a full calendar of literary translations on a regular basis.
How do you go about translating a book? Do you tend to stick to the same method or switch things up depending on what you’re working on?
My process does not change much at all from book to book, and it’s pretty straightforward: I open the book to page one and start translating. My preference is not to read a book before I translate it, if possible. I believe this makes for a fresher finished translation, if you know what I mean. If I’m too familiar with what’s coming next in the plot, I feel like I might inadvertently create foreshadowing where none exists. I like to “discover” the story along with the reader, and I think that spontaneity improves my translation in the end.
Likewise, I don’t go through a lot of drafts; I try to get each sentence down on the page in basically its final form the first time round. It’s all too easy to overthink when translating, and so I do my best to avoid that.
Are there any works you wish you had got the opportunity to translate first?
Ha ha, absolutely! I probably shouldn’t even go down that road! I think as a translator, when you read other translators’ work—even if it’s from a language you don’t speak—you inevitably find yourself thinking about the choices they’ve made, and what the original phrase or expression might have been, and how you might have done it differently. It can be almost painful to read someone else’s clunky translation! On the other hand, reading the work of a skilled translator is a source of real enjoyment, and I get a lot of pleasure out of reading a translated book when it’s clear the original was in good hands. There are a lot of translators of whom I’m a huge fan: Shaun Whiteside, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Quentin Bates, Victoria Cribb, Katy Derbyshire, Martin Aitken…I could go on and on.
One of the best things about launching Translators Aloud is that it has allowed me to discover the work of so many incredible translators—and then helping to bring that work to the attention of a wider readership is the icing on the cake.
Do you have a favourite out of all of your translations?
I could never choose! I’ve been lucky enough to get to translate a wide variety of literary genres, as well as some really fascinating nonfiction, so it would be like comparing apples and oranges. Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental was a real highlight; I feel like, in its stunning depth and humanity, its humour and poignancy, it changed me fundamentally, not only as a translator, but as a person.
The starkness and bravery of Adélaïde Bon’s The Little Girl on the Ice Floe also made a deep impression on me, and I feel privileged to have translated something so intimate. And Blue, my translation of novelist, poet, and diplomat Emmelie Prophète’s meditation on womanhood in her home country of Haiti, which will be out on New Year’s Day 2022, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read—profound and sorrowful and exquisitely beautiful. It’s a real honour to be Emmelie’s first translator into English.
Any final tips for anyone thinking of pursuing a career in translation?
First and foremost: READ. Read widely. Being a good translator is as much about your command of the target language as it is about your understanding of the source language—if not more. Every book you read builds your vocabulary and strengthens your understanding of how words should fit together to be both beautiful and impactful. The deeper the well of words and turns of phrase you have to draw upon, the better your translations will be. The other main thing I would say is this: hang in there. You may not have publishers beating down your door the moment you graduate from university, or win the Booker International Prize for your very first translation, but there is much to be said for building your reputation, honing your craft, making connections. Translation is incredibly important work, particularly in the world we’re living in now, and success in the field is worth striving for. If my career can be taken as any kind of example, then believe me, hard work pays off in the end.