Introducing –

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
© 2020 defines wordsmith as:

  1. A fluent and prolific writer, especially one who writes professionally.
  2. An expert on words.

For the purposes of this blog, we prefer a wider definition, one that embraces all those who (like the undersigned, a professional translator) use words - both those in their mother tongues and those in the foreign languages they aspire to command - as their tools of  trade and the object of their passion.

JeanThis blog has its genesis in a French-language blog,, (LMJ) maintained by me and by my friend and French master-wordsmith, Jean Leclercq. For several years LMJ has run monthly interviews, initially with translators and subsequently with other linguists. We have dubbed each such interviewee “Linguist of the Month”.The initial goal of WordsmithsBlog is to reproduce interviews conducted in English, (as opposed to those conducted directly in French) and published on Le Mot Juste. Since 2012,  our interviewees have run the gamut of wordsmiths, including poet Hélène Cardona, translator John Woodsworth, linguist, broadcaster and educator David Crystal, historian Peter Hicks, lexicographer and terminologist René Meertens and interpreter Ewandro Magalhães  – all trailblazers in their fields. Hopefully the lives and careers of future interviewees will capture the interest of our readers, as those of our past guests have done for readers of Le Mot Juste. For a full list of wordsmiths whose interviews appear on this blog, see here.

Helene Cardona 2


David Crystal

Hélène Cardona

David Bellos

David Crystal 


Hicks 11.19

Meertens 1.2019

Ewandro Magalhães

Peter Hicks 

René Meertens 

Finally, a word about our interviewers: in addition to your humble bloggers, Jean and myself, many guest linguists coming from widely different fields of language and literature have taken on that role. They include Michèle Druon, professor of French studies, Cynthia Hazelton, lecturer in legal and commercial translation, Joelle Vuille, professor of criminal law, Silvia Kadiu, lecturer in translation studies, Isabelle Pouliot, Grant Hamilton, French-English translator and author - to name only a few.We invite you to subscribe to You can then enjoy regular postings designed to open a window for you on the varied lives of these fascinating people — wordsmiths who share your love of language.

Michele DRUON Grant Hamilton updated

Michèle Druon

Grant Hamilton

Cynthia Hazelton

Kadiu 11.19

Isabelle Pouliot


Silvia Kadiu

  Isabelle Pouliot

Joelle Vuille







Jonathan Goldberg,

Los Angeles, 28 November, 2019





Interview with American wordsmith (and publisher) Ann Trager

Our guest wordsmith, Ann Trager, is an American, a Francophile, a literary translator, and the founder of Le French BookThis New York-based publishing house is dedicated to selecting, translating and publishing contemporary mysteries and thrillers from France, so as to bring them to readers across the English-speaking world. Anne lived in Paris for many years and now lives in Pibrac, a small town 15 kilometers west of Toulouse.


Anne banner


 LMJ : What is your background?

I grew up between Ohio and the southwest of the US and for as long as I can remember I dreamed about traveling overseas. Maybe it's because my parents were linguists, or maybe it's because they spelled my first names à la française: Anne, with an e, and Valerie, with ie. When I was a teenager, I was reading Gourmet Magazine religiously and experimenting with Mastering the Art of French Cooking (by Julia Child). At the time, the best place to learn to make really good food was Paris. So, I studied French and went to Paris as soon as I could. I trained as a chef and continued to study French (and a little Chinese). It didn't take me long to begin translating and interpreting. Later, I worked in publishing in France, doing project management, and I did a long stint in corporate communications. As far as translation is concerned, I always considered myself a generalist, and I translated anything and everything I could get my hands on. Translating fiction is different from other kinds of translation. Every book is an adventure in and of itself. This kind of translation is rooted in something deeper and broader than foreign rights acquisitions and the mechanics of getting a work from one language into another—it's about building bridges between cultures. It is very important for me to build a relationship with an author. Translation is like getting into the author's head; I think it's polite to knock first. I also believe in relationships when it comes to editors and other translators. For a book to work, you need to give it everything you've got in translation, in editorial, and in marketing. That's what we are trying to do with Le French Book.


LMJ :What led to the creation of Le French Book?

Le French Book

What if you could discover France while reading French crime fiction in English? This simple question sums up the whole project behind Le French Book and probably also my vision of life as an American living in France for so many years. I always loved mysteries and thrillers and, I must admit, this is almost the only genre I read. When I discovered French crime fiction novels, I was amazed by the richness and creativity of a great number of French authors. So I read, I read, I read. Then, I realized that only very few of these books were available in English and the idea dawned on me: these books need a greater audience and I must help English-language readers to discover them. So, I put together a team, including co-conspirator Fabrice Neuman, aka The French Connection; Amy "Red-line" Richards, translation editor sometimes known as The Slasher; and Jeroen "Bleeding in the Gutter" ten Berge, cover artist. My co-translators include Julie Rose, Jeffrey Zuckerman, Sophie Weiner and Sally Pane.

  Anne Trager  
  Anne Trager  


      Julie Rose        Jeffrey Zuckerman    
    Sophie Weiner            Sally Pane    

LMJ : How do you choose the titles you translate?

I spend a lot of time reading, and getting everyone I know in France to tell me what their favorite books are. I attend book fairs and talk to the authors. But the choice comes down to feeling. Our motto is, 'If we love it, we translate it.' Le French Book is about sharing reading pleasure. For now, we only publish mysteries and thrillers published in France by French authors. We keep an eye out for titles that will have something American readers can relate to. For example, we are translating the series known in France as Le Sang de la Vigne, by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, which we call the Winemaker Detective series. This works well because of the very strong link in people's minds between France and fine wine. We also are publishing the Paris Homicide series by Frédérique Molay, who won the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres with the first title The 7th Woman. In this series, the city of Paris is a character. We also look for titles that strike us as particularly interesting for whatever reason. White Leopard by Laurent Guillaume is set in Mali. The Greenland Breach and The Rare Earth Exchange, a climate thriller and a financial thriller respectively, are by Bernard Besson, a former top-level spy who is spot on when it comes to espionage and what is at stake in geopolitics today. David Khara's Consortium series makes a strong connection to WWII and today's scientific research and transhumanism. The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier has rolling countryside, hidden secrets and a quest for the truth. The Collector by Anne-Laure Thiéblemont has the merciless microcosm of Paris art galleries. And the Antoine Marcas series by Eric Giacometti and Jacque Ravenne gives an action-packed look into Freemasons, aside from having sold 2 million copies worldwide.

To sum up, we look for great stories, with that additional je ne sais quoi that makes us all dream about Paris or France, along with pace and suspense and good writing.


Treachery in Bordeaux cover The Collector cover Freemasons, gold, conspiracies, and freedom
1 2 3

1. Mission à Haut-Brion, Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen;
    Librairie Arthème Fayard,
2. Le Collectionneur,  Anne-Laure Thiéblemont, Editions Liana Levi, Paris
3. Le Frère de sang, Eric Giacometti & Jacques Ravenne, Fleuve Noir, Paris

LMJ : Do you think crime fiction sanitizes crime?

I think that good fiction changes the way we perceive the world, it shifts our awareness, at least for the period of time we are reading the book. I would say that crime fiction is one way to process and deal with senseless violence that is all around us. It's a little off topic, but I'm reminded of something one of our authors said. David Khara said, "The idea for The Bleiberg Project came to me after listening to a woman who survived the death camps. Three things struck me. The first was her sharp sense of humor. She said that prisoners inside the camp made jokes whenever they could. Humanity cannot be destroyed as long as laughter is possible. It becomes an act of resistance. The second thing was her will to survive, no matter the obstacles, no matter the horrors. And finally, she was living proof that to remember and understand History is the best, and maybe the only way, to avoid repeating our mistakes."


LMJ : What does the future hold for Le French Book?

We want to keep publishing entertaining books, serving as a bridge between creative contemporary France and the English-speaking world. We also want Le French Book to become the synonym for great books in the mind of readers; no matter which book you choose among the ones we publish you're sure to have a good time reading it. Upcoming titles include more in the Winemaker Detective series. The most recent one, just out, is Red-handed in Romanée-Conti, a tale of hail and murder during the grape harvest in Burgundy. The next Paris Homicide mystery is on the schedule for January, and it will be published by Amazon Crossing: Looking to the Woods. Soon, we will also be launching a new culinary mystery series called Gourmet Crimes, by Noël Balen and Vanessa Barrot. The first title is Minced, Marinated, and Murdered.


A fun French mystery, with wine and food and travel. Image result for Looking to the Woods paris homicide Image result for Noël Balen and Vanessa Barrot. The first title is Minced, Marinated, and Murdered.
           1              2                                          3      


1. Flagrant-délit à la Romanée-Conti, Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen, Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris
2. Copier n'est pas jouer, Frédérique Molay, Amazon Crossing
[French and English versions available on January 17, 2017;
may be pre-ordered now.]

3. Petits meurtres à l'étouffée, Noël Balen & Vanessa Barrot, Points Policier


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with American wordsmith (and poet), the late John Ashbery



Helene Cardona 2

Hélène Cardona  
the interviewer is a poet, literary translator and actor

She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Naji Naaman Literary Prize, three Pinnacle Book Awards, the International Book Award in Poetry, three Best Book Awards, a Julie Suk Honor, and three Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.

She is the author of three bilingual poetry collections: Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016); Dreaming My Animal Selves (Salmon Poetry, 2013), and The Astonished Universe (Red Hen Press, 2006).

Hélène was awarded a Hemingway Grant for Beyond Elsewhere (White Pine Press, 2016), her translation of Plus loin qu’ailleurs by Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac. She also translated What We Carry by Dorianne Laux: Ce que nous portons (Éditions du Cygne, 2014), Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for the Iowa International Writing Program’s Whitman Web (2015), and El Bosque de Birnam by her father José Manuel Cardona: Birnam Wood (Salmon Poetry, 2018).

Her work has been translated into 16 languages.

Hélène holds an MA in American Literature from the Sorbonne, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University. 


Publications include World Literature Today, Washington Square Review, Poetry International, The London Magazine, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Asymptote, Dublin Review of Books, Waxwing, The Brooklyn Rail, The Warwick Review, Los Angeles Review, Colorado Review, and The Irish Literary Times among many.

Born in Paris and raised all over Europe, Hélène has lived in Switzerland, France, England, Wales, Monaco, Germany, Spain and the United States. She speaks English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek. 

Hélène was the Linguist of the Month for Le-mot-juste-en-anglais in July 2014.


John Ashbery  
the interviewee 
(born July 28, 1927), is the author of nearly thirty books of poetry. He has won nearly every major American poetry award, starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956. In addition to his own poems, Mr. Ashbery has translated the work of many French poets. His influence on contemporary poetry is such that the literary critic Harold Bloom has deemed the last six decades of American poetry as the "Age of Ashbery." 

John Ashbery's most recent book of poems is Breezeway (2015, Ecco/HarperCollins). A two-volume set of his collected translations from the French (prose and poetry) was published last year (FSG). Also active in other areas of the arts, including theater and film, he has served as executive editor of Art News, and as art critic for New York Magazine, Newsweek, and the International Herald Tribune, and exhibits his collages at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (New York). He has received many honors and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Poetry Prize, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, two Guggenheim Fellowships,  and recently the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2011) and a National Humanities Medal, presented by President Obama at the White House (2012).

Ashbery was Professor of English and co-director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College (CUNY),  Distinguished Professor at CUNY from 1980 to 1990, and Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College.  He delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1989-90, published as Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000).

Recently, he has inspired an annual writing conference known as the Ashbery Home School


Ashbery White House


The Editors of the blog are extremely grateful to Mr. Ashbery for graciously consenting to grant us the interview that follows, and to Ms. Hélène Cardona for her diligence and expertise in preparing and conducting it.


HC: May I preface the interview by saying how thrilled I am with the two stunning translations from the French, masterfully edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene RichieCollected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose. [1] That was a titanic endeavor.

I'm fascinated by your childhood and upbringing. Can you share with us how French came to play such a pivotal role in your life? In particular your early introduction to the tales of Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy. What is it about French you liked, what was the attraction?

JA: It's a beautiful language, which I was attracted to since I was a child. Everybody loves French.

Ashbery AulnoyI had a younger brother who died of leukemia at the age of nine and when he was ill some friend of my parents sent him a Ashbery Aulnoy_-_La_Chatte volume of Madame d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales which I read. I fell in love with them and perhaps associated them too with my little brother and years later translated La Chatte Blanche. It seems to me I was asked to translate that particular one, possibly by Marina Warner, who writes a great deal about folklore in England. I also read the Perrault Fairy Tales and others of course too, Grimm, Oz... I grew up on a farm. It was rather rough. I was always trying to escape into fairy tale worlds. I also had a children's Encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge, which among other things featured French lessons and other topics of knowledge for children. These were particularly charming because they featured many Edwardian drawings of French children, and the conversations were always about things like having tea or walking in the park, things I didn't get to do in my particular situation.

Ashbery Alphonse_DaudetIn the local high school I took Latin the first year and ended up doing that for four years, enjoying studying a foreign language. Then I took French the next year and studied it for three years. Later at Harvard as a freshman we got to read old French classics such as L'Arlésienne by Daudet, which I'm sure nobody reads any more.

HC: I grew up with Alphonse Daudet too, yes!

JA: Oh yes. Lettres de mon Moulin. Anyway, I stopped. I decided not to go farther than that since I wanted to study English literature. Then about eight or nine years later I got a Fulbright to France and had to pretend to have a deep knowledge of French, which I was able to do successfully. When I got to France I discovered I couldn't speak a word! Then of course I met my friend Pierre. It was a wonderful way of understanding language and all kinds of people. He was very French but he had a kind of irreverent American attitude towards things too.


HC: You're speaking of the French poet Pierre Martory, yes. Will you share how you met him? There's a funny anecdote. I read you were in a café and jokingly said, I want to have an affair with a French writer.

JA: Yes, it was a gay bar actually, Le Fiacre, rue du Cherche-Midi, and I ran into a critic named Henri Hell. Have you ever heard of him? He was quite well known at the time. Anyway I hadn't seen him for a while. He said, How are things, how are you getting along, are you enjoying Paris? I said, Yes I am, but I'm a little bored, I think I'd like to have an affair with a French writer. And then we noticed this man who was standing nearby, beaming at both of us. He was rather short, but trying to appear taller than he was. He seemed to know Henri, so I said, You know who that guy is? Henri said, He's a French writer. Anyway that night I ended up getting to know Pierre and indeed we lived together for many years. That would've been in 1956 and I moved back to America in 1965 because my father had died and I needed to be here, close to my mother to take care of her. During those years, Pierre and I lived together, and it was a wonderful experience.

Ashbery and Pierre (2)with Pierre Martory

HC: You even translated each other.

JA: Pierre had actually written a great deal. Just a few months before we met, he had published a novel, which received very good reviews: Phébus ou le beau mariage. So for about six or eight months he was sort of the young writer everybody was talking about. Later he had a falling out with his editor, Robert Kanters at Éditions Denoël. Pierre finally finished a second novel and sent it to Robert, who rejected it, one reason being it had a homosexual subplot. Robert was actually homosexual and turned it down for perhaps that reason. At that time it was not considered cool, in French intellectual circles, to be gay. Times have changed of course. Years later Kanters published his memoirs and mentioned Pierre. He said, you know, this Pierre Martory, a very talented writer, I wonder whatever happened to him. And so Pierre couldn't resist. He wrote back, whatever happened to me is you never took my second book.

He had very few friends. I was his only close friend. And he refused to play the game of being a writer and cultivating contacts and all that sort of thing. He preferred to be alone in his room. He was constantly writing poetry and very little of it was ever published. A few things in obscure little magazines. Eventually I realized that unless I translated it no one would ever see it. At least I was getting to be well known and I could get it published on the strength of my own reputation. So that's more or less what I did. Eventually the American poet and publisher Stanley Moss, who has a publishing house called Sheep Meadow Press, published a book of Pierre's poetry in French. Somehow the book was never put on sale in France, something went wrong. Sort of typical of Pierre, no good luck, unfortunately.

HC: You have accumulated an extraordinary body of work and you have translated a multitude of French poets – a very eclectic group, with some very famous ones, and some less so, making for great discoveries.

For me reading and translating are love affairs. I perceive your translations as love affairs, tributes to the poets. I'm interested in how you chose these particular poets and works. Some were literary encounters, some you met?

JA: With an American friend in Paris, Harry Mathews – we started a little magazine called Locus Solus, sort of in response to Raymond Roussel. We would ask for contributions from writers we knew or writers who were mentioned by writers we knew. That way we got to discover poets, including Denis Roche, who died recently, this summer. He was ten years younger than me. And Marcelin Pleynet who was a friend of an American painter friend of mine, James Bishop. And later, in 1989, I was at this French writers' retreat, the Chateau de la Napoule, near Cannes, and met several other poets, including Pascalle Monnier, Anne Portugal, and Pierre Alféri, the son of philosopher Jacques Derrida. With two English friends I put together a literary review called Art and Literature. It was English, American and French. I translated a lot of poetry for that review too. It came out for twelve issues, four times a year for three years. I don't know if you saw it but it's quite an excellent magazine, if I do say so.


HC: Yes. Do you have a favorite among all the poets you translated? One who stands out?

JA: Well, there's Henri Michaux, whom I once interviewed. It was kind of a funny experience since he was very shy and hated interviews. When I arrived at his apartment he seemed to have trouble remembering why he had agreed to this one. A position I find myself in from time to time. Anyway he was very helpful and I liked his poetry a lot.

HC: French cinema influenced you too, in particular Jean Cocteau. What about his films drew you most?

JA: Yes, even before I had gone to France, I had seen the film Orphée several times and Le sang d'un poète, of course. There's a scene in Orphée where Orphée goes to the underworld to rescue Eurydice and is interviewed by three sinister looking judges in dark suits. One of them says: What do you do? And he says: I'm a poet. And the judge says: What does that mean? Orphée says: It means to write and not be a writer.

HC: Yes, it's incredibly powerful and poetic and very striking. Your influences are very diverse and come from the visual arts and music too. You were an art student and later the International Herald Tribune art critic and the ARTnews Paris correspondent. How did all this inform or help your poetry? You said, We all grew up Surrealists. As a French native, I can relate, I grew up reading Breton… Can you expand?

JA: When I was nine years old, there was a big show at MOMA: Fantastic Art, DADA and Surrealism. And LIFE magazine, which everyone read in those days, had a ten-page spread of reproductions of some the works. I was fascinated, and I decided to be a Surrealist when I grew up. It's not really true, but anyway I was thrilled to see this kind of totally imaginative work people were doing. Then I took painting classes at the art museum in the city near where we lived, Rochester, New York. Later I spent two years at Deerfield Academy, which had a studio where I painted. By that time I had discovered modern poetry and was beginning to get more interested in that than anything else.

After my first two years in France as a Fulbright student, I came back to New York not knowing what to do, without any job or anything. I took graduate courses in French literature at NYU, thinking this way I could go back to France, which is what I really wanted to do, and do research on whatever I decided to write a thesis about, which turned out to be Raymond Roussel. I had very little money to live on in New York, and was sharing a sixth floor walk-up in a tenement with a friend of mine who was also a poet, James Schuyler, who was writing reviews for ARTnews. He said, why don't you write for ARTnews, and I said, I couldn't do that, I don't know anything about art.

ARTnews liked to claim it covered all gallery exhibitions in New York. The editor, Thomas Hess, liked very much having poets write for them, since he didn't have to pay them much and also because he liked their fresh approach. So I started doing that and then went back to France and started doing research on Raymond Roussel. Coincidentally I was offered a job as critic for the Herald Tribune. I ran into the woman who was doing it one day on the street and she said she was moving back to America and did I know anybody who would be interested in her job. And I said, well yes maybe I would. On the strength of my reviews I got that job, and then for five years wrote two articles a week, covering exhibitions, most of them in Paris, a few elsewhere. So I kind of, as a friend of mine said, backed into a career as an art critic. It got easier as I went along. I actually kind of enjoyed it.

Poetry requires one to pay attention, the one thing one never wants to do. When I went to see an exhibition, I would have to look carefully to remember what I had seen in order to write about it once I got home. Also the fact that I had to write for a deadline at the newspaper. I guess I said to myself one day, well if I can write for their deadlines, I can set deadlines for myself and write my own stuff.

HC: Can you tell us about the collage techniques that you developed to write in English while living in France?

JA: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I made visual collages. There was a show of Max Ernst's collages at MOMA, which may have been partly responsible. I stopped doing that, although Pierre always made visual collages himself. I felt somewhat malnourished since I need the American vernacular bubbling around me. It's an important part of my writing. So I would get American newspapers and magazines like Esquire, Life, and so on, and either cut out things and paste them together, or start writing from fragments of texts in those places. Nothing very organized or formal, to sort of keep in touch with the American language. I didn't think very much of those experiments. I thought of them more as a kind of therapy. Eventually I was asked by an editor at Wesleyan University Press to send a collection of my poems for consideration. This was after my first book Some Trees had been published by Yale University Press. I included it along with other things I thought better of and eventually they were published. Actually that book, The Tennis Court Oath, is just now being published in France in a beautifully translated edition by José Corti. The translator is a very good friend of mine, Olivier Brossard, who I met about twenty years ago when he was working at the UN French Embassy in New York. He then moved back to Paris, after working for a while as my secretary here. His English was much better than most of the Americans I employed before! We remained very close friends. This book is funny and has a fairly long essay about my poems and the experiments I was doing at that time. You might want to get hold of a copy of it. It's called Le serment du Jeu de Paume.

HC: Yes for sure, d'accord, I will.

JA: At the same time another book of mine is coming out in translation, A Wave, which is being published as Vague by Éditions Joca Seria, translated by Marc Chénetier. They're having a celebration of it in Paris. Unfortunately I won't be able to go since I don't travel any more.


HC: Your work with the collage is also a way of stirring the subconscious. You write from this place where you don't know what the poem is going to reveal to you. It is an opening into your subconscious and you're going to let it surprise you.

You and I share a fascination with dreams and a desire to use in poetry the words (and images) given in the dream – as a gift, I would say. That's something you do.

JA: Yes, always. That's something I decided to do one day. It just started and it never stopped.

HC: Would you elaborate on Wallace Sevens' assertion that French and English constitute a single language? You've described the difference between French and English as that of a violin and piano: "a difficult match but worthy of the challenge."

French leaves less room for ambiguity. It's a very precise language. So is English but English is more fluid. Do you agree?

JA: Yes, I would find it difficult to write poetry in French, just because of its precision and lucidity, and I need sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in. On the other hand French poets don't seem to be very bothered by this.

HC: And you did write in French at one time and then translated yourself into English.

JA: Yes, I wanted to see if my poems would sound very different if I wrote them in French and translated them into English. I wrote those poems, they're called French Poems. It didn't seem very different. I satisfied myself in that regard.

HC: Can you tell us about the movement known as "The New York School of Poets?"

JA: Yes, that was started by poet friends. We never decided to call ourselves a school or thought of ourselves as one. The art dealer who published our first pamphlets with his gallery had this idea and coined the expression "New York School," but unlike other schools we didn't have any sort of program or...

HC: motto, yes…

JA: …yes. Unlike "Black Mountain School" or "Language School," or any of those. We weren't trying to prove anything. It was just an appellation that got affixed, and has unfortunately taken over.

HC: One of my favorite sections from the Poetry Volume is the selection from Mallarmé's Recueil de "Nursery Rhymes," first published in Conjunctions in 2005, that you prefaced. It's absolutely hilarious, such a hoot, consisting of the originals of the nursery rhymes that Mallarmé included in his English textbook (they're a series of lessons), followed by your translations of Mallarmé's translations of this nonsense verse. I didn't know about these. Tell us about them.

HC Mallarme Nursery Rhymes

JA: Mallarmé's students' exercises were published in a book about thirty years ago, which I somehow got hold of. I love the idea of the Nursery Rhymes – which of course I read as a child – being translated into French. I'm trying to remember who published the book first.

HC: You mention in the preface that they were first published by the scholar Carl Paul Barbier in 1964. What is pretty extraordinary is that underneath each lesson Mallarmé explained the rhyme. He calls it thème (theme). It's so clever, creative, inventive, delightful.

Which do you consider your most successful translations or your favorite ones, if you have any?

JA: I like very much Madame d'Aulnoy's Tales and also de Chirico's Hebdomeros, which is a marvelous book. I was amazed he could write it. First of all he was Italian and not a writer. I mean that's not what he is remembered for. But he sort of invented this French style of never-ending sentences. I guess Proust invented that first. It sort of spins itself like a dream.

HC: You mention Proust. Is he your favorite novelist of all time? Why?

JA: Yes. You ask me why and I want to say, why not. I read him when I was very young actually. I was about twenty when I started and twenty-one when I finished. I read it in English because I couldn't read French well enough then. And I've always meant to go back and read it all in French, but that's something that seems to be already solved. Another French poet that I love and actually translated a little of, and would like to do more of, is Max Jacob, especially Le Cornet à dés. And I might in fact, if I can ever find time, translate all of that. I've done a few of them.

HC: Yes. And there is a bit of a homage to Proust in these lines from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror:

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (2)"The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time."

So beautiful.

JA: Oh yes, you think that's an homage to Proust?

HC: Well, I saw it that way.

JA: I hadn't thought of that myself.

HC: That's the other thing, right… You're open to interpretation!  What have you read recently that moved you?

JA: I read a lot of books and manuscripts by young poets, and friends. Adam Fitzgerald, who has a second collection, and who is marvelous. Another poet named Todd Colby. He's terrific. Another very exciting discovery is the poems of an American woman named Joan Murray, who died at the age of 25 in 1942. She studied poetry with W.H. Auden at The New School in New York, and apparently was in love with him! He chose a book of hers for the Yale Younger Poet Series, his first as judge of that, and it's one of the best books of the series. Meanwhile she left vast quantities of unpublished work, which a young Iranian-American poet friend of mine, Farnoosh Fathi, is collecting. They were lost for a long time. They were supposed to go to the Smith College library, but somehow they fell off the truck getting there! Now they're there and a new book, much longer – a much more correct text – will be published. I'm looking forward to that a great deal. I've read a bunch of them since Farnoosh sent me the texts.

HC: I like Adam Fitzgerald's work as well. We're Facebook friends and I keep up with his work.

JA: I just saw him a couple of days ago. His new book is called George Washington.

HC: I'm looking forward to it.

When you accepted the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2011, you spoke of the joys of writing poetry. You said, it gives me a pleasure I can almost taste. What do you enjoy most about writing?

JA: It has an almost physical quality. I really like writing on a typewriter so I can sort of dig into the keys. That physical effort is rewarded – or at least I think it is – by the words that come up on the paper just above. It's both a physical and a mental exercise that's rewarding for me.

HC: Do you have a writing schedule?

JA: No, alas. I try to work in late afternoon. I just wrote a poem yesterday. I'm taking a couple of days off.

HC: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

JA: I don't think there is one.

HC: What are you working on now? What's next for you?

JA: I'm working on another collection of poems. I have about 40 or 45 and I guess I'll try to write another 10 or 15 and maybe I'll have a book.

HC: Do you have more translations as well?

JA: I would like to work on Jacob, but I want to get the book finished before I do that.

HC: What do you do when you're not writing?

JA: Sit around, read, watch TV. I don't go out anymore because I have mobility issues, as they say. That's fine. I have this apartment in New York, where I have a view out over the Hudson, to New Jersey. It's always a lovely vista and I like to just sit here. And when I write, I write in another room which has the same view. And I have a house in upstate New York, where I write on a computer. I haven't done that very much, for poetry anyway. But lately I have found a way of doing it and it seems to satisfy me.

HC: Thank you very much, you've been so gracious. Merci du fond du cœur.

[1] Collected French Translations: Poetry

by John Ashbery

Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Editors

Hardcover: 464 pages

  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual edition (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: Bilingual (French & English)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374258023
ASHBERY Collected French Poetry Ashbery. Collected French Translations Back Cover (2)

Collected French Translations: Prose

by John Ashbery

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Eugene Richie and Rosanne Wasserman, Editors
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0374258030

ASHBERY Collected French Prose Collected French Translations Prose Back Cover (4)

Translating from the French, Ashbery included selections from Yves Bonnefoy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Pierre Reverdy, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Martory, and other poets in his Collected French Translations: Poetry (2014) and selections from Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, Raymond Roussel, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Michaux, Georges Bataille, and others in its companion volume, Collected French Translations: Prose (2014).


For literature lovers, Anglophiles and Francophiles alike, the exquisite Collected French Translations: Poetry and its companion volume Collected French Translations: Prose are a must read. Micah Towery, in his essay at TheThe, asked: "Why do we want to read Ashbery's translations of Rimbaud?" His answer, to read "Ashbery reading Rimbaud" is a summons to all.

These two volumes are also a tribute to editors Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, who started this project in 2004, finding texts in John's house, and then out of the archive from the Ashbery Resource Center (directed at that time by Micaele Morrissette), established by David Kermani and John Ashbery to house all the materials Ashbery collected over the years.


Eugene Richie

HC Rodsanne Wasserman

Rosanne Wasserman


Wasserman and Richie later borrowed more texts from libraries. All the French texts were checked to make sure the poems had no errors. They made copies from all the journals and books and organized them into files.

They went to Paris in 2006. A key moment was when Rosanne was able to go to the Bibliothèque Nationale: "I decided I would go do the research to see if I could find original French texts, because it wasn't going to be enough to have just the French that John had used. We were going to need the French as it was first published, just in case subsequent translations contained errors, because sometimes they'd leave out diacritical marks or there would be obvious typos. So it was a big job. I was very lucky to have run into wonderful librarians at the Bibliothèque Nationale, because I didn't think ahead to know that I was going to need letters of introduction. Luckily I found a librarian who had a New York Review of Books with a poem by John in it on her desk, and she'd just been reading it when I approached her. She was so helpful. She got me a pass and showed me what to look for, and I sat in the stacks with some microfiches, making copies of rare pamphlets and not so rare books. That was tremendously helpful." Wasserman and Richie also did scholarly due diligence and research at the New York Public Library.

"As noted in the anthology," Eugene adds, "there was a book of poems John carried with him throughout his early years. It was called Anthologie de la poésie française depuis le Surréalisme. This was the book from which he started his translations for his work on the Fulbright. John and I had gone to his mother's house when she died. There was a box of old books covered with dust in the basement and this particular anthology was in there, so we found a lot of material, including many of those rather arcane poets, and put it together. It's copyrighted in 1952. He got it in Paris in 1955. It has so many of the early poets that John had started to work on, and I found the exact versions. He had Francis Ponge and Armand Lubin, and Robert Ganzo, whom most people had never heard of. John was experimenting and trying to get enough together to satisfy his Fulbright requirements. A lot of prose came from Tel Quel, Locus Solus, Art and Literature, and also from The International Herald Tribune.

Ashbery Rimbaud"John was translating Rimbaud as we were putting the poetry collection together," says Rosanne, "so Rimbaud was the last thing we added." Most of the editing was done as they were driving around Hudson, New York. "We would write in the car. I would sit in the backseat with these four sets of galleys, and John would go over his, sitting in the front, and Eugene would drive. John would still be changing the translation. He'd say, I think I like this better, why don't we do it that way. And I would be marking those up."

Jonathan Galassi at FSG came up with the idea for a bilingual edition for the poetry volume, and was instrumental in his unwavering support for the Collected French Translations, taking care of the foreign rights.

Hélène Cardona


Two recent translations of John Ashbery's books into French:

John Ashbery's Le serment du Jeu de Paume (The Tennis Court Oath), translated by Olivier Brossard, was published by Éditions Corti in November 2015:

(A Wave), translated by Marc Chénetier, was published by Éditions Joca Seria in November 2015.

2 French translations (2)  

                           The translators:

Marc Chénetier 

Olivier Brossard (2)

Olivier Brossard



Interview with Israeli-American wordsmith (and translator/interpreter) Jonathan Goldberg


Man with 2 hats second optionFor several years distinguished linguists were interviewed for our French sister blog, Le Mot juste en anglais,  every month.  Readers therefore understandingly asked : How have I, Jonathan, managed to insinuate myself into this exclusive club, which is usually reserved only for the illustrious? The answer was that at a point in time we were short of a high-level interviewer and interviewee. Desperate times call for desperate measures [1] so I decided, with an excess of immodesty, to fill the gap. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." [2]

But because my chutzpah [3] has its limits, I stopped short of asking anyone to interview me. So here I am, wearing two hats, those of both the interviewer and interviewee. On n'est jamais mieux servi que par soi-même ! 

In preparing this "interview" for Le Mot juste, the first decision I needed to take was whether to draft it in English or in French. That was what is called a "no brainer" [4] in the USA. I have too much respect for la belle langue to maul it and I feared that the hachis parmentier that I wanted to cook would come out of the oven smelling like Shepherd’s Pie.


The next decision was whether to ask one of our band of faithful French translators to render this text into the language of Molière [5]. I decided that just this one time our French readers would not be molly-coddled [6], but would have to bite the bullet (forgive the mixed metaphor) and read the interview in what the French like to refer to as  « la langue de Shakespeare ».

J. G.

Shakespeare & Moliere

------------- -----------------------------------------------------

Two hats 20Question: Describe the experience of managing a blog to which so many gifted wordsmiths contribute their time and talents.

image from
Jonathan's attire when rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème

Answer: My motives for running the blog are both altruistic and egoistic: on the one hand, the desire that I often have to share with others the material I read; on the other hand, the fact that the blog is very good for my ego. Like many professional translators, I normally perform my work in the shadows. The blog, on the other hand, gives me a platform and a pretext to communicate with some of the crème de la crème of English and French linguists. Whenever I am able to introduce a gifted translator or contributor on the pages of Le Mot juste, I enjoy the opportunity, however fleeting, to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the best linguists around. 

Two hats 20Question
: You are not a literary translator with a slew of books to your name, so how could you expect to come out of the darkness into the world of fame and fortune and to reach an audience beyond the readers of the blog? Travailler non seulement pour des prunes mais pour la gloire.[7] [8]

Answer: Well, by chance, I did recently come under the bright lights and I have been enjoying a short-lived moment of fame, if not of fortune. I was not going to mention this, but  if you insist, I'll tell you about it. Last year I was commissioned to translate Emmanuel Macron's memoir cum political manifesto, Révolution. Because of time constraints, I contracted with a British translator to translate half the book, and we edited each other's translations. The book was published in November and the translators were invited to London for a panel discussion to launch it.

Macron English cover


Two hats 20Question: Was the co-translation a synergistic effort? Was it a successful collaborative work?

Answer: In my Translator's Note, I stressed the point that it was indeed a collaborative endeavour, with synergistic benefits, and I went out of my way in that Note to highlight my co-translator's skills. But you will probably get a very different answer if you ask her. Most likely the same view as that expressed by my first wife, following our divorce. 

Two hats 20Question
: What did your first wife say?

Answer: "Never again!."


Two hats 20Question: How were you able to gauge the public's appreciation of your translation of Révolution ? Even Anglo-Saxons [9] who read French with ease don't usually compare and contrast the source text of a book with the translation in order to grade the level of the translator's skill.


Answer: Paradoxically, the warmest expression of appreciation I received for this project came from two people who have probably not read the translation: M. E. MACRON and his Chef de Cabinet, M. François-Xavier LAUCH (see the images below).


  Macron dedication-page-001 - updated

    Chef de Cabinet-page-001 - updated

Two hats 20Question: Mr. Macron's handwritten dedication in your book is rather difficult to decipher.

Answer: Indeed. The language of the dedication, like that of the book, is somewhat cryptic, and to judge by the handwriting, you would think that M. Macron had trained as a doctor, not an economist. I leave it to our readers to decipher the President's handwriting. I'm sure they will enjoy the challenge.

Two hats 20Question: Will you now take on the translation of works by other famous French politicians, scholars or writers?

Jonathan working in the shadows

Answer: Never again! Working on a single project for 10 hours and more a day, seven days a week, at the expense of my other interests, is not my cup of tea. But for regular work projects, being only 80 years old (twice the age of the President of the Republic [10]), I do not intend to slow down. I will continue to ply my trade in the shadows as an anonymous and unknown translator and interpreter (French>English and Hebrew>English), and to devote part of the hours of each day outside of my regular work  to  research for the blog across a range of linguistic and cultural subjects. (My other blog activity involves roping in contributors, which is sometimes as difficult as herding cats. But once they submit their contributions, they usually prove themselves to be linguistic tigers.)

I have also revived an English-language blog that I had created some time ago and that had been dormant: The Lives of Linguists : Interviews with Writers, Translators and other Wordsmiths. It is accessible at And I am in the process of creating a French-language blog named Clio, un blog pour les amateurs de l'histoire. [11] Articles dealing with historical subjects that have been written for Le Mot juste over the course of the years will be imported into the new blog. Stay tuned!

As a staunch Francophile, I will have the continuous pleasure of seeing material posted in the mellifluous French language. [12] Together with the contributos and readers, I will continue the search for le mot juste en anglais - as well as in French.


[1] To reassure our readers that in the coming months there will be a dramatic improvement in the standard of the interviewees - a rise from this abyss - I will mention that two linguists of world renown, David Bellos and David Crystal, have agreed to be interviewed for the blog.   

[2] Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1711


[3] Oxford Dictionaries:

mass noun, informal 
Extreme self-confidence or audacity 
Origin: Late 19th century: Yiddish, from Aramaic ḥu ṣpā.

[4]  Selon Video Language Network sur le site Femme actuelle, cette expression est utilisée pour exprimer qu'un choix est facile à faire et ne nécessite pas d'y réfléchir plus longtemps.


[5] According to one theory, all or many of Molière's works were in fact written by Corneille, the historic French dramatist. See:


[6] Mollycoddling - World Wide Words

[7] L'Aiglon de Edmond Rostand - Nous avons fait tout cela pour la gloire et pour des prunes ! (Flambeau)
(Thank you, Jean Leclercq, for pointing me to the source of this quotation:

Dans L'Aiglon (Acte 2, scène IX), Edmond Rostand fait dire à Flambeau, vélite de la garde, après le rappel de ses glorieux états de service :

"Faits d'armes : trente-deux. Blessures : quelques-unes.
Ne s'est battu que pour la gloire, et pour des prunes.» }

[8) The French word prune and the English word "prune" are false friends. Prune (fr.) = plum (Eng.); prune (Eng.) = pruneau (fr.)

Plums-1 Prunes
plum = prune prune = pruneau

[9] The Anglo-Saxons

[10] When Macron is 80 years old, I will be 120 years. Between now and that time, I expect to receive a card from him containing the Biblical greeting: שתחיה עד מאה עשרים - "May you live to be 120 years." 

[11] What Makes French Sound Sexy
Mental Floss

[12] Clio was the Muse of History

Other articles by the author on his experience as a translator and interpreter:

The colonial influences on participants in a Los Angeles courtroom— from the perspective of a French-English interpreter.

An Interpreting Dilemma

Interview with British wordsmith (and historian & musician) Peter Hicks

    E X C L U S I V E    I N T E R V I E W 

Peter Hicks  
Kadiu 11.19

Peter Hicks, Ph.D., linguist, historian, academic -
the interviewee
Silvia Kadiu, Ph.D.,
lecturer in translation studies, translator, author -
the interviewer

The interview that follows was conducted in (British) English and translated into French for Le Mot juste en anglais by Silvia Kadiu, whose first contribution to this blog we warmly welcome. 

Silvia is a French translator and academic. She was born in Albania and moved to France at the age of seven. After completing MAs in Comparative Literature and English at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, she lived in London for over ten years, working in publishing, translation and higher education.

SK - ReflexiveShe holds an MA and a PhD in Translation Studies from University College London. Her doctoral research on the translations of translation theory was published by the UCL Press in 2019, under the title Reflexive Translation Studies: Translation as Critical Reflection.

She has also authored several articles on translation theory, literary translation and translation pedagogy, and has co-translated several poems from Albanian into English (via French) for the poetry collection Balkan Poetry Today 2017, edited by Tom Phillips.

Silvia is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster London, and works as a translator for various UN agencies, NGOs and top international brands.


SK: You completed a degree in Classics at University College London and obtained a PhD at St John's College, Cambridge. You have been working as a historian for the Foundation Napoleon since 1997. Where does your interest in history stem from?

University-college-london-ucl (1)

Image result for cambridge university logo
University College London [1]  Cambridge University


PH: My father’s father (who studied history at university) was a missionary in pre-WWII Burma (today Myanmar). When I was young, we visited his house, filled with antiques, memorabilia of the British Empire. My father’s brother (who lived with my grandparents) was not only a favourite uncle but also a furniture restorer, lover of musical boxes and 78 records. When we went on holiday, my parents would Hadrians-Wall-Scottish-Englandtake us to National Trust houses and museums (rather than the beach… though we did go there too). I grew up in Northumberland close to Hadrian’s Wall [2] (which I’ve visited very many times) bathed in this stuff and with a passion for classical antiquity…


SK: What is the Foundation Napoleon? Can you tell us about your work there?

NFPH: The Foundation is a not-for-profit which encourages and supports study and interest in Napoleon I and Napoleon III (and all connected matters). I oversee our international relations here, I exercise editorial control over our multimedia productions in English (website, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I frequently write articles, books, give talks, etc. on the history of the 19th century and the position of the Bonapartes therein.


SK: In 2005, you discovered the Mémorial of Emmanuel de Las Cases [3] , one of the most famous manuscripts in French history, dealing with the conversations between Les Cases and Napoleon during the latter’s exile at Saint Helena [3]. The news was covered by the French and international press and has become an important source on the subject for researchers. How did this discovery come about and why was it important?

Le manuscrit retrouvePH: The manuscript was ‘hidden in plain sight’. I was working on an article about the governor of St Helena during Napoleon’s captivity, Hudson Lowe, in 2004. I simply looked in the catalogue and there it was. It had not been spotted for many reasons, but principally because it was a French manuscript in a British Library and because it had entered that public collection as a loan relatively recently (i.e. in the 1960s). The discovery of this manuscript was important because it shows us that at the end of 1816 this manuscript (containing Napoleon’s own idea of what his own reign was all about) was ready for publication (including chapter headings). It shows us that the work was probably about to go to Europe to be published and was probably produced in close collaboration with Napoleon. The final publication eight years later was about three times bigger and included much material not necessarily seen (or approved by Napoleon). So, the proto-version shows us what Napoleon wanted the Memorial to look like, and, in the process, reveals the editorial activity of Emmanuel de Las Cases after Napoleon’s death.

  Napoleon dictating to
Emmanuel Las Cases

You are fluent in English, French and Italian. You have working knowledge of German and are currently learning Russian. How did you come to learn these languages, and what role have they played in your career?

Greek hebrewPH: Languages have been primordial in my career. I think I have always enjoyed language. I was an apparently precocious reader in primary school. I loved Latin, taught myself classical Greek so as to be able to do Classics at university, and I learned Biblical Hebrew for fun. If I have to do some research for a piece of writing, I often start with the same Wikipedia article but in multiple languages. You really get a good round view of national obsessions but also the issues related to the question. I have worked in continental Europe for most of my professional life so speaking different languages was a necessity. I simply note that it would be good if I spoke more languages. I really would love to speak better German, but I never really got to grips with it. Russian is proving tricky…


SK: You have translated several historical texts (from Italian into English, but also from French and Latin). Can you describe your translating experience? What were the main challenges of translating these texts?

PH: The main challenge of translation in general is the elusive perfect match from one language to the other. Combined with tone, readability, flow, naturalness. The 15th- and 16th-century texts I have translated were harder because the original language texts (as is normal) were full of typos, vagueries etc. There was no official text. Furthermore, dictionaries were not necessarily of much use in this period when dictionaries themselves were being compiled for the first time and use of language was not generalized but often very specific to the writer. [5]  I had to be not only translator but also lexicographer. Google is a wonderful help, however. You can search strings of Italian or Latin words in 16th century texts so as to produce essentially your own handlist of what words mean, your own dictionary for a certain author. Endlessly fascinating.

SK: To end our interview with mention of another of your myriad fields of activity, you are also a semi-professional musician, singer and conductor. You are currently the music director of the Paris choir Musicanti. How does this relate to your work as a historian and your interest in languages?

Messe du Sacre de Napoléon 1PH: I have begun to perform music of the Napoleonic period. This music is little-performed since it is not as well-loved as other types. It is often seen as a bit weak and derivative. It is however the sound of the times. If you want to get an idea of the grandeur of Napoleon in 1804, there’s no better way than to perform the music from his coronation. I enjoy the idea of re-enacting musical environment. Music is very powerful. It’s an amazing time machine! And given that the French Empire came into contact with much of Western and Central Europe, the musical/linguistic possibilities are practically endless.

University-college-london-ucl (1)[1] UCL is  a public research university in London.  It makes the contested claims of being the third-oldest university in England, and the first to admit women. UCL has over 100 departments, institutes and research centres.  It has around 35,600 students and 12,000 staff. Its alumni include the  "Father of the Nation" of each of India, Kenya and Mauritius, the founders of Ghana, modern Japan and Nigeria, the inventor of the telephone, and one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, as well as at least 29 Nobel Prize winners.

[2] In the year 120, the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain. After giving up his plan to conquer the North,  he had a fortified line erected , which went from Tyne to the Gulf of the Solway. It was  composed of fourteen forts and a stone wall, the famous Hadrian Wall.

[3] Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Le manuscript retrouvé, critical edition with presentation and commentary, with Thierry Lentz, François Houdecek and Chantal Prevot, Perrin 2017, p. 827. Supported by the Centre national du livre.

[4] See our article (in French) on this blog with references to our previous articles about St. Helena : Le 15 août 2019 - le 250e anniversaire de Napoléon Bonaparte

[5] Over the years, various spellings of the Bard's name have been used: Shakespere,  Shackspeare, Shakespear, Shakspere, Shakspere, Shaxspere, Shackespeare, Shakspeare, Shaxper

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Silvia Kadiu.


Interview with British wordsmith (and poet) Pascale Petit


Pascale Petit

Poet Pascale Petit, our interviewee, was born to a Welsh mother and French father and grew up between Paris and Wales. Four of her seven poetry collections were nominated for the T.S. Eliot Award. Poems from Fauverie won the Manchester Poetry Prize and she was also granted a Cholmondeley Award. Pascale has been the judge for many major prizes and her work has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, French and Serbian. Pascale lives in Cornwall but travels regularly to France. Her website is


Pascale Fauverie Pascale Petit Mama Amazonia


Alice (cropped)Our interviewer, poet and critic Alice Hiller holds a Ph.D. from University College London in transatlantic writing. She has been mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme. Author of The T-Shirt Book, she reviews for the Times Literary Supplement  and Poetry Review and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Prize. Alice divides her time principally between London and Oxford. 


Pascale - the T-Shirt Book Pascale the Bridport Prize


In the interview that follows, Alice speaks to Pascale about growing up between two languages, why she writes in English about France and the Amazon, and her most recent collection, Mama Amazonica, published by Bloodaxe in 2017.


Alice. Alice (cropped)Can you tell me about your links to France? You were born in Paris and you hold a French passport?


Pascale petit
Pascale. I am about to become a British citizen because of Brexit, but all my life I've been a French citizen. I was born in Paris in 1953, then sent to live with my grandmother in Wales. From two and a half to seven I lived in Paris so I spent my early childhood mainly there. As an adult I never went back to Paris until my father made contact because he was dying. I went to see him in the Latin Quarter. Over the two years that I visited him I grew to know Paris, having hated it as a child. After my father died, and I started going to Paris on my own for writing retreats, I really fell in love with the city, the Latin Quarter, the museums, Notre-Dame

Pascale Notre-Dame

Alice (cropped)Alice. You spoke French as well as English growing up?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale. I'm not really sure which was my mother tongue. I think that what happened was that I would forget one. As a child you learn a language so fast. When I was going to be sent to my grandmother in Wales aged seven, I didn't know any English. Just before we went, my father and mother were trying to teach us a few words. When we arrived and sat on my grandmother's settee, my poor aunt, who was sixteen, was trying to speak French with us. We constantly forgot a language, my brother and myself, and then learnt it again.


Alice (cropped)Alice. I've noticed that while you always write in English, your poems are often set in the landscapes of South America and France. Does your imagination go there instinctively?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  Yes. I lived in London almost all my adult life, and I haven't written a single poem about London that I would put in a collection. I love Paris as a city. I don't love London. It was a great place to live when I was young - if you're trying to become a poet or a sculptor, as I was. I love London's multiculturalism, though.

  Pascale Zoo-Father-cover

Alice (cropped)Alice. In The Zoo Father, which was your breakthrough collection from 2001, in addition to your Amazonian poems about re-meeting your father in Paris, there were also poems about the Midi. Is that area important to you?

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: The Languedoc, and the causses in particular, and the dry stone walls, were my first Amazon.



Pascale Languedoc

Alice (cropped)Alice. I also spent time in the Causse (causses) as a child. There is something about the solitariness of the landscape and the light that is extraordinary.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: My mother bought a vineyard when I was twelve, where we camped in stone huts. It was on a steep slope, so mountainous, just under the Larzac and the Grézac plateau. It was overgrown, very lush, and when we would arrive at the beginning of the summer holiday we'd have to get the scythe out, and cut a path between the two mazets. One was the sleeping mazet and one was the kitchen, at the top, right in the sous-bois. You would walk along the path and these snakes would move in front of you. Then there'd be the lizards and the huge insects. I've been back many times since then. It's now no longer a vineyard, just a patch of wild land, but the insects never seem so big as when I was twelve. Then they seemed absolutely enormous.

Alice (cropped)Alice: I think there's a sort of hyper-realism about how you see things as a teenager. In
The Huntress, the collection which followed in 2005, you explore your Welsh mother in terms of the cave systems of the Languedoc, and you write about excavating painful memories through the medium of beautiful crystals.

Pascale The Huntress


Pascale herault-le-languedoc

Grotte des demoiselles

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I was haunted by my mother. I loved looking at the Grotte des Demoiselles - the suggested shapes of the stalactites and stalagmites - and the formations of the crystals in the ceiling. I can't help thinking about the inside of a mountain in terms of the inside of my mother. I was living with my grandmother in rural mid-Wales when my mother bought the vineyard. I remember the summer holidays there as being rather exciting and fun, and her being ok. Although she had suffered from mental illness as a child, it was only when I went to live with her when I was thirteen that she became quite mad. The Larzac was also an Eden – where I was scared of her, but not terrified. My next book will return to that area.

Alice (cropped)Alice: The French language can also be a site of memory for you? I'm thinking of 'The Dragonfly Daughter' when you wrote "I know her by her French name, libellule".


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: That's from being in the vineyard with my mother. She spoke French absolutely perfectly. She was completely bilingual. She would have told me what it was called in French. She used to try to keep our French up. We used to have to speak French at meals in Wales. When I went to live with her in Wales at thirteen she would have called things by both their French and English names. The memory is locked in the French word.


Alice (cropped)Alice: There's a terrifying poem in your collection The Huntress called 'Lunettes' where you describe seeing your father's "lunettes" when he came into your girlhood bedroom in Paris. The word unlocks a Pandora's chest of memory. You realize the poem – about the rape of a child - through the progressive dictionary definitions of its meaning.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: It's almost totally a found poem. Obviously I moved it around and adjusted it.


Pascale Treekeeper_tale

Alice (cropped)Alice: Responding to a more positive element within your French heritage, as someone who originally trained and exhibited as a sculptor, was the Midi a key part in awakening your visual sensibility?
I'm thinking of the poem 'My Larzac Childhood' in The Treekeeper's Tale of 2008, when you remember the "grass-snake-flashing paths" and the "museum of the dragonfly's abdomen". You describe the dragonfly wings as if the light is coming in through museum skylights.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I have a thing about glass. I think it was because I was placed in an incubator when I was a baby. I think of my mother in terms of a glass mother because she was very brittle and otherworldly. She was strange to us. I think that brought this obsession with glass to my looking at the glass wings of the dragonfly. I became a visual artist through drawing. It happened when I was deeply unhappy at home in Paris and I would be left in school in the evenings. It was a horrible school. I don't think I was any good at school because of the language. I would draw, and I found I could escape. I had a total facility. I drew submarines in the ocean. It was a way to make an alternative world for myself. Later in Wales I became very good at school, and there was a lot of pressure for me to go to university, but I chose to go to Art School.


Alice (cropped)Alice:  Art can be a place where we are able to realize ourselves if we come from backgrounds which don't allow us to say who we are. We become ourselves in the art that we make and then take that self forward.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: As a child I was deeply withdrawn. In my art I wasn't withdrawn. I was an extrovert in my art.



Alice (cropped)Alice:  Your poems are not shy poems.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: People are often surprised when they meet me because I am so shy and quiet and my poems aren't.



Alice (cropped)Alice: In Fauverie, your last but one collection, you engage with Paris in much more detail. This comes from the time you spent reclaiming the city?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I began discovering Paris like a tourist. I fell in love with Notre- Dame. I spent every day going in there. There were also the sparrows outside I could hand-feed. That was such a wonderful draw.


Alice (cropped)
Alice: You had a living, nurturing transaction in the city.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  I rented short-term lets in the Latin Quarter as close to the Jardin des Plantes as possible. Usually facing the gate. I would walk in the gardens every day. And discover new things about Paris each time. It was wonderful.


Alice (cropped)Alice: The Fauverie poems are very powerful. Having a creative engagement with a place where you have suffered, and making good work, even if is complex or has difficult themes, gives the work deep roots.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I did those very pleasurable things, but also went back to the Boulevard de Grenelle, in the 15th arrondissement, where we lived. My father Pascale Grenelle 2 had given me the address. I went there and twice I was let into the cellar where I was locked as a child. I'd had so many dreams about it when I was a child and then a teenager. I made an installation when I was on my BA course – of being in that cellar. In my memory the main feature of this cellar was a window. Afterwards I told myself I must have imagined this because cellars don't have windows. I went into this cellar, and there was a window. It was at the top of the stairs, looking over the courtyard, very high. It was one of those small courtyards which I remember so well as a child. There was the cellar then you went down the steps and there was the earthen floor. It was the most terrifying cellar I've ever seen. The first time I told the concierge why I was coming. He let me in and the light went off and it was terrifying. Every detail comes from that visit.


Alice (cropped)Alice: In Mama Amazonica, your current collection, which was published by Bloodaxe in September 2017, there is a poem 'Square de la Place Dupleix', which takes the reader to the Paris square of chestnut trees and pigeon gods, and then lets them fall back into the "coffining dark" of your childhood.

Place dupleix

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: That poem should have been in Fauverie. Although Mama Amazonica is about the abuse and rape of my mother by my father, at the kernel of it is a sequence of poems about how that trauma also permeated to his children. I really wanted to write about finding this park. I tried on several occasions but I could not find it. Nothing matched my memory. Then I went behind our block and there it was. It was incredible. There was the church. There was the school with the infant school next to it. I had to find my own way to school and back and I always got lost even though it was very close. I remember my mother telling me off, saying "It's just around the corner." I have no sense of left and right. I just went in the wrong direction. I would play in the sand in the square, which I also see as a precursor to being a sculptor, and then the gendarme, who was in his little hut, would put me on a stool, and phone my mother, and say "She's here."

Alice (cropped)Alice: In Mama Amazonica, although many of the poems are based on two recent trips you made to the Amazon, and have vivid Pascale Musee_de_la_Chasse_et_de_la_Nature descriptions of being in the Amazon and the creatures you saw there, there are also more poems about Paris. I was interested in 'Bestiarum' which takes as its starting point Walton Ford's 'Bête du Gévaudan' at the Musée de la Chasse et Nature. It seems to be informed by the French idea of the loup-garou.

Pascale-petit 2Pascale:  The legend is from the Lozère, just above the Languedoc. I discovered the Musée de la Chasse quite late. They have contemporary artists among the permanent displays. It is such a beautifully curated museum. I loved Walton Ford's paintings. There are two poems in Mama Amazonica based on his work. 'When My Mother Became A Boa' comes directly from one of his paintings.

Pascale Walton Ford Boa

Alice (cropped)Alice: The Seine and the Amazon are flowing in and out of each other?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: In the Musée there are stuffed wolverines, for example. There are lions. They do things in Paris not allowed in the UK. Quite a lot of stuffed animals in shops. The French imagination is much more open to the Amazon. In England, if you write poems about India or Africa, places where there have been colonies, there is more empathy, whereas South America is too removed. Before the day of researching online, I found that Paris had all the ethnographic books I could not get in the UK.

Alice (cropped)Alice: The jaguar is a central beast in Fauverie and Mama Amazonica, but your close encounters with jaguars came in Paris initially?

Pascale jardindeplantes

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: When I used to visit my father, at the end of his life, he was living just by the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. There was a black jaguar, and a gold female jaguar. They were in very small cages at that point.


Alice (cropped)Alice: You finally saw a jaguar in the wild from a boat on the Amazon, leading to the extraordinary, healing poem, 'The Jaguar' which closes Mama Amazonica.


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: The experience was one of the highlights of my life. I absolutely worship them. I have read everything you could possibly read about the jaguar. When I stayed in Paris I would go to see Aramis the jaguar and Simara, his young girlfriend, every day, not long before closing time. They would feed them, then he would spring into action.

Pascaloe jaguars

Alice (cropped)Alice: One of the pleasures of Mama Amazonica is that you translate the experience of the Amazon into words that make a 5D environment for the reader. Do you think the fact that your mind has had to move through different languages has helped you in the way that you are able to realize yourself as a poet?

Pascale-petit 2Pascale: Thank you for saying that. I do aim to do that. I had never thought of it being to do with the fact that I had to move from language to language when I was a child. I always thought that it was because I was an artist, and I still need to make sculptures in my books, and installations, and environments that people walk into. I need to make them very physical and very real. That is always a tussle with language. Language has to be strong enough to reconstruct the images and sounds and sensory details to surround the reader.

Alice (cropped)Alice: Finally, I know you're deeply engaged in judging. You've just judged the Manchester Poetry Prize. You're judging the National Poetry Competition. But what lies beyond this in 2018 in terms of plans for your own works?


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: I have a project on the go. I think all that I would say is that one of the main themes is foreign-ness. It partly comes out of Brexit. It's partly because I had to get British nationality. It partly comes out of my Welsh grandmother, who brought me up. She was born in India. She was half Indian but it was a family secret. It's hard to get any facts at all about this because it's very covered up. But those are my plans for this year.

Alice (cropped)Alice: And I gather there will be a French translation of Fauverie in 2018?
Pascale valerie_rouzeau_220x500


Pascale-petit 2Pascale: Yes Valérie Rouzeau, an absolutely wonderful poet, the ideal translator, has translated Fauverie and it will soon be sent out to the publisher.



Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Nadine Gassie.


Interview with Brazilian-American wordsmith (and interpreter) Ewandro Magalhães -

Our present guest is a little less famous than the other lusophone, Ferdinand Magellan, but like that historic voyager, Ewandro Magalhães (the Portuguese equivalent of the name Magellan) has blazed trails and  straddled continents. Magellan's successes rested on the might of his sword to conquer foreign lands, whereas Ewandro has used the power of his pen, the agility of his mind and his sparkling personality to capture people's imagination rather than their possessions. In doing so he has reached the pinnacle of the professional ladder as a translator and interpreter, while also finding time for writing and public speaking.

The interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Geneva.



E.M. - the interviewee


J.G. - the interviewer
for Wordsmiths' Blog



    (in winter) 

 Marjolin Caliofornia

Los Angeles
 (throughout the year)  


Ewandro - Belo HorizonteJG: You were born in Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon), Brazil. When we speak about your linguistic career, it will seem to the readers that that name [1] augured a wonderful professional career, which included developing your own highly successful translation agency, and the senior interpreting positions you held at the United Nations, culminating in your present position as “Head of Conference Management Service” for a UN specialized agency.

[1]  The name of the great discoverer whom we know as Magellan was Fernão de Magalhães.


Ewandro BrasiliaEM : Yes, the capital of Minas Gerais, a state of rich culture, history, fertile land, great weather and awesome cuisine. BH is also surrounded by mountains, which I guess makes us quite curious and inquisitive as to what lies beyond those peaks. At age six, I moved to Brasilia, where I spent most of my life. In the heart of Brazil’s central plateau, the place stood in drastic contrast to my experience in my home town: vast expanses of land, desert-like humidity, scrubby vegetation and not a rolling hill in sight. That greatly expanded my horizons and set me well on my way to the many changes I would experience in life, geographically and otherwise. I later transited through California, Washington, D.C. and Geneva, where I currently live with my lovely wife, two of my three children and the family Yorkie. 


JG : You showed an interest in reading at a very young age. I understand that your father was the driving force behind that early start.

EM: Both of my parents had a passion for teaching and literature, and the house was filled with books. Mom would often recite poetry to us at bed time, and she would often give us books for gifts. There was a lot of music around the house, too. My dad, a true intellectual who would later become a political speechwriter, let me play around with his battered Remington typewriter, and I spent endless hours punching keys at random, in hopes of stitching words or phrases together, all to no avail. One day it all dawned on me. I must have been five or six, but I still remember it vividly. I was crossing an intersection in my hometown, my father towing me by the hand, when the hazy neon light in the distance suddenly collapsed into a meaningful string of letters: “c-i-n-e-m-a.” The feeling was transcendent, as if a veil had been lifted. 


JG : Did you learn English at school? How were you able to acquire such a command of English as allowed you to embark on an interpreting and translating career?

EM: Like any boy, I wanted to grow in my father’s image, and speaking English was one of the many features I admired him for. So, I took any opportunity to learn the language, and went way beyond the weekly classes I had at school. Cable TV and Internet were not yet around, and I had to make do with the occasional comic books we bought at the airport and a few extra teaching aids I could find around the house. Also, travelling was not as easy as it now is. I was 26 when I set foot outside of Brazil for the first time.

At around the same time, I checked out George Orwell’s 1984 from a local library and plowed through the book in English, armed with a shabby pocket Webster’s dictionary that still sits on my bookshelf. It was a tedious effort. I spent more time looking words up in the dictionary than I did reading the book! I had read the story in Portuguese, so I knew the plot well enough not to get lost. Upon finishing the book, my level of English had increased tenfold. 

JG : What was your first interpreting assignment?

Ewandro PhilipEM : My very first gig as an interpreter was in 1992, and I got to interpret for none other than Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. I was then a clerk at the Lower House of the Brazilian Parliament, and known to some to speak good English. The visit was announced at the last minute, and they had to improvise someone in the role of interpreter. They asked me if I would do it, and I jumped at the opportunity (as Thucydides once said, “ignorance is bold!”) Before I knew it, I was squeezed between the Prince and the Speaker of the House, in a room packed solid with journalists and TV crew. At that point, I seriously doubted my judgment (what was I thinking!), but there was no turning back.


JG:  How did you manage that assignment?

I survived it mostly unscathed, but towards the end I found myself confronted with a rather delicate situation. With his proverbial sarcasm, His Royal Highness let slip an unbecoming joke that might have been regarded as offensive. I hesitated for a second, wondering whether I might have misheard him, and raking my mind for an acceptable rendering. I panicked at the thought of eventually causing a diplomatic incident that could end my career before it even started. I eventually chose to omit the unflattering remarks altogether. In retrospect, I think I did well. Diplomatic interpreting – which was what I was doing that day – requires the interpreter to intuit what is really meant through and beyond words. I took a chance, and even made a name for myself as a self-assured professional. Little did they know I was just trying to cover my back.

I thus became the de facto interpreter at the Office of the Speaker. And Ewandro - book coverthat’s how it all started.

Details of that first, chance encounter with Prince Philip are the first chapter in my book, Sua Majestade, o Intérprete (Parabola Editorial, 2007). 



JG : You began to acquire your academic qualifications relatively late in life.

In the early 1990s, in Brazil, college-level training for interpreters – or translators, for that matter – was hard to come by. You had to learn by doing and in the process run a lot of risks. I jumped into the water and, much to my surprise, I managed to swim.

After interpreting successfully for about 15 years, and running my own translation agency for about as long, I started offering intensive workshops that became very popular for aspiring interpreters in Brazil. I had built a solid reputation in Brazil, and travelled extensively in the U.S. and Lusophone Africa. I had published a book on interpreting and I was presenting myself as an authority in the field. Yet I lacked the right academic credentials.

I then decided to put my career on hold and go for the right degree. And in 2007, at the age of 44, I relocated with my family to California, to pursue Ewandro Montereyan MA in Conference Interpretation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. I was put through a series of rigorous translation exams, consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, and was finally admitted into the Advanced Entry program with English as an A language and Spanish as my B 

Soon after graduation, I started collaborating with MIIS as an Adjunct Professor, offering seminars and organizing a roundtable to discuss the prospects of a future Portuguese program at MIIS – which materialized a few years later. 


J : Did your MA from Monterey advance your career?

EM :  Oh yes, and faster than I thought possible. On the very day I received my MA I got to perform in front of a panel of observers from the UN, the State Department and the EU institutions. As soon as I got out of the Ewandro dept of statebooth, I was offered the opportunity to sit the State Department conference-level interpretation tests in Washington, D.C. (by invitation only), which I passed a few weeks later, with flying colors. Soon thereafter, I started to receive offers for high-level conferences from State and other Washington-based organizations.

My credentials and hard work had prepared me for that opportunity, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the generosity of a few chief interpreters who opened their doors to me. My colleagues were also very welcoming and assisted me greatly as I settled in Washington. 


J: You have interpreted for many VIPs, including Presidents Barack Obama, Cristina Kirchner, Lula da Silva and other heads of State. 

EM: I interpreted at several world summits, like the G20, the Nuclear Summit, the World Bank and IMF annual meetings, to name a few. 

Ewandro 2009_G-20_Pittsburgh_summit   Ewandro Nuclear Summit


JGFrom what languages to what languages did you interpret? 

EM :  I worked mostly from English and Spanish into Portuguese, and from Portuguese into English. I also had a chance to render a short speech by Berlusconi from Italian into Portuguese at one of those summits. 


LMJ : Did you get to meet any of those heads of state?

EM : To say that I met them is inappropriate, but I did get to shake hands and rub shoulders with a few world leaders during those summits. I also got to interact professionally with a few of them, one on one, at bilateral negotiations (e.g. former President Lula, the Dalai Lama, and Prime-Minister Paul Martin.)

With  the Dalai Lama (and the Speaker of the House, Mr Michel Temer -- who is currently the Vice-President of Brazil), 1997.    President Lula, first Lady Marisa, and pop singer Lenny Kravitz, Brasilia, 2003.


EM: Another interesting encounter took place at the end of the Pittsburgh Summit, in 2009. Coming back from the closing press conference, President Obama ran into a large group of interpreters backstage and insisted on taking a picture with the “translators.” I was the first to shake his hand, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. The moment was captured by the White House photographers.



The group picture with President Obama in the back, slightly to the right, was taken at the end of the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh (2009), as he was coming back from a Press Conference. The picture was taken by the White House photographers, at the President's request. 


LMJ : You work for ITU, one of the 15 UN specialized agencies, which include the ILO, UNESCO, WHO, etc. Some of these are in Geneva but others are in Paris, Vienna, London, Rome or Montreal.


EM : Yes. In 2010 I was appointed Chief Interpreter of the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialized agency for information communication technologies, with headquarters in Geneva. My job was to manage a pool of some 500 freelance interpreters who regularly assist us, in the six official languages of the United Nations. I took office just two weeks before the Plenipotentiary Conference, in Guadalajara, where I had to manage a team of 74 interpreters, most of whom I hardly knew. The most recent four-yearly cycle of UIT conferences culminated in another successful Plenipot (October-November, 2014), and in 2015 I was promoted to the post of Head, Conference Management Service. I continue to indirectly oversee the interpreting operations, as the new chief interpreter reports to me, but I now have a larger scope that includes conference logistics and room management.

15395603850_a0eb55e9e9_z (1)

ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2014 (PP-14)
Busan, South Korea

 Portugal has a population of over 10 million and Brazil has a population of 200 million. There are five former Portuguese colonies in Lusophone Africa, and other small remnants of Portuguese colonialism in Asia.  How does Portuguese rank as an international language?

EM : There is no denying the geopolitical importance of Brazil's continental dimensions and the role it plays in stabilizing Latin America. The same can be said of Angola, in Africa. Brazil has more than once been a non-permanent member of the Security Council, which bears testimony to the importance it plays in ensuring the safety of our world. I believe Portuguese will eventually become a UN language. Perhaps the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) will intensify its role in promoting Portuguese, which is certainly one of the most poetic and beautiful romance languages out there. 

LMJ : To end this interview with a question relating to both your fields of expertise - translating and interpreting - would you agree that interpreters are usually extroverts whereas translators are usually introverts?

Ewandro interpreter

EM: I consider myself an extrovert, a true people person, and I have worn both hats (I was a translator for many years before I started interpreting), so I guess the distinction doesn’t always apply. In fact, some of the best interpreters I have worked with tend to be rather quiet and withdrawn.

Ewandro extrovert-v-introvert

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with American wordsmith (and translator) Antony Shugaar –

 Antony Shugaar is  a literary translator who specializes in English translations of French and Italian. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.

Shugaar Jonathan
Anthony Shugaar - the interviewee Jonathan Goldberg -the interviewer


LMJ : Where were you born?

A.S.: In Hollywood, California. My parents lived in hot, unglamorous Encino when I was born, on a street named Babbitt, like the philistine anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis's novel. The only reason my parents were anywhere near Hollywood was that my mother wanted Chinese food. They went to a

Shugaar restaurant
Man Fook Low

Chinese restaurant called Man Fook Low, an improbably named but venerable old L.A. institution that closed recently, and my mother went into labor before the fortune cookies came. I later enjoyed putting Hollywood on my first application for a residency permit in Italy, until the policeman typing up the paperwork said, "Hollywood, eh? Born into the family business? Makes sense, you sort of look like Jerry Lewis." Which at the time I sort of did. I loved that irreverent but not cruel sense of humor. The Italian sense of humor is sharp and underappreciated.


LMJ : Do you come from a family of linguists?

Shugaar FiddlerA.S.: My father was no linguist, but he was born in a Polish shtetl [1] like the one in Fiddler on the Roof. (I saw the movie with him as a child, and he told me it reminded him very much of home.) He spoke Yiddish, read Hebrew, spoke Polish, and had a good smattering of German and Russian by the time he was ten. His town had been caught between Russian and German forces in World War One, and in Poland it was a good bet to know both languages, sort of betting both sides against the middle. At age 16 he moved to Canada, where he learned French and English. He became an American citizen in 1943, the night before enlisting in the U.S. Army, and he learned some Italian in World War Two. Spanish was his weakest language, but living in Southern California he picked it up. What is that, nine languages? I don't know how meaningful it is, but I remember the realization, at age nine or ten, that my father was not a native English-speaker. Probably when he said something like, "It's 7 o'clock kids, time to up-get!"

LMJ: How did you gain a grounding in French and Italian, two languages from which you translate into English?

A.S.: I've always been interested in language and wordplay, and in college I majored in classics, so I had Latin and Greek in my late teens. I studied with a remarkable pair of professors, Bill and Betty McKibben. Bill was tall and skinny and had a white goatee, and he looked like he ought to be wearing a chiton [2]. He knew Sanskrit and read about ten other languages. Betty was small and vibrant and spoke a lot like Julia Child, and until you've heard her reel off a line of Catullus in that voice, you haven't heard Latin. She told me about living in Rome in the late forties, and meeting a very upright-looking woman dressed in black on the stairs. One day, the two women were leaving the building at the same time and she heard the concierge call out, "Buon giorno, Signora Montessori!" Her stories made me want to move to Italy. And in the very early days of New Wave music, when I was living in Los Angeles after leaving college, I happened to see Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria. All Cabiria's low-life friends dressed just like the New Wavers I'd run into in the L.A. clubs. All these different clues were pointing me toward Italy, and once I got there, sheer economic imperatives made translating look like a good solution.

LMJ: Where did you study and where did you work during that period?

A.S.: My first couple of years at college were at Grinnell, in Iowa (where the tag line of the local radio station was "KDIC, 88.9 FM—Radio in the Cornfields." I felt a little isolated, and left Grinnell after two years. When I should have been studying political science, I dabbled in Italian, and took courses in Italian at UCLA, then left for Italy on an impulse and some savings from six months working as a short-order cook. After a few weeks in Rome. I headed for Perugia, and enrolled at the Universita per Stranieri di Pergia, an Italian school for foreigners. As I started to run out of money, I hung around the school's administrative office, asking about work tutoring or whatever else an American might be able to do. My first paid translation job was an incredible mess: done with a ballpoint pen on that distinctive Italian graph paper that students seem to use instead of lined paper, and—crucial detail—from English into Italian. Absolutely wrong on the first point: no translator can work from his or her native tongue into a foreign target language, any and all claims to the contrary. I had never even translated before, so I shudder to think what kind of Dada masterpiece I inadvertently produced. After that, I found work in a mid-sized town in the Italian Alps called Cuneo, translated in the proper direction (from Italian into English) for a company called Poliglot SpA, which offered translations at the very cutting edge of existing technology, via telex (their slogan included the memorable words—"con la banda perforata!" meaning that their telexed translations could be received and recorded on a perforated yellow strip of punch tape, a cross of ticker tape and punch cards that were a now forgotten predecessor of the floppy disk).

LMJ: Were you able to complete your university studies in the USA?

A.S.: Yes. I came back and got a BA from UCLA in Italian studies and went on to get Masters from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

LMJ: With the experience gained in translating for the Italian agency, what were your next steps in the world of translating?

A.S.: One of the things I learned that's crucial to having a career in translation, at least I believe so, is that knowing how to get the work is almost as important as knowing how to do the work. I translated non-fiction, technical, commercial, and design-oriented material in the city where I lived Shugaar 2for almost ten years, Milan. I translated every issue of an Italian men's fashion magazine, MONDO UOMO, for I think three years. I worked for FMR, a fine-arts magazine published by Franco Maria Ricci, a charismatic and visionary publisher. I also started working as an agent in publishing, and attended just about every Frankfurt Book Fair for years. I've agented and scouted, and I've worked in every walk of publishing, from representing fine color printers in Italy to publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. to doing readers reports for American publishers. It's tinker's trade, but it's a way of keeping in touch with what's coming out and where publishing is going.

It's also very good, I think, to have experience in translating a wide variety of subjects. I've done histories of Ferrari, medical advertising, commercial bids for turn-key plant installations in third-world countries, fashion writing, design theory, art history, political economics: if you've worked through every field, you have a much better idea of the pliancy and tactics that a "foreign" language uses—say, Italian or French or, with me to a lesser degree, Spanish—and how it fits with the comparable tactics in the target language, English.

LMJ: What was the first book you translated?

A.S.: I don't remember whether it was "Material of Invention", from the Italian, or "The Deserter" from the French. The former described innovations in Italian product design at a time when designers were inventing not only products but the materials with which their products

Shugaar 3
Jean Giono

were fashioned. The latter was a lesser known work by the distinguished French writer, Jean Giono. My publisher used the translation to accompany a series of naif paintings of Limner art. (In early 19th-century America, a limner artist was one who had little if any formal training and would travel from place to place to solicit commissions.)




LMJ: Do you establish contact with all the authors whose works you translate.

A.S.: I don't go out of my way to do that. I believe that the source material should speak for itself and it is the translator's role to replicate its real

Shugaar 5
Massimo Carlotto

meaning, without excessive reliance on the explanations of authors. But I have met some of my authors, such as Massimo Carlotto (Bandit Love, The Fugitive, Bandit Love, Poisonville [with Marco Videtta], At the End of a Dull Day), Stefano Benni (Timeskipper, and the well-received Margherita Dolce Vita), and Valeria Parrella (For Grace Received).


LMJ: Do you recall any interesting impressions from those meetings.

Shugaar 4
Stefano Benni

A.S.: I went to Rome with my family when my daughter was eight, I think, and we met Stefano Benni for lunch. Benni is brilliant and funny and a born improviser. We had spaghetti of course, and in the Italian way, it was served in a bowl with a fork and a knife. My daughter had grown up twirling her spaghetti with a fork into a large tablespoon, and she was at a loss how to proceed. With a novelist's eye for situational detail, Benni immediately asked what was wrong, and my wife explained. With a grand sweeping gesture, Benni put up one hand in the international "halt" gesture, said "I'll take care of it," and hurried off to get a spoon. He returned with both hands behind his back, stood in a waiter's stance by my daughter's chair and leaned forward, then with a flourish and a proud smile, he produced a comically tiny espresso spoon. He waited two or three beats—it was truly virtuoso stagework—as my daughter's face fell and one thought clearly ran through her mind: How could you use such a tiny utensil to spin pasta? Then, with another, quieter smile, Benni brought out his other hand, with an almost equally comical outsized soup spoon. It was brilliant physical comedy, sweet and yet pungent. It's very much what's at play underneath the language in Benni's books.


This text © 2013 by Antony D. Shugaar

Blog footnotes:

[1] shtetl - a small Jewish town or village in eastern Europe. Origin: 1940s: Yiddish, 'little town'.

[2] A chiton (Greek: χιτών, khitōn, meaning tunic) - a sewn garment.
(In a different context it means a marine mollusk that has an oval flattened body with a shell of overlapping plates.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.


Interview with British wordsmith (translator and author) Frank Wynne

We are honored to have as our linguist of the month Frank Wynne, prestigious literary translator (French>English, Spanish>English). Frank has won numerous prizes for his work. He received the IMPAC award in 2002, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2095 (these two awards being shared with the authors whose works he translated) and the Scott Moncrief Prize in 2008. [1]
For his translations from Spanish he twice received the Premio Valls Inclán - in 2012 (for Kamchatka de Marcelo Figueras) and in 2014 (for La Hora Azul / The Blue Hour of Alonso Cueto) in 2016.
Frank Wynne
Frank Wynne - the interviewee Jonathan G. - the interviewer
Wynne sansal-harragaMore recently his translation of Harraga , written by Boualem Sansal, was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for 2016. The juries who awarded these prizes were themselves literary translators. As Frank explained in our interview with him, seeing his talents recognized by his peers is all the more gratifying, because translation is a lonely trade.
Frank granted Jonathan the interview that follows while on a trip to Dublin, designated as UNESCO's City of Literature in 2010.

Ireland may take pride in having fathered four recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. As for Frank Wynne, he has put Ireland on the world map of literary translation.



Jonathan G. : 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.


FWFrank 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 transferable 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.


JG : Your first job in Paris was with an English bookstore. Tell us a little about that.

FWFW : 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…


JJG  : 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?

FWFW : 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


JG : 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?

FWFW : 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.


JG : 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?

FWFW : ‘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.


JG : 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?

FWFW : 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.


JG : To what extent do you regard yourself as a partner in the success or failure of each work you translate?

FWFW : 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."


JG :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?

FWFW : 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.


JG : Which of the books that you translated from French was the most challenging, linguistically or otherwise?

FWFW : 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.

Cet entretien est accessible en français ici.

Interview with Canadian wordsmith (and professor of translation studies) Sherry Simon

The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Montreal




Sherry Simon

Jonathan G.

Professor Emerita in the Department of French Studies at Concordia University. 

- the interviewee   



           - the interviewer


JG: Your parents were born in Toronto. You spoke English at home and despite studying French at school, your first significant exposure to French came in your teens. How did that come about?

SS: My mom was very forward-looking…meaning that she recognized that French was important in Montreal! That may sound very obvious now, but I grew up in a city that was still practically a colonial city—with a powerful and very self-sufficient English-language minority. What was experienced by some as intolerable change starting in the 1960s (those who felt threatened or excluded by a French-language city) was experienced by others as a period of social, economic and political excitement. The fact that I took a university-level French course while I was still in high school changed my outlook entirely. I was increasingly attracted to French-language culture.

JG: You found Montreal to be comparable with Calcutta in certain respects. (You later wrote « Villes en traduction: Calcutta, Barcelona, Montreal », Presses de l'Université de Montreal, 2013). Can you expound on that comparison.

SS: Calcutta and Montreal were founded in the same historical period of colonialism—1609 for Calcutta, 1642 for Montreal. Montreal was founded as a French city, then there was the Conquest of 1759 which meant that Ville Marie became Montreal. Both cities were the products of spatial division—a more modern, spacious area which contrasted greatly with the rest of the city. Of course the colonial divides of India were very different from the colonial divides of Quebec—where two European powers were in competition, and where the indigenous presence had been largely obliterated. But the linguistic and spatial arrangements of Calcutta and Montreal share the same colonialist premise and the interaction between parts of the city shared similar dynamics. What I learned was that there was a great deal to be discovered when you looked at Calcutta and Montreal as cities in translation. The history of the Bengali Renaissance as it played out across Calcutta is rich and fascinating—the story of innovations in science and the arts that were a product of the interplay between communities. The same is true of Montreal, mutatis mutandis. A cultural history of the city since the 1940s for instance tells of numerous new pathways created across the city. Literary personalities such as Mavis Gallant, F.R. Scott or A.M. Klein have woven cultural ties between the French and English speakers, both in journalism and in poetry. What is important to note, however, is that translation is not always successful and that failed translation can also be useful to explore.

JG: You went on to study Comparative Literature at Brandeis University in the USA, and did your Masters in Paris, obtaining a Diplôme de l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, and a doctorate in literature compareé from the University of Montreal. