Le Mot Juste : I understand that you have no French family background and that your academic training in French was confined to four years of high school, followed by a short period at Trinity College, Dublin. You have also told me that your school study of French included no verbal training and that your first opportunity to speak French came when you went to live in Paris, having never previously visited France. Yet you have reached the pinnacle of your profession as a literary translator and you also clearly have a mighty command of French literature. Given the limited number of years in which you formally studied French, and the rather unconventional Irish method of instruction, yours is a rare case of someone who, after a slow start, made a massive leap to the front of the pack of well-known literary translators. To take Julian Barnes as an example of another Brit whose depth of knowledge of all things French is very striking, his affinity to France was established at a very young age and consistently nurtured, whereas you had no similarly extensive early immersion.
Frank Wynne :I was born and raised in Ireland in a family with no French connection whatever, and in a resolutely monoglot culture, but the Irish education system insisted that in addition to learning the Irish language (which to my shame I can barely speak now), high school students should also learn at least one other language. I studied both French and German. There was no oral component to study or examinations - aside from a little reading aloud, we spent most of our time learning verbs by rote, parsing sentences, identifying particles, discussing clauses. We never held conversations in French, and were not required to take oral examinations. This meant that when I moved to Paris on a whim in 1984, I arrived in a country I had never visited, with a 19th century understanding of the language: I spoke much the way that Maupassant writes 'quant à moi', 'je vous saurai gré de bien vouloir me passer le sel"… and for the first month I had almost no idea of what anyone was saying. Naively, I had assumed that learning to speak the language was a lexical problem: I merely needed the words to express the same thoughts I would have expressed in English. I was shocked and fascinated to discover how language shapes thought and speech, to realise that the underpinning of language - the ideas, cultural references and connotations - are not transferrable or translatable. This was the beginning of my passion for languages: I began to read as widely as possible and to immerse myself in slang, verlan, accents, dialects, in a desperate attempt to understand Frenchness - its sounds and signifiers, its codified meanings, its hidden references. I became so obsessed with language that I undertook my first translation (something I did simply to be able to share it with English friends) of Romain Gary's La Vie devant soi - a book as much about voices and the liminal spaces in language as it is a heartbreaking story about Momo and Madame Rosa.
Le Mot Juste : Your first job in Paris was with an English bookstore. Tell us a little about that.
Frank Wynne : In Paris I got a job in Galignani, a bookshop on the rue de Rivoli which, though it was not listed in guidebooks, is mentioned by Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast”. It was a hallowed place which had numbered among its clients Scott Fitzgerald, Ned Rorem, James Joyce et al. The yellowed index cards for their accounts were still among our files. Even in the 1980s, it was visited by the great and the good. In my time there, I met Jeanne Moreau (an enchanting woman in fluorescent yellow leggings and purple faux-fur), Marguerite Yourcenar (staying in the nearby Ritz while on a visit to Paris), Anthony Perkins, Fanny Ardant and - one of our most devoted clients, and one of the best read men I have ever encountered, Karl Lagerfeld. It was a strange, almost timeless world of soaring wooden bookshelves, but one that I loved and a world away from the Paris I discovered outside working hours - the nightclubs and the concerts, Jacques Higelin and Gainsbarre, Indochine and Les Rita Mitsouko, Coluche and Renaud…
Le Mot Juste : You moved back to Britain, managed a French bookstore in Kensington, London and became involved in the field of French comics. One of your first career breaks came when you were invited to interpret for French publishers at the Angoulême International Comics Festival of 1989. How did that experience further your career?
Frank Wynne : Discovering bandes dessinées in France was also a revelation - it had never occurred to me that the comics form could be used as an adult medium. I had no prejudices about the idea, I had simply never seen it done before, and I was captivated by the work both of humourists (the wild linguistic joys of Édika, Goossens and Gotlib) and even more so by the work of artists like Jacques Tardi and Edmond Baudoin whose work seemed to me to be as moving, as complex and as resonant as the finest short stories I had ever read. When I took over the French bookstore, La Page, in Kensington, I built a bandes dessinées department - the shop did not then have one. It so happened that this was at the time when British and American artists and publishers were interested in what would come to be called the 'graphic novel', and so over time, I got to know many of the great British comic artists who came to buy books and to discover new artists. It was through them that I was invited to act as interpreter to the UK delegation as guest of honour at Angoulême in 1989, and consequently met a number of British publishers who, some years later, would give me the opportunity to translate French literature.
