Translation Talk, Alyson Waters

photo by Lilli Zoo
photo by Lilli Zoo

Alyson Waters has translated works by Vassilis Alexakis, Louis Aragon, René Belletto, Emmanuel Bove, Albert Cossery, and Yasmina Khadra, among others. Her translation of the novel Préhistoire, by Eric Chevillard, published by Archipelago Books in June 2012, won the Florence Gould/French-American Foundation Translation Prize. She has also been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, a PEN Translation Fund Grant, and two residency grants from the Centre national du livre.

M—: The act of translation is famously hard to describe. What’s your favorite metaphor for translation?

Alyson Waters: My favorite metaphor is actually a quote from David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress:

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.

I like finding the meaning of a work by “playing it again,” in English this time, although “meaning” isn’t really what I’m looking for. The wonderful thing about translation for me is that I only need to explain the work to myself, to understand it for myself, and then simply (or, not so simply, actually) “play it again” and hope the new reader in English will get a lot out if it: pleasure, meaning, new world view, whatever it may be.

M—: The novel you translated for Autumn Hill Books, Foreign Words, was written in French by the Greek author Vassilis Alexakis and was inspired by Alexakis’ own experience studying Sango, a language mostly spoken in the Central African Republic. There is a lot going on with language here, even without considering this work in translation. Will you tell us what originally drew you to the project?

AW: Vassilis wrote the book in Greek and then translated it himself into French. For him, it is the same work in both languages (or so he told me!). What drew me to the project originally is that I have always been interested in writers who write in a language other than their mother tongue (My PhD dissertation was on Conrad, Nabokov, and Beckett). But once I read the opening lines of the book it became much more to me than that. Vassilis has a beautiful narrative voice, moving, sly, funny, and simple on the surface but very, very graceful and not easy to capture in English without making it sound too flat. Then of course there was the fact that a language, Sango, was actually the main character of the book, which is a brilliant conceit, and, in Vassilis’s hands, a charming, charming way of dealing with the narrator’s grief when his father dies.

M—: Foreign Words was (please correct me if I am wrong) your first published book-length translation. How has your style and how have your tastes as a translator changed since then?

AW: Foreign Words was in fact my fourth book-length translation. I had already translated Louis Aragon’s Treatise on Style, Tzvetan Todorov’s The Morals of History, and Réda Bensmäi’s Experimental Nations, or The Invention of the Maghreb. However, those books were commissioned. Foreign Words was the first book I really chose to translate (not that I didn’t enjoy translating the other books) and when I won an NEA to do it, it made me feel validated as a translator and allowed me to have the confidence to send out the work to find a publisher. I was so pleased when Autumn Hill wanted to publish it. Russell really understood the book, loved it, and is a fantastic editor. With a very light hand, he made the translation better.

M—: What were some of the challenges, if any, you had in translating this book?

AW: Every book presents a different set of challenges. Part of the challenge of this book was dealing with three languages—Greek, French, and Sango—in a fourth, English. But in all honesty, the major challenge was rendering a voice that I can “channel,” which for me is always the primary challenge of every translation I do, and probably the main reason that I translate. Anyone with knowledge of two languages can translate content; it is that ephemeral, indefinable thing we speak of as “narrative voice” that makes my work as a translator interesting to me. It is what has drawn me to all the books I have chosen to translate. I have no interest in a book that doesn’t speak to me in a voice that a) I love and b) I feel I can render. One can love a book but be incapable of capturing a voice. A translator needs to accept her limits as well, something that is not always easy to do.

M—: You teach translation workshops in the MA program in literary translation at Yale and in the MFA program in creative writing at Columbia. You also serve as managing editor of Yale French Studies. And on top of all that, you’ve published quite a few translations (ten books to date, with an eleventh coming out with New York Review Books next year and two more scheduled for publication after that). How do you balance your academic and professional responsibilities with your work as a literary translator?

AW: I love teaching literary translation; I adore the input from my students in workshop; it is truly a collaborative experience and I hope to teach on the graduate level as long as possible. I cannot live without translating; it is rarely a burden, and almost always a joy. I also love translators, and talking shop, and working with good editors like Russell, Jill Schoolman at Archipelago, Barbara Epler at New Directions, and Edwin Frank at NYRB. Smart editors who appreciate the books I bring them! And thanks to my work as a translator, I’ve also met some great writers who are good people as well!

Editing Yale French Studies allows me to keep up with what is happening in the field of French and Francophone studies today. It doesn’t really feed my work as a translator, but I’ve become a pretty good editor over the years, and that helps me both as a teacher and as a translator.

M—: Translating works of literature, like all writing, takes place in many stages, from early reading and research to first drafts and revisions. What part of translating do you enjoy the most?

AW: That’s a tough question to answer. One thing I love is discovering the book I want to translate, which is a sort of a hunt for buried treasure. I also love the revision stage. First drafts are sometimes a bit of a slog, but second and third drafts are thrilling, and the fourth draft is again a bit of a slog. I am a four-draft girl, what can I say?

M—: Ha! That would make a great T-shirt slogan: “I’m a four-draft girl.” And I completely agree that the first draft is a slog, as you say. But I’m curious: what is it about the second and third drafts that you find so thrilling? Also: at what point in this process do you feel you really begin to “channel” the voice of an author, as you described it earlier?

AW: As I said earlier, I don’t like to even start translating a book whose voice I don’t think I am capable of capturing. That having been said, there have been books I have attempted to translate, and have felt that I was failing. So that sense of failure probably comes after twenty or thirty pages of first draft. But I am a Beckettian at heart, so I fail again, and I fail better! Perhaps the second and third drafts are thrilling because they are the moments when I already have a good sense of “style,” word usage, word play, a writer’s idiosyncrasies, etc., and that is the time when I can think about the rhythm of sentences, the sliding of one paragraph into the next, whatever truly makes a work of literature unique; it is the moment when I have left the French behind and can concentrate on the English. The fourth draft, of course, is the one where I go back and check what I think is my wonderful English against the French, and realize I still need to “fail better.”

M—: As a teacher of literary translation, what do you see as the biggest challenge for new translators?

AW: First, getting their skills down, reading, reading, reading in English and French, and not thinking their work is immediately publishable! But the second major challenge, if and when the time is right, is finding the best publisher for a work, and this takes time for students to figure out, even with all the advice they get from me and their other teachers.

M—: And last but not least, please give us a reading recommendation. What’s the best work in translation you’ve read recently?

AW: Oh, dear. Well, I am first going to take this opportunity to plug a writer who has not been translated yet but one whose works I am now translating. His name is Pierre Autin-Grenier, and he writes these amazingly funny, moving, intelligent books, many of which are in a kind of “vignette” or prose poem form. You can see some excerpts of my translation here.

Pierre just died this past April, and getting his work into English is my major “side” project of the moment.

But, I do have to say that my favorite book in translation that I read recently is Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog, published in English by NYRB and translated by Edward Hyams. I loved the book so much (originally written in Hungarian) that I read both the French and the English translations! (The French translation is by Imre Laszlo). I recommend it to all!