An interview with Lisa Hayden, translator of Laurus

laurusThe greatest discovery of my reading life this year has been the extraordinary novel, Laurus, by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden. Set in the Middle Ages, around the life of a Russian healer and mystic, it is bold, brilliant, spiritually profound and utterly absorbing. I’ve been raving about it to anyone who would listen ever since I read it–and thank you to my friend and fellow author, Natalie Jane Prior, for first drawing it to my attention!

And now I’m absolutely delighted to be bringing you an interview with Lisa Hayden, whose pitch-perfect English translation has so skilfully brought Laurus to readers all over the anglophone world( the book has of course collected many fantastic reviews). Fresh from a trip to Moscow where she won the prestigious Read Russia prize for translation, in the contemporary literature category, Lisa generously answered my questions with great insights and interesting observations. Enjoy!

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories. Photo by Anatoli Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

Lisa(second from left) at ceremony for the Read Russia Prize, with winners of other categories, Joaquin Fernandez-Valdez, Claudia Scandura, and Selma Ancira. Photo by Anatoly Stepanenko, used with his kind permission.

 

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First of all, Lisa, congratulations on your wonderful translation of Laurus! It must have been an extraordinary undertaking. How did you prepare for it, before you even started the writing work? And how long did the whole process take?

Thank you! I’m glad you and so many other readers have been enjoying the translation. Laurus was tremendous fun to translate and it seems like that comes through for readers.

 I don’t generally do much before starting a translation other than reading the entire book before signing a contract. I don’t do a lot of advance research since I prefer to take each difficulty as it comes, though I often find that author interviews give helpful insights into an author’s intentions. All that said, when I was starting Laurus, I gathered lots of books about the Middle Ages. Though I can’t say I sat down and read any of them cover to cover, I enjoyed paging through lots of them, reading passages, and getting a feel for medieval prose, herbals, and life. An anthology of medieval literature that I read in college was helpful, too, for background information, ideas on vocabulary, and a look at translations of a text or two that Eugene borrowed for Laurus. As for timing, if I remember correctly, I had about eight months from start to finish to work on the translation, with editing taking more time later on.

Were you in touch with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, during the translation process?

Eugene and I first met in Moscow, in September 2014, and have kept in touch ever since—he and his wife have become friends and I love spending time with them. Eugene answered questions for me and even read through my entire manuscript, which was extraordinarily helpful. He’s just wonderful to work with because his English is very good and he understands the role of the translator. We think of each other as the co-authors of Laurus.

Laurus is an absolutely superb, moving novel with a richly evocative style, truffled with piquant language and a complex narrative chronology. Yet though it’s so artistically accomplished, and the best evocation of the mystical experience I’ve ever come across, it is also very readable and accessible. I imagine that it must have been very difficult to recreate that balance between art and accessibility. How did you do it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Of course I knew what awaited me because I’d read the book before I began translating. Really, though, for me translating any book is, most of all, a matter of sitting down each day, hearing the text in my head (this sometimes includes reading it out loud), and finding English words that can combine into phrases and sentences that feel like they capture the meaning, energy, style, and spirit of the Russian text. I’m pretty intuitive, so I follow my instincts. I usually go through about five or six full drafts before turning in a final draft. I read the entire book aloud to myself at least once, edit it on paper several times, and read it once on an electronic reader.

 Before Eugene saw my draft, I showed it to two Russian colleagues: Liza Prudovskaya checks a draft of all my translations and Olga Bukhina specifically looked at the old language in Laurus. They answered questions, corrected mistakes, and gave me further ideas. They’re both just wonderful to work with. So are my editors at Oneworld: publisher and editor Juliet Mabey is very no-nonsense, a quality I value highly in an editor and she has a fantastic feel for books that’s won Oneworld numerous awards. And copyeditor Will Atkins is just phenomenal. Beyond straightening out twisted syntax and correcting grammar and stylistic slips, he asks tough questions about usage and vocabulary that help me sharpen my texts. I enjoy working collaboratively, so all the feedback, queries, and ideas from Liza, Olga, Juliet, Will, and Eugene freed me up to take appropriate risks with the language in Laurus. In the end, I think what happened is that I had my intuitive feel for the text, translated the book, and then, thanks to all the drafts and comments, felt confident that my translation fit with the original in terms of meaning and style. Each book is different but that’s my general approach to all of them.

