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The Alchemy of Translation: In Conversation with Rosie Eyre 

Earlier this month, I caught up with Rosie Eyre. Having studied French and Spanish at Cambridge University, Rosie then went on to take a Masters in translation at the University of Manchester, before winning a place on the Emerging Translator Mentorships programme through the National Centre for Writing, during which she was mentored by acclaimed literary translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Now, Rosie works as a freelance translator, specialising in literary translations from French and Spanish into English. During our conversation, she spoke of her love of language and literature, remarking upon “the alchemy of giving text a new life in English, and the myriad possibilities for how to translate even the smallest unit of meaning”. We then went on to discuss what makes a good translation, the current state of the translation industry, and whether translators are finally garnering the attention that they deserve.  


Tom: I came across this quote from Lydia Davis, American novelist, essayist, and esteemed literary translator, who writes that: “the quality and nature of a translation [from French] depend on at least three things: the translator’s knowledge of the French language, history, and culture; his or her conception of the task of translator; and his or her ability to write well in English.” She goes on to write that, whilst all factors are important, we can, in fact, rank them. The most important skill [when translating] is the ability to write expressive English, for an inability to write well will ruin the entire book through every sentence; this is closely followed by how the translator approaches the task of translation, and whether they do so too narrowly or liberally; and, perhaps surprisingly, the ‘least important’ thing when translating is the actual knowledge of the language itself, since minor lapses in knowledge or the language, history, and culture are fairly easily corrected.  


Rosie: I would definitely agree with that in terms of the importance of writing well in English, and the extent to which the translator’s approach shapes the final translation – although I do still think it’s essential to have a deep knowledge of the original language and culture in order to truly grasp and convey the nuances behind the text.  


For me, I suppose the key is to do the text justice on the level of the whole reading experience, which means considering fidelity as more than just mirroring the original wording in the “narrow” sense you mention above. That certainly doesn’t mean playing fast and loose with the author’s words, but it does mean being attuned to where a literal translation doesn’t work in the same way in English as it does in the original, and making sure the effect isn’t sacrificed in pursuit of religiously replicating the original means used to achieve it.  


For example, the most recent translations I’ve been working on have been French thriller novels. In French, thrillers – and the key narrative processes, like building suspense – work in specific ways, but to recreate a comparable reading experience in translation, you also need to have the knowledge and understanding of how those processes work in English […] It's not that you don’t still need to be true to the original language. But, sometimes […] you need to think: is the effect coming through? I read enormously in English; I find that it's just as important to read in English constantly, to really have an awareness of how an English narrative works and what brings it alive.  


Tom: Since 2021, you have been helping to assess Stephen Spender Trust's annual poetry in translation prize. What kinds of criteria do you encourage the judges to look for? 


Rosie: I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to say about the specifics of the criteria [laughs], but I certainly think one of the most exciting things about the Stephen Spender Prize is the extent to which poetry translation is an extremely creative process. […] To an even greater degree than with prose, literal translation is not really a workable solution in most cases. The Stephen Spender Trust model—which is taught in the translation workshops that we have run in schools—involves a three-step model, which is “Decode – Translate – Create”. “Decode” means coming up with a very rough translation, which isn’t necessarily predicated on having any knowledge of the original language. In those cases, the participants will be provided with a glossary, from which they can form an initial literal translation, but one that might make very limited sense. The “Translate” stage is then about putting that [rough version] into functional English. For example, flipping around the order of the adjectives. Then you reach the third stage, “Create”, which is when you can really bring the poem alive in English by making more creative changes, like introducing a rhyme scheme. Although the judging process involves many dimensions, especially when comparing poems from so many different languages, genres and time periods, one of the fundamental considerations is that the translation needs to be a captivating piece of writing in English; it might not always be “conventional” in English, but it's got to feel authentic and stand as a poem in its own right.  


Tom: I've always found poetry in translation particularly interesting. I don't really know where I stand on poetry in translation, because you necessarily lose so much of the rhyme and rhythm, which is so essential to the original meaning. And I therefore worry that the original meaning is irreparably lost. 


