Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Literary Translator Allison Charette
LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?
AC: I work from French into English. It seems rather run-of-the-mill on the surface, but the French language is (or was) nearly as pervasive as English, so I get to look at literature from France and Belgium, then go continent-hopping to Morocco and Madagascar. Fiction is my main focus, although I enjoy excellent creative non-fiction. I’d love to one day fancy myself a poet.
LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?
AC: School, actually. School taught me French from 7th grade onwards, and I slipped into a translation course as an undergrad at NYU because it sounded pretty interesting for an advanced language course. Emmanuelle Ertel was my professor, and I’ve had the bug ever since. A couple of years later, I realized that a person’s job title could actually be “translator.” I lasted less than six months as a commercial translator in a mega-agency, then quit for an unpaid internship at The New Press. They helped me make my first connections in the industry, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m also just finishing up my MA in Literary Translation Studies at the University of Rochester, which is a brilliant program. (End plug.)
LC: What do you love most and least about this work?
AC: Most: the work itself. The linguistic puzzles. The minutes of research that become hours of obsessing over a new topic. The words I don’t understand. The words I do understand in a new context. The feeling of agony when nothing’s working, and the overwhelming joy that comes once it finally does.
Least: Rights. Easily. The whole process of tracking down the right person in the right foreign publisher to figure out if English-translation rights are available, getting them to agree to let you publish pieces in journals for next-to-nothing, and then trying to get an American publisher interested in the book, convincing the foreign publisher to sell the rights…well, all of that, to quote one editor I know, is a “f***ing goat rodeo.” Sad but true. If I ever make enough money to pay someone else to do this for me, I’ll hand it off in a heartbeat.
AC: Last year, I translated a memoir from Marianne Spier-Donati, a German Jewish girl in WWII who was forced to flee to Belgium, then France, then Italy. She and her brother survived; their parents did not. I got to meet her in Paris, after I had already been writing her story in English (but using her voice) for a few months. I didn’t have many questions left by that point, so I just let her talk. And I learned more than I thought I could.
This woman lost everything in her life, multiple times. Her home, her parents, then her life’s work in middle age. And just last year, she lost her best human and non-human friends in the same week. She is saddened and burdened by all of this, yet she keeps living. She speaks no words about the unfairness of life, she does not complain about how hard it all is. There is just a moment of silence and reflection to accept such things, and then life continues. She is quite the formidable force. A force of normalcy. And yet her heart aches, because the world is not changing. It is not learning from her story, nor from the millions of others like it. It’s a difficult story to tell, but it must be told. Stories like these are the reason I translate.
Dear readers: Leave your questions or comments for Allison here!
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