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

Lisa signing copies of Laurus with the author, Eugene Vodolazkin, at a book event in New York

You are currently working on the translation of another book by the same author, The Aviator, which will be published in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I love The Aviator! The novel begins when a man wakes up in a hospital suffering from amnesia. He gradually begins remembering his past and his identity, and those memories are especially interesting because of how they fit with Russian history. I don’t want to say much more because what’s happened to him is so, hmm, unusual. It’s a book with a Petersburg setting that fits beautifully with Laurus and Solovyov and Larionov, which will also be published by Oneworld: all three books look at time, history, and identity, forming a beautiful triptych. I’m working on a first draft of The Aviator now and enjoying how it translates.

Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament français, has his narrator say, ‘The translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation?

I can’t say that I have a philosophy of translation other than very basic things like “be flexible” and “get the work done,” something that applies to all levels of the process itself. Each book is different so I feel like I work under unique unwritten guidelines for each. Most of those guidelines are subconscious and sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve been doing until rather late in the process.

 The line you mentioned from Makine’s book comes from Vasily Zhukovsky, a nineteenth-century poet and translator. I’ve heard and read this before and I suppose it always irritates me a bit because I’m a prose translator and, despite knowing what he’s saying, I don’t feel like I’m any novelist’s slave on even a metaphorical level! Of course I’m very fortunate that my authors tend to see their translators as co-authors: they encourage me to approach their texts creatively and we often make changes together. Translating fiction is very creative work: even though I’m not restructuring a plot or rewiring character development, I’m a writer who’s supporting the author’s plot structure and character development by choosing words and putting them in an order that feels appropriate for capturing the language and literary devices in the Russian text by establishing a poetics for the translation. It’s very complex work and it’s a tremendously interesting and gratifying form of writing that requires a lot of thought about and feeling for the text.

What other literary works have you translated?

I haven’t been translating for a long time so this will be fairly quick to answer, particularly if I stick to recent and upcoming novels. I’ve translated another book for Oneworld, Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, a novel about a young woman from a small city who goes to St. Petersburg and eventually becomes a filmmaker. Since I’m from a very small town, I particularly identify with Masha’s provincial roots. I translated Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus, a rather edgy family saga, for World Editions and am finishing up her Italian Lessons now. I love Marina’s feel for history and pain, not to mention her humor. Then there are three other books for Oneworld that are in various stages: Eugene’s Solovyov and Larionov, about a historian and a general who live in different times; Eugene’s The Aviator, which feels so close to me right now; and Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, about a kulak Tatar woman who’s exiled in the 1930s. Guzel’s book is a historical novel that looks at Soviet-era difficulties but it’s also very lyrical in places, with imagery and descriptions of nature that are very moving. I like to translate books that have the power to make me cry. That’s why I like all these books: they’re very different but they all move me.

You are a Russian language specialist, and as well as translating literary works such as Laurus, you have taught the language. What drew you to Russian in the first place?

Literarily speaking, stories about Baba Yaga were the first thing to draw me in, when I was very small, then I read my first Chekhov story, “The Bet,” in the sixth grade. I went to college hoping to be a biochemist but nearly failed calculus: I signed up for first-year Russian after loving a Russian history course and went to Russia, which was then the Soviet Union, for the first time in 1983. After that came grad school in Russian literature, though I dropped out with just an MA because I couldn’t picture myself teaching and researching for the rest of my life. I love Russian and I love writing but don’t have it in me to construct plots and develop characters, so translation feels like ideal work for me.

 Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to answer these questions for you. I appreciate your interest in Laurus, Eugene’s writing, and my work. Happy reading to everyone!

