Translator Spotlights: An Interview with Frank Wynne
“The most important thing about translation is voice.”
Our Translator Spotlights series sees us interview translators about their unique insights and perspectives on the field of translation today.
Former bookseller and comic editor Frank Wynne began translating in the 1990s. Today, he is an award-winning and Man Booker International-shortlisted translator and author specialising in French and Hispanic literature. His book, I Was Vermeer, recounts the life of master art forger Han Van Meegeren and was translated from English into four languages. He has also edited Found In Translation, an anthology of one hundred short stories in translation, and Queer, an anthology collecting 2,000 years of LGBTQ+ writing from around the world (published by Head of Zeus in January 2021).
What advice would you give aspiring translators?
Be patient: unfortunately, literary translation is still a profession in which who you know can be as important as what you are capable of. Get to know other emerging translators in the community through networks like the Emerging Translators Network and become an associate member of the Translators Association. Through them, you will also get to know the editors and publishers who buy foreign rights. Translation may be a vocation, but it exists as part of an industry – one that you should get to understand.
It’s important to know which editors buy international fiction and what kind of books they buy, how to read a contract (the TA will help with this) and what advance/royalties you should expect. There are many ways to get to know editors: you can offer to read and report for them (they usually commission reader’s reports before buying foreign rights in a title) or you can get to know publishers in your source language (such as French, Slovenian or Korean), many of which commission sample translations in the run-up to the London and Frankfurt book fairs to help sell foreign rights. You can offer to read samples (make sure you get paid!) and look to publishers you admire, those whose books you’d love to translate. The publishing landscape has changed drastically in the past twenty years, mostly thanks to a fleet of indies (And Other Stories, Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo, Istros, Peirene, etc.) who have championed literature in translation and can often be more receptive to approaches from emerging translators than the Heath Robinson machines of the Big 5 publishers.
Never give up, nurture your dreams, but temper them by knowing the industry. When it comes to pitching a book to an editor, passion is crucial, talent is essential, but so is a command of facts. Contact the original publisher: ask how many copies it sold and how many countries have acquired foreign rights. Steig Larsson was published in English not simply because of his success in Sweden, but because his books were also hugely successful in Germany and France. Like many creative professions – such as music, acting or professional football – literary translation is a journey. Enjoy the trip.
When translating, how important is it to be able to collaborate with the original author?
If at all possible, I try to. Authors differ on how much they collaborate. Many are enthusiastic collaborators, others feel that once they’ve written the book, their work is done. I always prepare a list of questions and comments to send to an author; it is their decision how to respond. In my experience, occasional authors with a limited command of English can focus too much on trying to “re-write” the English, whereas writers who are also translators (something much more common in other countries) understand that translation is an act of interpretation, of ventriloquism. Working with Javier Cercas on The Impostor was a joy: he was never hesitant to make suggestions, but constantly reassured me that the translation of it was my text, not his. With a handful of authors, collaboration has grown into friendships that I truly cherish.
Having translated very different writers, from Patrick Modiano to Virginie Despentes, does your approach to translating change per author writing in the same language?
The most important thing about translation is voice. You need to listen for it much like you would in a piece of music or a song. Keep the brutal consonance or the purring cadence of a phrase or a piece of dialogue; listen for register – is it overweening, educated, formal, slangy, laconic? Like an actor, you need to wonder, “Would my character say this?” Listen for rhythm; be attentive to cultural allusions. The point when you happen on that voice is like a light switch being turned on – everything is illuminated. Translation, like writing itself, is a process: the first draft is like a rehearsal in which you find a voice that matches the original, making subsequent drafts (usually) easier. Despentes’ Vernon Subutex trilogy, for example, is written in what we call “third-person limited” (though narrated in the third person, each chapter takes the point of view of the central character). This means that each chapter takes on a different voice.
Modiano is very different. His style is sparse and laconic, and almost all of his novels are written in a singular style (what French critics call Modiano’s ‘petite musique’); there is a stillness and a silence in his work, even in their moments of great drama or tragedy. Working with an author over many books (as I’ve done with Despentes, Lemaitre, Sansal, etc.), you come to recognise their voices and styles, like colours on an artist’s palette. Still, every book and every character is new, requiring me to think again, to shift my approach. The only constant is change.