At the time, it would never have occurred to me that I would be 'allowed' to translate… I remember the author's note in Barbara Trapido's "Brother of the More Famous Jack", where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previous believed that novels were written by people who were 'dead or already famous'; I felt a little like that. I felt as though translators were nurtured and fostered in some alien world; that one could not simply become a translator. In the years after Angouême, I translated a number of bandes dessinées - by Enki Bilal, Lorenzo Mattotti and others - for various publishers and I became a reader for a number of publishers who commissioned reports on French novels in order to decide which books to publish in English. It would be several years before I finally recommended that an editor acquire the rights to a book (L'Hypothese du Désert by Dominique Sigaud), and I was supremely fortunate that the editor in question (Ravi Mirchandani, who would become a great friend) asked if I would like to do a sample with a view to translating the book. This I did, and though the book was hardly a huge success it was shortlisted for the Weidenfeld Translation Prize and was chosen as a New York Times 'notable book'. I spent evenings and weekends translating - I had a variety of day jobs to pay the bills
Le Mot Juste : You apparently inherited a literary bent from your father, who established a Yeats Society. You attended its summer school and recorded on cassette the lectures of several participants without realizing that they were literary luminaries. Was it that early introduction to the literary world – or simply the fact of growing up in Dublin, with shades of William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (to name some of the more prominent Irish writers) - that gave you a love of literature as well as the literary baggage which you brought to your new profession?
Frank Wynne : My father was a curious case - I never thought of him as literary. The only books in our house when we were growing up were a complete collection of P.G. Wodehouse and Churchill's "History of the Second World War". Given that he had no college education, it was strange that in 1959 my father, with T.R. Henn and others, had been instrumental in setting up The Yeats Society in Sligo, and the Summer School. My first contact with the school involved recording the lectures given by visiting professors. Being young and callow, I had little idea who these people were, but had the great fortune to end up recording lectures by Kathleen Raine, Richard Ellmann and Brendan Kennelly and listening to poetry readings by a young Seamus Heaney - long before he became the man we in Ireland now call 'famous Seamus'. Those I met were open and generous, very tolerant (in retrospect) of my ignorance, and warmly encouraging.
In a sense, literature is part of the cultural heritage of everyone in Ireland - or it was in my generation. Even those who had never cracked a page of Joyce, Beckett, Yeats or Shaw felt curiously possessive of them and their reputation. I honed my love of some of these writers (and my contempt for others) during these summer schools, and in a culture that placed great emphasis on storytelling, on language and on music.
Le Mot Juste : Once you began to gain experience as a literary translator, what pitfalls of the profession did you become mindful of. What were the “dos and don'ts” that you set yourself in order to avoid such pitfalls?
Frank Wynne : ‘Translators’, in George Steiner’s words ‘are men groping towards each other in a common mist.’ Becoming a translator is a lifelong apprenticeship. The dos and don'ts are often closely related - while it can be a crime to intervene to much, to 'improve' on a text, it can be just as damning to be too timid; to fail to trust your ear, your sense of a voice. The lesson I quickly learned is that any translation is merely one version of the text: I can only give mine. There can be no definitive, authoritative, final translation since there is no adequatio between languages and cultures. Over time, I have learned to be less timid, to ask more questions, to engage with those writers who are interested in the process of translation (not all writers are); but I have also learned when to trust editors and when to stand my ground - not because my opinion is necessarily "right", but because the decisions made in a translation are personal, as individual as a pianist's interpretation of the Goldberg variations or an actor's interpretation of a classic role. I have come to understand that any translation I have done would not only be necessarily different from one undertaken by another translator from the same source text, but it would be different had I done it three years ago or were I to do it three years from now. Translation is informed by everything we read, by the films we see, the music we listen to, the conversations he have - these provide the sounds and intonations, the voices, the cadences that may contribute to 'bringing across' a text.
Le Mot Juste : Would it be true to say that after Angoulême the next major push given to your career as a translator came when you began to translate the books of Michel Houellebecq? Did you share his literary fame in the UK and the USA? Did that make you an overnight star?
