Interview for the French-American translation prize

This is a nice interview published by the French American Foundation. ( and picked up, I was delighted to see, by the Paris Review (scroll right down to the end).



French-American Foundation: Tell me about your career and what led you to translation.


Natasha Lehrer: I’ve been a literary critic and editor for years. I sort of fell into translation relatively recently – in fact Suite for Barbara Loden was the first book I translated. I studied for an MPhil in Comparative Literature at the Université de Paris VIII, and became increasingly interested in translation and its centrality in promoting trans-national conversation. Things are happening across the world today that we thought we had banished from history. Devastating wars in Syria and Yemen. The refugee crisis. Nationalisms are creeping across Europe. Russia. Trump. Brexit. Borders are closing. Minds are closing. Reading literature from other languages and cultures is a crucial way of keeping our minds open to the other, of remembering how much value there is in difference. Translation is obviously crucial to understanding more about other cultures, but just as importantly it forces us to confront our own assumptions and prejudices.

Cécile Menon: As a student at La Sorbonne Nouvelle, half a lifetime ago, I translated excerpts of A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye as part of my degree dissertation. This was my first stab at translating a text suffused with feminist issues and literary references. What led me to translation, primarily, was my love of language and of literature. And a taste for things difficult, and things playful. I moved to London after my degree, and slept on a friend’s floor in her tiny bedroom for a few weeks. Among dozens of jobs over the years I worked for a literary agent, then for John Calder, then as a web publisher and editor for Clive James. Some literary translation happened along the way: a radio play by Howard Barker, poems by Jamie McKendrick and by Christian Wiman, some academic essays…

Why did you decide to translate Suite for Barbara Loden?   

CM: The tone of the text and its mysterious, changing texture is what attracted me, as much as the subject matter. It had won an important literary prize in France, one awarded by readers across the country and somehow that didn’t seem to mesh with the kind of book it is, a bit highbrow. I was intrigued by this duality. At first I just wanted to translate an excerpt to pitch to UK publishers. But to cut a long story short I ended up setting up Les Fugitives to publish the book. I soon realized I couldn’t do it justice in English by myself and as was aware of the pitfalls of self‐publishing I hired Natasha. But I didn’t have enough money to pay her a whole fee so I asked if she would share the translation with me and thankfully she was amenable to that. But really, the more I worked on the book the more I related to Wanda. Apart from everything else I also was a country bumpkin. My father was the village blacksmith – coal and soot are materials I have a deep affinity with!

What were some challenges that you encountered while translating the book? 

NL: There is something very deceptive in the limpidity of Léger’s prose. It’s extraordinarily precise. She switches registers very rapidly, like jump cuts in a movie. The elegance and meticulousness of her language has a kind of rigor that is perhaps harder to translate than more obviously ornate language.
How do you approach the task of translating? What does your process look like?

NL: I work in multiple drafts. I do the first draft quite quickly, just to get something fairly literal down on the page. Then I work through it first with the French alongside, then without it, then I turn back to the French and go through it sentence by sentence, honing it. I might go through the text like this ten times or more – until it feels right. I do ceramics for pleasure, and I think there is something similar in the process: you work on a piece of pottery, slowly, carefully, going over and over it, until at a certain point you feel that it’s right, it’s ready, it’s alive. And I have the same feeling with translation – you work on it until there’s a point where you can feel that it’s ready to go out into the world. It lives.

CM: I go into a trance. Well, not really. I will read the whole book first; I don’t make any notes.

Then I just start… translating! I plod along trying to be alert to patterns emerging, correspondences, resonances, oddities. I get obsessed with the tone(s). I try to steer clear of dictionaries for as long as I possibly can. I try to trust my instinct. I go back and forth, back and forth, revise and refine again and again, nothing unusual in that. But I have found that working very hard on the first quarter of the book first, yields some very useful results for what follows; a sense of direction for the translation style appears. But in all honesty I’m not very experienced. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, actually. I kind of believe that with every new book you’re a beginner.

