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.