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Speaking in Tongues: a guest post by Sophie Constable

Sophie Constable greyThe pleasure and challenge of not being restricted to just one language is a subject dear to my heart (and close to my experience!) so today I am delighted to publish on my blog a wonderful article by writer Sophie Constable about the situation for multilingualism in Australia.

Sophie Constable has worked as an Antarctic researcher and veterinarian, been an expat trophy wife in the Middle East and did her PhD on health education with remote Australian Indigenous communities.  Throughout, writing has remained her passion.

Speaking in tongues

by Sophie Constable

Exploring Australia’s language skills crisis

Rejoice!  Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years.  I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.

But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed.  And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language.  Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.

If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.

Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians.  Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.

Are Australians just not interested in languages?  Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society?  What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?

Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.

‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested.  I regret that now,’ she says.

Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.

‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.

She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11.  She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school:  ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed.  It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.

But English isn’t Australia’s only local language.  Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson didn’t consider German a foreign language.  He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage.  Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.

‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’

Darryl Thompson

Darryl Thompson

Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages.  He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers.  ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says.  ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking.  Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do.  People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’

Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting.  CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient.  However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson.  ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says.  ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’  CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us.  ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’

The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.  Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less.  For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.

I don’t come from a bilingual family.  Nor did I learn my second language overseas.  The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend.  Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards.  And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.

O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times.  I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly.  We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level.  But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?

Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising.  I’ve come to the right place, then!

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae Williams

Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, finds exposure motivates others.  She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket.  Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’   These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.

Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers.  In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English.  Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages.  ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states.  Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.

However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research.  While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India.  That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table.  The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.

For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context.   ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says.  ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’

New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think.  Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality.  Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant.  ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said.   Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’.   Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’

Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of

 

Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol  is the local language.  ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says.  ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different

Pitjantjatjara country

Pitjantjatjara country

connotations and meanings.  English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’  For example, she found  ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.

The misunderstandings over land are a prime example.  In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’  Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view.  The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.

Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?

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Hunting Papa in the Hills, by Alan Wilson, Pitjantjatjara elder

The translator’s art: an interview with Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee portraitTranslation is an art both precise and subtle, and the work of distinguished Australian translator Stephanie Smee has those qualities in abundance. Stephanie has translated several works of French literature into English, and I first met her some years ago, after the publication of her translations of classic French children’s titles by the Countess de Ségur. We got talking about other French classics, and I happened to talk to her about one of my favourite books growing up as a French-speaking child: Michel Strogoff, a great adventure novel by the legendary author Jules Verne.

Well, that conversation has led to today, and the publication by Eagle Books of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff. This is the first English translation of this wonderful book in over a hundred years, and as one of the publishing team at Eagle Books, I worked closely with Stephanie on the project, impressed as ever by her great attention to detail and her thoughtful and perceptive understanding of the literary work she was translating. And so today, to celebrate the release of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, I talk to Stephanie about translating the book–and the art of translation in general.

Stephanie, translating Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff was a massive and painstaking undertaking. How did you prepare for it initially?
Like many Anglophone readers, I was really only familiar with those books of Jules Verne that have always been popular with English readers… Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I confess it had been many years since I had read those tales.
So, when discussing with you possible ideas to pitch to English language publishers, your enthusiasm for this historical adventure tale took me a little unawares. However, after getting my hands on an original French edition, and spending some considerable time researching, I realised how enduringly popular Michel Strogoff has been with its French readers. And I became increasingly nonplussed as to how it had slipped from the catalogue of Verne’s other, perennially popular tales which had been translated into English.
How does one prepare for a translation task such as this? A number of readings of the text, of course, which serves to allow your mind to “relax” into the rhythm of the text, but then the close readings are required, and the true breadth of Verne’s rich vocabulary and sentence structure sinks in. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to “dive in”!
 What challenges came up for you as you worked on the book?
 
