The committed translator

December 4, 2017



OBLIQUE: You graduated from Oxford University. What was your degree in and how did your interest in translation come about?


SOPHIE LEWIS: My Bachelor degree was in English Literature and Modern Languages (French). Effectively it was a literature degree divided between two national and linguistic groups. In fact my interest in translation did begin at Oxford. I trace it back to weekly wrangles with a conscientious French 'composition' tutor, who insisted that even though Virginia Woolf deliberately started her sentences with 'And' and committed other even more egregious ungrammaticalisms, we should write in 'correct' French. Our passionate disagreements started me thinking. 


O: Recently we heard in the news that the Faculty of English at Cambridge University will have to include works by black authors in its syllabus, even if this means substituting some works by more traditional white authors. This decision came about through a letter written by student Lola Olufemi who felt the need to challenge the content of lessons and somehow decolonise literature in traditional universities. You are familiar with Oxford and, like Cambridge, It is one of the most prestigious yet traditional universities in the world. Do you see the point in shaking and challenging solid grounds in order to obtain a certain balance or would this mean sacrificing some essential names in literature in order to accommodate others?


SL: The starting point is that there is never enough space in any curricula to include even the most canonical or exciting writers or works whom all would call essential, however you decide which those are. I do think it is worth shaking up curricula and including non-white or non-traditional authors. However, given the importance those authors have had in the history of literature - this I think is indisputable - if I were those students I would want to be very careful about which bits of the canon I might think worth sacrificing. It's not about providing students with reading lists. They can read as much as they like outside the university and in the rest of their lives. It's about understanding how literature has been trying to do what it's been trying to do, over the centuries. And universities are not there to gratify students but to give them education they couldn't get elsewhere. So, yes I do see the point but I think these questions demand careful debate, not immediate revision. 


O: You are one of the workshop leaders at Shadow Heroes which helps students to use translation skills to broaden their cultural, social, political knowledge through languages. In comparison to other developed countries, The UK seems to considerably delay the age of acquisition of a second or additional language. Aside from the economic factor that English is undeniably the universal language, why do you think this still is the case even when we see now a much more diverse country with many multicultural and multilingual families?


SL: I'm ever embarrassed by the anglophone world's backwards attitude to language acquisition. Learning languages is considered difficult - it is much more difficult when done later in life, of course. And when begun with this kind of attitude. And as you point out, the attitude seems even more backwards in relation to all the multilingual people who have come to live in anglophone countries. Why do we think like this? English as lingua franca is one reason, as you say. And then English as the dominant language of empire is another - it's a sign of self-sufficiency not to require other languages. I find it deeply uncivilised not to learn other languages. I try to restrain myself in conversations that touch on this subject.


O: I read an article in The Independent where you mentioned your publishing house was going to publish women's works for a whole year.

How was this experience?


SL: The Year of Publishing Women was planned for 2018, so it's still coming up. I can't report back on it yet!


O: What piece of advice you would give to Brazilian writers who wish to have their works translated to reach a wider audience?


SL:Ideally, have your publisher organise for a sample of your work to be translated by a professional translator. Don't translate your own work! If your publisher is well-connected, they will be able to use the high-quality sample to attract a foreign publisher or two who will then commission the whole translation. And this relates not only to English but to translation into any language. French, German and Spanish are also excellent routes towards reaching many more readers, not only in those languages but through the future translations that can arise from these initial translations.


O: What's relevant in Brazilian literature now, in your opinion?


SL: It's clear to me that Clarice Lispector and Raduan Nassar are experiencing fresh interest because the difficulty in their styles and the unusual and mixed nature of their backgrounds strikes a chord with adventurous readers outside Brazil. So Brazilian writers who can marshal a sense of the world yet find a voice that is very much their own stand better chances of finding passionate readers. Perhaps it isn't enough just to write for Brazilians. 


O: How do you ensure you read unknown talents, the ones that do not win awards or are not published by the big publishing houses?


SL: I ask my Brazilian friends what they are reading, I follow up tips, I wander in bookshops, I go to small literary events, not just big ones. It's not easy. 


O:  What are the five best books you have read this year?


SL:Eimear McBride's 'The Lesser Bohemians', 'Mirror, Shoulder, Signal' by Dorthe Nors, 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' by Rebecca Solnit (much prefer this to her more recent essays), rereading 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' by Choderlos de Laclos, and Victor Heringer's new book also impressed me, 'O Amor dos Homens Avulsos' - 'The Love of Singular Men', perhaps. I've also been enjoying the new Brazilian translations of Raymond Carver's poetry.


O: The book you always go back to as reference or for joy?


SL: Raymond Queneau's 'Exercises in Style', in Barbara Wright's translation - for both reference and joy!


O: what are your projects right now. What is to come?


SL: Shadow Heroes is a big project. I'm also gradually building a nice, informal working relationship with Peirene Press and with Les Fugitives. My translation of Natalia Borges Polesso's story will be the only Brazilian piece in the Bogotá 39 anthology, forthcoming from One World. There's a lot planned for next year!



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