“I love to read texts from all over the world. That in itself gives me a buzz.”
Our Translator Spotlights series sees us interview translators about their unique insights and perspectives on the field of translation today.
Sophie Lewis is a translator and an editor. Formerly Senior Editor at And Other Stories, from 2018-2020 she was Managing Editor at The Folio Society.
Working from French and Portuguese, she has translated Stendhal, Verne, Marcel Aymé, Violette Leduc, Emmanuelle Pagano, Colette Fellous, Leïla Slimani, Sheyla Smanioto and João Gilberto Noll, among others.
In 2018, her translation of Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait was shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff and Republic of Consciousness prizes. Her co-translation of Pagano’s Faces on the Tip of My Tongue was longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. In 2016, she co-founded Shadow Heroes, a workshop series on critical thinking through translation: www.shadowheroes.org.
Do you prefer translating new titles or old (and more famous) ones?
I don't have a preference, really. I like to translate works from a great range of eras. I used to feel most comfortable working with mid-20th century writers. I am now more experienced with more recent or contemporary texts, but I'm missing the older styles! Just as with my reading, I like to translate from a great range of periods.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am just at the point of putting the finishing touches on a big non-fiction French book called Sorcières (Witches) by a feminist writer and journalist called Mona Chollet. She's becoming quite a big deal in the French-speaking world, especially with this book, and I can see why.
It's about the hangover of concepts around the 'witch' figure into contemporary misogynist tropes. Some basic shibboleths relating to women's independence, their choices about having children, how they choose or try to live: all valuable and painful aspects of our lives that could really do with being blown up, as Chollet does in her book.
It's been an interesting one to translate, principally for all the secondary reading and watching: such an education.
Does translating a book that’s never been translated into English before give you more freedom?
Yes, it does. But you don't feel it as a greater freedom. When there are existing translations, they can feel restrictive either because you feel a tendency to emulate them or because you're trying so hard not to. But they are also like colleagues to converse with, whose ideas you can compare to your own – they are a support, mostly. The absence of them is indeed a freedom, but you're thrown back on your own resources. It's not something you can feel yourself missing, except when you get stuck on a tough passage.
Do you tend to stick to a certain language when reading for pleasure?
English is easiest and quickest, then French, then Portuguese. This is in direct correlation with my fluency in each. But it has no bearing on how much pleasure I may get from the reading. If I'm tired, I'll go for English or French. But the pleasure depends on the book or story – that's it!
Or do you mean my reading in translation? I don't think about the original language except if I have some knowledge of it, and then only in passing, hopefully. I love to read texts from all over the world. That in itself gives me a buzz.
Do you feel the role of the translator has become more prominent in the arena of translated fiction?
Yes, I do feel that translators have become more prominent. But this is just a feeling, easily promoted within a certain pertinent community, e.g. translators, especially as we have been trying concertedly to come out of the shadows for the last decade and more.
You also have to ask what is this 'arena' of translated fiction – does it really exist? We may feed into it, but people read novels, historical ones, Scandi noirs, short stories, thrillers, prize-winners, Scottish books, Indian books, books by their favourite authors, about their favourite subjects, etc. Some of these books are translated, but I don't believe many readers consider their reading to be within this arena of 'translated fiction'. So I'm far from sure.
It is nice that translators have recently been speaking on the radio now and then. It's also nice that the #namethetranslator campaign has been gaining momentum. That, specifically, seems to have made some ground.
What has been the hardest word you’ve had to translate?
I can't say – the urgencies and tangles of each project overlay those of the last. But recently, quite ridiculously, I have struggled hard with milieu. Maybe it's the perfection of the word in itself that created the problem. It says so many things so neatly in one bisyllable. English has so many words for the things it says, but none do it all in one.
I also quite regularly find ameaças / menaces quite trying. 'Threats' just doesn't fit into the sentences in the way I need it to.
Thank you Sophie for demystifying the craft of translation – join us next time for our final interview!