mikhail strogoff finished 1 front coverVerne’s vocabulary is encyclopaedic, and one can almost sense the glee with which he displays his research into the historical, geographical and cultural specificities of his setting. I was very fortunate to have been given some magnificent 19th century French/French and French/English dictionaries by my father-in-law, Jim Schoff, and there is no doubt these proved very useful in grappling with some of the more obscure terms that came up from time to time. I also found some of the 19th century maps of Russia, Siberia and “Independent Tartary” (again, supplied by my father-in-law) absolutely invaluable. One editorial challenge, with which you were very helpful, was determining the appropriate transliteration of place names. Of course, Verne had transliterated place names from the Russian cyrillic into 19th century French. We then had to settle upon the appropriate way of spelling all of these names for our 21st century Anglophone readership while remaining authentic to the historical setting of the novel. As readers will be aware, customs surrounding the spelling of Russian names can be a moveable feast and often differ from one current newspaper or novel to another, depending on the editorial decisions made. The historical maps I had at my disposal were certainly useful, but again, it was customary in the 19th century for many mapmakers to use French spelling of Russian place names, as it was assumed that educated readers and scholars would have French at their fingertips and unfortunately, we can’t make such assumptions for our readership anymore!  
 
I did often wonder how translators used to manage before the internet allowed us access to so many superb resources, including to such things as 19th century accounts of travellers making their way through the same or similar parts of the world as our hero, Mikhail Strogoff! Images of Tartar battle dress or Siberian towns which I was able to access through Google books often allowed me to create a mental picture of the word-image I was trying to paint with my translation of Verne’s detailed text.
Verne’s narrative is quite straightforward but his style is richly laced with idiomatic and other flourishes. How did you capture that very particular spirit?
 

The longevity of Verne’s popularity, in my opinion, derives from his masterful skills as a storyteller. His tales are built on a driving narrative force that reveals itself to the reader – and thus, to the translator – as we turn the pages. Verne is a great “scene-setter”. And so, he interlaces his chapters with scene-setting descriptions, often packed with information, followed by “lighter” chapters of spirited dialogue. There is nothing staid about his evocative descriptions. Rather, he successfully evokes a landscape which will then be the setting for the following dialogue between his characters, all of whom are very brightly drawn, from the main protagonists, Mikhail Strogoff and Nadia, to the testy muzhik responsible for leading them across the Urals, and to the jocular journalists who act as the entertaining Greek chorus to events as they unfold. All of this to say that the

Strogoff 6

Illustration by David Allan

translator’s task really has to be to imagine herself into the landscape, listen to the rhythm of the descriptions and the dialogue and try to render that same rhythm into English. Where there is a particular urgency to the events unfolding on the page, I’d like to think that a good translator will be able to reflect that same urgency – whether it’s as simple as adhering to similar sentence length, or perhaps through a choice of words that will help make the narrative pop and crackle with that same sense of urgency. Of course, 19th century literature often uses tenses  and moods that are rarely employed in modern literature and ideally, those grammatical nuances will be reflected in the English too, although there is a fine line to be drawn sometimes when translating tenses which would perhaps seem “clunky” or awkward to a modern reader’s ear. As for the dialogue, there is no doubt Verne’s own skill in drawing his characters rendered it a joy to translate their dialogue as it meant I had little difficulty imagining myself into their conversations and under their skins.

At this point, I should also underline my gratitude, not only to my editor and publisher–yourself!–but also to my father, Michael Smee, whose assistance in proof-reading – offering second and third pairs of eyes and ears to “hear” the rhythm of the text – were quite invaluable.
How different was it working on this translation as opposed to those you have worked on before, such as the Countess de Ségur’s classic children’s books?
 