What does the Translation Prize mean to you and how do you think it benefits translation and the literary world? 

CM: A Translation Prize plays two equally important roles: obviously it brings public recognition, an endorsement by peers or readers, which is great for a translator’s career. It also throws a spotlight on a literary work of outstanding merit or of general interest or both, as much as on the quality of the translation itself. When it gives rise to discussions, the conversations that take place go beyond debating the quality of the translation and its relationship with the original; the nature of translation, the value of language and of communication come to the fore, as well as the matters expressed in the work by a foreign authors. It can challenge and widen people’s point of view, surely something to value.

Who are some of your favorite authors to read? And to translate? 

NL: I read so much and so many different kinds of books that I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite. I’m reading and loving Zadie Smith’s Swing Time at the moment. I recently translated Victor Segalen’s Journey to the Land of the Real. Segalen is unaccountably little read nowadays and I hope that this gem of a book might change that. It’s exquisite writing that’s bursting with ideas, and so fresh that it’s hard to believe it was written a century ago.

What is the most difficult book that you have translated? What made it difficult and why?

NL: It’s tempting to answer that the most difficult book that I’ve ever translated is always the one I’m working on at the moment, since the knotty problems have yet to be resolved. But having just finished translating some hitherto unpublished writing by Georges Bataille, I have to say that in terms of difficulty, Bataille takes the biscuit.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring translator, what would it be? 

CM: Find an author you feel a strong affinity with. Translate for fun. Be patient with yourself and with your work. Choose your counsel with care. Take long walks and time to not work; to forget about the work. A lot happens when you’re not working. It’s a lazy profession, really. Apart from the hours, days and weeks, months that translators spend chained to our desk.

What current projects are you working on? 

NL: I’m just finishing off a translation of Robert Desnos’s novella New Hebrides, or The Penalties of Hell, a work of high-surrealism that’s been a lot of fun to translate. I’m looking forward to starting work on L’Exposition, another brilliant book by Nathalie Léger, about the Countess of Castiglione, a mistress of Napoleon III and the most photographed woman of her era. It’s a dizzying exploration of the female gaze, of power play and transgression within the straitjacketed limitations of 19th century female identity.

CM: I’m developing Les Fugitives, currently working on the publicity campaign for the debut novel

Blue Self-­‐Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, translated by Sophie Lewis; and on completing Translation as Transhumance, by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz, and edited by Natasha Lehrer and myself. It’s also being published in the US by the Feminist Press later this year. I’m hoping to be able at some point this year to translate an excerpt of Vertigo by Joanna Walsh. And of course I’m preparing for new titles next year, L’exposition by Nathalie Léger, and a couple of others.




About Natasha Lehrer

Natasha Lehrer is literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly and was one of the judges for the 2017 JQ-Wingate Prize. She read English at Oxford University and has an MPhil in Comparative Literature from the Université de Paris VIII. She writes long form journalism and literary criticism for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Haaretz, and Fantastic Man, amongst others, and was awarded a Rockower prize for journalism in 2016. Her translations have appeared in The Paris Review and 3am magazine. Her most recent translation is Journey to the Land of the Real, by Victor Segalen, published by Atlas Press in 2016. With her co-translator Cécile Menon she won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger. She lives in Paris.


About Cécile Menon

Cécile Menon is a translator between French and English, and a driving force behind Les Fugitives. Further to a Maîtrise in English literature from the Institut du Monde Anglophone at La Sorbonne Nouvelle she spent several years in England working in theatre and book-publishing in London before undertaking postgraduate studies on the work of Robert Pinget at Birkbeck College, University of London and the University of Westminster. She has been a publisher and consultant for the web site of Clive James. Her published translations include a theatre play by Howard Barker, poems by Jamie McKendrick and Christian Wiman, a book on positive psychology and numerous articles on contemporary architecture.

One thought on “Interview for the French-American translation prize

  1. Pingback: Villa of Delirium ← Enchanted Prose

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