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The Translator Relay: Alyson Waters

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For December's installment, Michael Emmerich passed the baton to Alyson Waters, a French translator whose authors include:  Vassilis Alexakis, Daniel Arasse, René Belletto, Emmanuel Bove, Eric Chevillard, Albert Cossery, and Yasmina Khadra.  Her translation of Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times won the Florence Gould-French American Foundation Translation Prize for 2012.  Alyson has received an NEA Translation Fellowship, a PEN Translation Fund Grant, and residencies from the Centre national du livre, the Villa Gillet (Lyon, France), and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.  She teaches literary translation at NYU and Columbia and has been the editor of Yale French Studies for twenty years.  

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I translate from French into English.  I first went to France when I was 18 to study, and since then have gone back almost every year, and, in recent years, twice a year.  I also lived and worked in Martinique for a year.  But several of the books I have translated have been written by writers who are not French but who have chosen French as their literary means of expression:  Albert Cossery from Egypt, Vassilis Alexakis from Greece, Reda Bensmaia and Yasmina Khadra from Algeria, Tzvetan Todorov from Bulgaria.  I have always loved to be connected to all these different places and languages through French.  Of course, my deep, true, and abiding love is the English language, and attempting to render a writer's voice in English is an extremely satisfying process.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

I've always found that one of the most difficult things to translate is humor, not only wordplay, which is often more than difficult, but also cultural references that don't "translate" easily, or at all, and that play such a huge part in the humor of all cultures, and especially in French humor.  I'm thinking, for example, of Boby Lapointe's "La faute d'orthographe" (which, by the way, I just reread for this interview, and if it were a live interview rather than one via e-mail, you would have seen me get up to get my asthma inhaler, I laughed so hard) which is full of wordplay, but also mocks the notion of how important spelling is for the French.   For your French readers, here it is.

I've never attempted to translate that!  Otherwise, I find those little words in French really hard, ones like "or" which can mean absolutely nothing besides a speaker's or writer's pause, but it can also mean "however," or "so" or "now" or "thus" and so much more, or less.

Do you have any translating rituals?

My best work is done first thing in the morning, so I try as often as I can not to let other work get in the way before I've put in a couple of hours at least.  But with everything else I have on my plate, that's not always easy.  Otherwise, no, no rituals really.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

The metaphor I always use I actually stole from David Markson: “Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.”

That's what translating is for me.  I don't need to explain the meaning of a work, I just need to sit back down and play it again, in English.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I have two projects that I'm excited about right now, one near completion and one just begun.  The first is by the wonderful writer Pierre Autin-Grenier, who is virtually unknown outside of a small circle in France.  I have just about finished translating the first volume of a trilogy of prose poems/vignettes/fragments of his.  It's called Je ne suis pas un heros (I am not a hero) and will be published in English by Red Dust next year.  Autin-Grenier's writing is so syntactically odd, and such a blend of the literary and the cliche, it is a real challenge to put into English, and I can't wait to get his work out to English speakers.  Excerpts can be seen here.

The second project is a book by Jean Giono, Un roi sans divertissement, for New York Review Books.  Giono is difficult for lots of reasons, and he's an author I'm just starting to get to know well.

Michael Emmerich's question: What is the best thing about being a translator?

Oh, the fame and money, for sure!!!!  People following me down the street to ask for autographs, the Rolls I just bought thanks to my last contract, my penthouse apartment overlooking the Hudson, that kind of thing.

No, really, the joy of working at home in my pajamas surrounded by dictionaries, the friends I have made in the publishing and translating and writing world, and the intimate way of getting to know the work of a writer I admire through the labor of love that is translation.


Published Feb 20, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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