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The Translator Relay: Tess Lewis

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 May's installment, Donald Nicholson-Smith passed the baton to Tess Lewis, who is a translator from French and German, in addition to being an essayist and critic. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Alois Hotschnig, Doron Rabinovici, Pascal Bruckner, E. M. Cioran, Jean-Luc Benoziglio, Anselm Kiefer, and Klaus Merz. Her writing has appeared in The Hudson Review, The New Criterion, Salmagundi, Partisan Review, The American Scholar, and Bookforum, and numerous newspapers.  She has been awarded translation grants from PEN USA and PEN UK, and an NEA Translation Fellowship and the 2015 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize for Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap.  Her honors include a Max Geilinger award for her translation of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet’s philosophical narrative Obscurity and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Ms. Lewis has served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is currently an Advisory Editor to The Hudson Review and a member of the PEN Translation Committee.  In 2014 and 2015, Ms. Lewis curated Festival Neue Literatur, New York City’s premiere annual festival of German language literature in English. 

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

Translating French comes more easily to me than translating German, though I’m equally fond of working with both.  French is more familiar because I learned it when I was quite young. My family moved to France when I was seven and I spent four years in French schools.

I started studying German in my teens, but really fell in love with the language when I spent a year in Innsbruck. I’m endlessly fascinated by the plasticity of the language, especially as reflected in its many registers and dialects and in the differences between the German spoken in Germany, in Austria, and in Switzerland.

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

The most obvious (and frequently suffered) example for me is the word Heimat. It is such a historically and culturally burdened word and it can have nostalgic, sentimental, even sinister overtones—or all of the above.  No single English equivalent like home, homeland, or native country is adequate.  I try to make do with a combination or variation of equivalents.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Before I start any translation project, I like to find as many books in English as possible that have a connection, however slight, to the book I’m translating and the "voice" I hear in it.  These can be books set in the same geographic location, social milieu, or time period.  Or they might simply share a theme or a stylistic element.  I find this helps keep my English flexible and prevents me from slipping into "translation-ese."  (But I love this stage of translation so much that it is sometimes as much procrastination as preparation.)

Another important part of the process for me is reading my first and second drafts out loud.  It’s amazing how this can expose weak passages or mistakes that are otherwise easily overlooked.

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?

I don’t have one favorite metaphor for translation. Each language pair and even each translation project has its own demands, difficulties, and idiosyncrasies, so I gravitate to different metaphors according to the book I’m translating at any given moment.  The one that suits me best right now is that translating is like copying a painting with a different color palette.  The structural elements of the text can often be reproduced relatively easily, but capturing the harmonies and clashes between the subtler shades, tones, and hues is the hard part. 

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

I am currently translating My Mother’s Tears, an unsettling and evocative short novel by the Swiss writer Michel Layaz. In thirty short chapters, each focused on a talismanic object or resonant episode from his childhood, the narrator tries to solve the mystery behind the flood of tears with which his strikingly beautiful, intelligent, and inscrutable mother greeted his birth.  Like insects preserved in amber, these objects—an artificial orchid, a statue, a pair of green pumps, a steak knife, a fishing rod and reel, or a photograph of his mother taken minutes after his birth, among others—are surrounded by haunting emotional nimbuses.  My Mother’s Tears is not only an account of an adult son’s attempt to understand the mother he both loved and feared, it is also a novel about language and memory, about the ambivalent power of words to hurt and to heal, to revive the past and to put childhood demons to rest.

Donald Nicholson-Smith’s question: What advice, especially of a financial sort, would you give an enthusiastic and talented young person wishing to make a career of literary translation?

What little financial advice I have is indirect and overlaps with the general professional advice I would give: Don’t stay at your desk slaving over translations—get out and about and get involved! Organizations like the American Literary Translators Association and the PEN Translation Committee are working hard to protect translators’ (i.e., your) professional and financial interests. They need all the help they can get and they are a great source of support, solidarity, and encouragement, as well as a source of suggestions for new projects and ways to find funding.

It’s also important to meet translators from other countries, especially those who translate from the same source language as you.  Not only can they commiserate with you over untranslatable phrases and linguistic conundrums, but can often introduce you to works you might never have heard of or considered reading. There are a number of translation houses that offer affordable or funded residencies.  Many writers’ residencies also welcome translators. A great resource for finding them is

Published May 29, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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