Behind the Scenes – the Translator

This is the second in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the translator and Frank Wynne was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Frank is an award-winning translator, working from both French and Spanish, with three CWA International Dagger awards, twice winning the Premio Valle-Inclán, as well as winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. If you’re a reader of crime fiction you’ll probably be most familiar with his work through the books by Pierre Lemaitre.

You can find Frank on twitter under the name @Terribleman.

Was being a translator something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Absolutely not! It never occurred to me that I would be ‘allowed’ to translate a novel – it seemed (and still seems) such a huge responsibility to take on the task of recreating the tone and styles of an author. I remember the author’s  note Barbara Trapido wrote in her novel “Brother of the More Famous Jack”, where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previously 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 from some alien world; that one could not simply become a literary translator.

I came to translation by accident. I moved to Paris at the age of 22 (having never been to France) and was surprised that i quickly became fluent in the language. I began to read compulsively. It was while I was reading La Vie devant soi by Émile Ajar (a pseudonym of Romain Gary) that I felt the urge – the need – to translate. But it did not occur to me even then that it was something I might do professionally. It was almost fifteen years later (while I was working for an Internet company, and spending weekends writing “reader’s reports” for publishers) that an editor asked whether I wanted to translate a novel – I was terrified but hugely excited. A couple of years later I gave up the day job so that I could translate full time.

Can you outline the process of translating a novel?

I will usually read a novel twice before beginning a translation. Once for the sheer excitement of the book, to enjoy its pleasures as a reader – whether plot, characterisation or language. The second time, I may slow down and consider the voice(s) in the text, the rhythms of the prose – occasionally I will find myself toying with English phrases as I read the second time.

Different translators approach a first draft in very different ways. I can spend a lot of time wrestling with a sentence / a paragraph to get the sound I feel I need, and I also litter the draft with footnotes to myself – highlighting passages I’m unhappy with, questions I want to ask the author, jokes or puns I think I need to work on. Once I’ve finished the first draft, I will usually write tot he author and explain my approach to the text, ask any questions that are niggling me as a reader and / or translator. In the second draft, I am already beginning to think of the book as English-language text – I find myself reworking phrases and images that seem too ‘lumpen’ in the English. I sometimes read passages – particularly dialogue – aloud to test whether I find them convincing.

Once delivered to an editor, it will usually be several weeks or months (once, more than a year) before I get editorial notes and comments. Coming back to a translation after a long period gives you a fresh eye – suddenly, solutions that were intractable seem obvious. Work on the third draft involves responding to the editor’s comments and suggestions. An insightful editor can flag a translator’s lexical tics and mannerisms, but also highlight phrases that feel literal or literal to his / her year. By this time, I am no longer referring back to the original text, but simply working with the English.

The last piece of tinkering comes when the publisher sends page proofs / galleys. Seeing a text typeset like a ‘proper book’ is another jolt and – while at this stage I am only supposed to correct errors and typos I often find myself reworking sentences and snatches of dialogue. It is almost compulsive, and it is important to know when to stop. I often say “a translation is near finished, only abandoned” (shamelessly paraphrasing W.H.Auden’s paraphrase of Paul Valéry).

Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

By definition a translation is a war of collaboration even if the original author has been dead for centuries. But in practice, the process and one’s relationship with authors can vary enormously. Some are perfunctory and professional, some almost non-existent (I’ve had one author who – despite repeated emails – declined to respond to my queries), most involve discussions that are informative and revealing, a small few are truly personal. I have felt intimately close to authors I have never met, and I have also had good fortune to have one or two relationships with authors evolve into friendships. In the end, however, though translation is an act of collaboration (with author, editor, copy editor  and proof reader) it is the translator who must take responsibility for recreating a work. A musician can endlessly question a composer about the intent behind a piece of music, but when it comes to playing, it is the performer’s interpretation that is heard.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Very rarely – and it is something I can only do if the projects are very different, or are in different languages, otherwise I find that the voice of one book begins to bleed over into the other.

Translating is like an intimate conversation, with the translator listening intently and responding to the writer; it is difficult to do so with multiple authors without sacrificing that intensity.

How much influence can a translator have on the tone or feeling of a book?

In theory, a translator has absolute control over the tone or feeling of the translated work – unless the author is bilingual. In practice, we strive (and should always strive) to recreate a tone and feel which we hear orintit in the original. The process is, of course, profoundly subjective; the voice I hear may differ slightly form what another translator will hear – something that has become clear in the many “Translation Duels” in which I have participated over the years.

Every decision made by a translator – about tone and register, about the cadence or rhythm of a sentence – influences the tone of the work in English. To me, this is most apparent when translating dialogue, wordplay and idiomatic language which can have no direct equivalent in the target language. But if, at such point, a translator is called upon to invent, this is circumscribed by his or her understanding of the intent and impact of the original.

Most importantly, a translator needs an ear for music and for voice, it is this that has allowed me the privilege to ‘(re)write’ novels I could never imagine, to briefly ‘become’ authors from the wide world of Francophone and Hispanophone literature and, through language, to try to recreate narratives I love and admire.

You’ve translated a range of different genres and languages, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working in most genres and do not have a particular favourite, but I think it is true that I enjoy working on novels with a playful or complex relationship to language.

It is often assumed that very “literary” novels, with highly poetic voices are most difficult to translate, but I find that, while it takes time to conjure the right voice for such books, once that voice is found it provides a solution to other spaces of the text.

There are two authors whose books I found both deeply challenging and profoundly rewarding. The first is Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists, whose novels Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and Allah is not Obliged I had the honour of translating. Kourouma’s novels are linguistically dense and his narrators employ the cadences of the West-African griot tradition. The text is peppered with words and expressions in Malinké, and evokes traditions and cultures that are very different form any I have experienced, yet the time I spent trying to recreate Kourouma’s prolix, poetic vernacular was a wonderful and cathartic experience. The second is Andrés Caicedo, whose novel, ¡Que viva la music! took me two years to translate. Cicero’s novel (published in English as Liveforever) is suffused with music, particularly the salsa dura of late 1970s Colombia, and the lyrical, hypnotic voice of the protagonist, Maria Carmen del Huerta, becomes a song on itself. Translating it, involved teasing out the hundreds of allusions to lyrics, song titles and film and literature threaded through the narrative, and weaving them into a new melody.

Often books are translate some time after publication in the original language, does that pose any problems for you?

Not particularly. While I like to be able to address questions to an author, at the end of the day much of what I do is about immersing myself in a text.

Is there a translation or a translator that you particularly admire?

There are many translations and translators I admire. Translations that have thrilled and excited me would include William Weaver’s translation of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Lydia Davis’ version of Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (sadly, not all of the Penguin volumes of Proust are as near-perfect). In a very different register, Christopher Logue’s War Music – an “account” (he did not call it a translation) of several books of Homer’s Iliad is a luminous revelation. More recently, I admire the stunning work done by Anne McClean and Rosalind Harvey in translating Enrique Villa-Matas’ novel Dublinesque.

I admire all translators, they constantly remind me of the joys of what we do. But if I had to choose a living translator, it would be Margaret Jull Costa, whose seemingly effortless poise and mastery of source and target language leave me breathless.

And what book would you love to be asked to translate?

Too many – and most have already been translated. For a long time, my response would have been La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano, but the Nobel Prize and a very supportive editor meant that I got to translate that in 2014.

What are you reading at the moment?

La gazelle s’agenouille pour pleurer – a book of short stories by the Togolese writer Kanji Alem, whose novel La Legend de l’assassin blew me away.

I’d like to thank Frank for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions.


  1. What an interesting interview! I was lucky enough to chat with Frank after he appeared at CrimeFest with Pierre Lemaitre a few years ago and was fascinated to hear a little of how he tackled the translation of Pierre’s novel Alex.

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