Frank Wynne : Houllebecq's "Les Particules élémentaires" came through my letterbox from a publisher seeking a reader's report. At the time, Michel was relatively unknown in France (the book had not yet been published there). My reader's report began: "This is an extraordinary novel, in every possible sense of that word. Part dialectic, part polemic part digest history of the twentieth century, it is funny, intelligent, infuriating, didactic, touching, visceral, explicit and, possibly, dangerous." Heinemann bought the rights and I translated the novel, and we confidently expected it would get some good reviews, a lot of scathing reviews and would probably sell about 5,000 copies which, in the UK, would be a good average for a novel in translation. In fact, it was a huge, rather controversial success. The UK reviews (with one exception) were rhapsodic (the US reviews, with few exceptions) were withering; it won the 2002 IMPAC prize (one shared between author and translator) and has gone on to sell more than half a million copies in the UK alone. It firmly catapulted Houellebecq to stardom both in France and on the world stage - and while it did not do the same for me (several of my colleagues at AOL at the time suggested I read it, not having noticed my name as translator on the title page of the book!), it certainly meant that other publishers became aware of me. Without its success, I would not have imagined giving up my day job to focus full-time on translation. That decision, however, proved to be a little premature: though a handful of publishers now knew my name, making my way as a translator was still a long hard slog. For several years afterwards I took whatever work I could get - I was neither famous nor better paid than I had been before, but I certainly had a calling card, a piece of work I could mention that publishers would recognise. Building a network of editors who shared my tastes and respected my work and arriving at a point where I could be confident that there would always be offers of work took almost a decade. For much of that time I lived in Central and South America, in part because I could not afford to live in London as a literary translator, though admittededly in part because I enjoyed travelling and living in other countries, and it allowed me to learn Spanish.
Le Mot Juste : To what extent do you regard yourself as a partner in the success or failure of each work you translate?
Frank Wynne : While I believe a great translation will never sell a book, I firmly believe that a poor or workmanlike translation can kill a book that might have succeeded. Therefore, I allow myself to take a little credit for those books that have been successful. When reviewers talk about the ambition, the scale or the range of a novelist, the originality of his or her ideas or their plots, then credit is due to the author, but to quote a friend and fellow translator, Daniel Hahn "a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—[is] a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is."
Le Mot Juste :You are the author of one book that has been published : "I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century's Greatest Forger". Although it was a book of non-fiction, your agent has tried to persuade you to launch a career writing fiction, and for that purpose to relinquish translating . Why have you resisted that suggestion?
Frank Wynne : I have always wanted to write fiction - I wrote two terrible novels in my teens (which thankfully are lost), but my one published book is a piece of narrative non-fiction. I much enjoyed working on it and it afforded me the luxury of learning a little Dutch and living in Amsterdam for a year or so. But I discovered that, though I love reading non-fiction I find the practice of writing it frustrating. So much of what I want to do with language involves creating characters and voices, painting scenes, unravelling plot threads, so I tend to champ at the bit of non-fiction. With much encouragement from my agent, David, I have begun working on a novel, but I cannot imagine myself being a full time writer. When David told me 'if the novel works out, you can give up translating', I had to explain that I would never give up translating. It fulfills a need in me that writing does not; it allows me to explore worlds, characters and narrative forms that are far beyond my imagination as a writer, it allows me to give a voice to a West-African satirist, an Algerian novelist, a Colombian modernist and many others. Moreover, I love the discipline, the craft, what Wittgenstein paradoxically called ‘the exact art’ of translation; it is part puzzle, part interpretation, part performance and yet all these roles must be performed in the service of the author.
Le Mot Juste : Which of the books that you translated from French was the most challenging, linguistically or otherwise?
Frank Wynne : Individual books present specific challenges. I had the privilege of translating the last two novels by Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists (from Côte d'Ivoire). The first of these, "Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote", required me to find an appropriate register and a cadence for the voice of a griot, a West-African oral storyteller, and required considerable research into a culture and a linguistic tradition of which I had no experience. For the latter, "Allah is not Obliged", narrated by a child-soldier during the wars in Sierra Leone, I wrote to Human Rights Watch who sent me tapes of (English speaking) child-soldiers who had fought in the same wars so that I could find a tone appropriate to my twelve-year-old Malinké narrator. But one of the most difficult books I have translated is a slim volume of essays - or rather aperçus - by Petr Král (a Czech author who writes in French) entitled Notions de Base (Working Knowledge). Král's essays, which can be a single sentence or a few pages in length, are almost prose poems; the book is a scant 35,000 words, something which might ordinarily require three months work; this took almost a year. Translating his evanescent, elliptical essays requires that every word, every comma be perfectly placed in order to preserve the fragile equilibrium of his haunting, often surreal images. It is as close as I have come to translating poetry and I found the work both exhilarating and frustrating and ultimately rewarding.