Rosie: I suppose maybe you could view it as a loss, but I think there are also a lot of gains to be had. Working with something where the writing is so condensed and the meaning is so tightly expressed, you can really make something wonderful. You can create a real potted piece of art […] And from my experience of interacting with the poets—the original poets who've had their poems translated for the prize—there's always a great deal of generosity: I’ve yet to encounter a poet that says someone has “massacred” their poem. Actually, they tend to be really excited by what the original poem can generate. There’s a real sense of a dialogue, of running with the original inspiration. So, in that way, translation is a continuation.  


Tom: I like what you picked up on there. I really think the ludic nature of translation should be emphasized, which is something upon which Derrida focuses. Though deconstruction is rather unpopular amongst many translating theorists, Derrida offers a playful take on the endless possibilities of translation. For example, his work on ‘iterability’, which is itself a playful take on ‘reiteration’, shows that every iteration in language is already a re-iteration, relying on the constitutionally citational quality of language’s most fundamental unit, the letter. In other words, translation is not an etiolation of language, but rather offers ongoing opportunities for productive interpretations.  




In September 2021, you won third prize in the John Dryden Translation Competition for your translation of an excerpt from the French novel Requiem, by Alpheratz, which is widely regarded as the first French novel written in gender neutral language. What's the author doing in French? And how is that different from traditional French? And how did you go about translating this sort of form of gender inclusive French into English?  


Rosie: So, one of the central themes of the book is the patriarchal nature of French society, which is encapsulated through the prism of this particular French grammar rule, which is that “the masculine shall prevail over the feminine”. This can seem like quite a practical, unremarkable rule in French. For example, if you have a group of male and female characters (or real-life people), and you want to refer to them in the plural, you still use the masculine pronoun ils—that's considered the “neutral” form. But the novel takes this masculine dominance in French grammar, and then exposes its insidiousness on the level of the plot, showing how the rule that “the masculine shall prevail over the feminine” extends to life, and closes down the possibilities that the female protagonist has as she's growing up. But at the same time, on the level of the language in which the book is written, Alpheratz unpicks that by creating a new gender-neutral pronoun. Normally, in French, you have the masculine il and the feminine elle, but the book creates a third, gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronoun, which is al. That also conjugates in the plural as als, when referring to groups of mixed-gender characters, and wherever the masculine form il would be used in abstract gender-neutral expressions, such as il y a (‘there is’), the book instead uses al y a. […]  


While translating, I found that English lent itself very well to the translation of al, because English isn't grammatically gendered in the same way as French. Essentially, al aspires to a similar thing as the English ‘it’ and ‘they, which are both gender-neutrald. However, if I accepted that ‘it’ and ‘they’ would be the ideal translations of al and als, I was then left with the conundrum of how to translate the instances where the book deliberately uses il and the plural ils. For example, at one point, the protagonist learns that, back in the day, it was actually the male founders of the French language who created the  rule that “the masculine shall prevail […]”, so as to reinforce the patriarchal structures of society. In the book, that whole passage uses the masculine plural ils instead of the gender neutral als, in order to emphasize that it was men who made the rule. That presented me with a big problem, because English isn't marked in the same way. In the singular, it’s fine, because we can use ‘he’ and ‘she’. But when we use plural ‘they’, we don’t have any standard way of marking it as masculine or anything else. And so, what I ended up doing was capitalizing the ‘he’ in ‘they’ and ‘them’ [to create ‘tHey’ and ‘tHem’] so that the masculine dimension really leaps out. What’s normally unmarked in English becomes marked, and it can then be used as a similar vehicle of critique as it is in French: by creating the same jolt in the reading experience as it would for a French reader.  


Tom: This all demonstrates the manner in which language, and translation, evolves with the changing socio-political climate; it also demonstrates the creative capacities of what is a fundamentally human process. Of course, one of the biggest developments facing translation at the moment is the rise of AI. Obviously, we have been using digital translators on the internet for some time now, and there's some relatively good online translators out there, as well as some very bad ones. Do you think AI will ever be able to perform the role of the literary translator, or do you think that to translate is a fundamentally human act? 


Rosie: The rise of AI does frighten me, because as we’ve touched on earlier, there’s no such thing as a definitive, one-size-fits-all one translation. There is no perfect translation. It's all about interpretation, and the subjectiveness of interpretation. Going back to what you said earlier about Derrida and deconstruction, when you view language from a post-structuralist angle, every word comes with an infinite and subjective web of associations and possible meanings—even before translation enters the equation. And transposed to the context of translation, this fundamentally means you can never hope to find words in English that convey all the possible nuances of the original text.  


But what I find scary about AI is that it departs from the principle that there actually is a definitive answer. If you ask Google Translate what the translation is, it just gives it to you in black and white terms. Yet it can never hope—if it were capable of hoping—to capture the whole: all of the subtext and all of the nuances. Human translators can at least have the humility to recognize that, and can in turn open a dialogue with the original author, and even with all other translators and translations. I think the danger of AI is that it feels very comfortable, very convenient, certainly from the point of view of those commissioning the translations. But there’s a risk of reducing the task of translation to a simple input-output process, without acknowledging the complexities involved. And what also concerns me is that, in recent years, certainly in the area of literary translation, there’s been a real growth of popular interest in translation and translated books, and a lot more coverage and appreciation in the mainstream media; but I fear that the rise of AI could potentially involve a step back in that process, especially if more publishers are tempted to go down the AI route. I know that, for example, some academic publishers have already made it their policy to use machine translations as the original translations, and then use human translators to “post-edit” that translation. And this obviously a much cheaper process too, in terms of the rates offered for post-editing, even if the time required of the translator can be very similar to if you’d translated the text from the scratch.  


Tom: After everything we've been talking about— the trials and tribulations of translation, how it is an art in its own right, and one that requires an incredible amount of skill and dexterity—a lot of publishing houses to this present day lack formalized policies regarding printing the names of translators on their book sleeves. Traduttore traditore, goes the Italian phrase: to translate is to betray. As if to hide the fact that a book is in translation, most publishing houses still lack formalised policies regarding printing the names of translators on their book covers. And, whilst people such as Jennifer Croft—translator of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Olga Tokarczuk—have done much in recent years to rectify the historic omission of these undervalued ‘artists’ whose very talent often rests upon their imperceptibility, there is still much that can be done. This seems a particularly important issue today when regarding the popularity of works in translation. According to a survey conducted by the Booker Prize Foundation in 2022, sales of translated fiction increased 22% from the previous year. And, more relevantly to us, under 35s account for almost 50% of translated fiction sales. I wonder if you have seen a change in recent years regarding this omission, and whether you feel like translators are beginning to garner a bit more attention? 


Rosie: I think things have changed over recent years, and while it’s still a work in progress, there’s definitely a move towards having the translator’s name featured more prominently on the cover. I know that some of the publishers I've worked with have updated their contracts so that this has become standard now, whereas it wasn’t previously. Generally speaking, I’d say a lot of credit needs to go to independent publishers for leading the way on this. They often make a point of including the translator’s name on the cover because there has been a more personal editing process, and also because they pride themselves on translated fiction in a way that maybe some of the bigger publishing houses don’t.  


As for your other point, I think part of the traditional reticence to put the translator’s name on the cover is linked to the fact that it marks the book as a translated piece—and commercially, there has been a fear that that could deter readers. […] Returning to the question about people's suspicion of translations, I do still think that in some cases, when reading a book in translation,  if people come up against an element they’re less enamoured by, there can be a tendency to pin that on the fact that it’s a translation—as opposed to saying, well, actually, maybe the plotting wasn't as tight in the original book, or maybe the “clumsy” wording there is driven by the translator trying to mirror what the original author was doing. […] Maybe there can be a less charitable attitude towards translations, in some quarters. And that then goes hand in hand with the reticence on the part of those selling the books to publicize the fact that a book is in translation, so as not to create preconceptions in the reader's mind that it's going to be in some way deficient or strange.  



By Tom Taylor 


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