The translation of Mikhail Strogoff was indeed quite an undertaking, and in this respect, it really felt quite different to sitting down to translate the Countess de Ségur’s books, which although quite lengthy for their genre, have a considerably younger target audience to that of Strogoff. (That said, I just received a very enthusiastic message from my 11 year old nephew telling me how much he loved this Mikhail Strogoff finished 2 back coverlatest translation, but that while he had been waiting for his copy to arrive in Boston, he had eagerly revisited all of my translations of the Countess’s books, so there is obviously a little bit of audience cross-over!) In attacking a work like Strogoff, there is a different level of stamina required both in respect of the novel‘slength and the complexity of its vocabulary. Julie Rose’s masterful translation of Les Misérables of course takes that degree of difficulty to a different place altogether! Verne and the Countess de Ségur did at least share some similarities of the epoch in which they were written, being works penned in the 19th century.
Russian-French writer Andrei Makine, in one of his novels, Le Testament Francais, has his narrator say ‘the translator of poetry is the poet’s rival; the translator of prose is the novelist’s slave.’ What is your opinion? Do you have a philosophy of translation? 
 
I can quite understand narrator’s standpoint in Makine’s novel. It suggests a degree of “freedom” that perhaps a translator of poetry might enjoy, compared to the prose translator. But I’m not sure I agree entirely.
While the quote from Makine acknowledges the “originality” of the poet/translator’s new work, I disagree with the suggestion that the translator of prose is in any way more the novelist’s slave, to use that same imagery.  The rules relating to the translation of the ‘form work’ and ‘scaffolding’ of prose might be different to that of a work of poetry but at the end of the day, translators of prose and poetry are both working creatively and originally, both limited by a desire to remain as faithful as possible, not only to the original text, but to its emotion and rhythm. In many ways, as illuminated by the comments below of John Edmunds, renowned translator of the verse-dramas of the likes of Racine and Corneille, translators of poetry might feel more “enslaved” by the need to adhere to the particular poetic structure and rhythm of the original work.
As a translator, I stand most in awe of those who translate poetry but are they the original poet’s “rival”? A good translator of poetry is truly not just any ordinary linguist – they must hear the poetic rhythm in the source language and be able to recreate that beauty, that mystery, that imagery in the target language. It requires decisions about meters, rhyming – whether it is best to try to retain those rhythms in the target translation or stray a little from the source language in order to recreate a rhythm that somehow best captures the original imagery and magic of the poetry.
I recently read John Edmunds’ notes on his extraordinary translations of the plays of Corneille, Racine and Molière (Penguin Classics, 2013). They are illuminating, and in fact suggest that the translator of these “verse-dramas” are, in a way, just as much these play-wright/poet’s slave as their rival. He says:
A translation intended for performance not only must be immediately intelligible to the listening ear, but ideally, I have always thought, should be capable of delivery by a putative bilingual cast in precisely the same way in either version. Like musical scores these verse-dramas have their crescendos, staccatos and rallentandos: in the new medium they need to be preserved. This can be achieved only by maintaining the sentence-structure so that the actor’s breathing-pattern is reproduced, because the pulsation of the performer’s vocal energy is the life of the play. And, clearly, the action has to flow at the same pace as the original. This necessitates a line-by-line rendering.
 
A play written in verse is truly recreated in another language only when it has the formality of disciplined verse-structure. Which form to employ?
 
And Edmunds then goes on to discuss his choice of Shakespearian blank verse “which has a driving impetus and the rhythm of colloquial speech” over the English alexandrine which, he suggests, is “too stately for drama; and the rhythmic beat of our heavily stressed language does not need rhyme to create form.” He also comments that rhyming couplets can sound jokey, at least to British theatre goers “reared on pantomime.” Ultimately, he says, the translator can only do his best with the tools available to him in his own language in reverence to the “supremely gifted authors” one has the privilege of translating.
My own “philosophy” of translating? Many scholars and practitioners have penned many thoughts on this topic and I’m not sure I should be so bold as to add my own. I do know, like John Edmunds, that I feel an enormous sense of privilege to be working as a literary translator, particularly translating the work of a literary figure such as Jules Verne. And even though I am not a translator of poetry, I also know that beautiful prose, too, has its own rhythm, its own fluidity, its own internal mysteries which any good translator must try to encompass in their work. So, if a translator can recreate that original sense of wonder and excitement generated by any good piece of literature, whether it be a work for children or the most fiendishly obscure piece of poetry, then perhaps the translator has succeeded in her task.
 
It’s been said that there aren’t enough novels from non-anglophone countries translated into English. Would you agree? And why do you think that is? 
 
Yes, indeed I do agree – as both an avid reader of translated literature and as a literary translator! Although I hasten to add that I have been very, very fortunate to have a number of my translations published beautifully by both Simon & Schuster (Aust) and of course, Eagle Books. That said, Linda Jaivin, in her essay Found in Translation published in the Quarterly Essay (issue #52, 2013), referred to statistics that are enough to make any literary translator cry.
 “[H]alf of all books available in translation around the world have been translated from English, and only 6 percent are translated into English. The rest are translations between non-English languages… In 1950, American publishers produced 11,022 books, of which 563 were translations. In 2010, the number of books published there climbed past 200,000, but only 341 were originally in other languages. … In 2012, according to Bloomberg, American publishers bought translation rights to only 453 foreign titles; figures in the UK are said to be similar.”
And, she goes on to say, there is no reason to believe the situation is any better in Australia – in fact, she says, it’s probably more dire.
Why is this the case? There are many reasons, but most of them come down to the fact that English has become the “default” language of the world. And at the same time as the rest of the world has adopted an educational approach that emphasises the need to learn English, largely for trade reasons, the number of people who still learn foreign languages in English speaking countries is plummeting. This can only lead to serious cultural insularity and, while learning a foreign language is not an easy task, as Jaivin acknowledges, “a sensible corrective is access to a rich body of global literature in translation.” Yet we are failing on that front, too. Monolingual publishers/editors make it difficult for foreign language publishers to sell their works into the English language market, as they are forced to rely on potted descriptions, quickly translated excerpts, and, only if they’re lucky, some healthy sales figures or reviews in the original language market. The same difficulties confront literary translators trying to pitch ideas to Anglophone publishers. Even when books have earned their stripes in sales and reviews in their native market, I have often been met with the response: “translations are very hard to find space for in the market”.
 
Why  they are any harder to find space for than untested English language books is quite mysterious to this literary translator. Sales in Anglophone markets of Pippi Longstocking and Asterix would, I’m sure, rival sales in their own market, due to their very skilled translators and to the fact that they are quite wonderful books! Yet I do know why. In a market where publishers are being forced to tighten their belts, there is little cash to spare to pay for English language publishing rights, as well as a skilled translator. And I can only assume also that sales and marketing teams must know there is an inherent reluctance or suspicion on the part of readers when it comes to foreign literature. Fortunately, at the same time as so many of the large publishing houses are publishing fewer and fewer works in translation, there are increasing numbers of independent publishers, like Eagle Books, who recognise the need to take a stand against the cultural hegemony of the Anglophone publishing industry and who are making it their business to publish works in translation.
Our wonderfully cosmopolitan and plural society deserves no less, particularly if we mean to engage in a meaningful, reciprocal and generous way with the billions of people on this planet for whom English is not their mother tongue. We need to be able to hear everybody’s stories!
What are you looking at translating next? 
 
I’ve in fact embarked on a terribly entertaining translation project with my Swedish mother. We are translating some very well-known (in the Swedish market) children’s stories by Gösta Knutsson about a little cat called Pelle whose tail was bitten off by a rat when he was a kitten. They were first published in Sweden in the late 1930’s-1940’s and Knutsson continued to write for many decades. They’ve been enormously popular in Sweden since they were first published.  The first three in the series are to be published next year by Piccolo Nero, the children’s imprint of Black Inc publishers.
I’m also working on some submissions involving the translation of some modern French novellas and short stories which I’m very excited about. They’re written in very different language to the 19th century text of Jules Verne, but I’m loving the challenge. They’re wry and erudite, fanciful and yet thoroughly modern… works that are very much for and of our time.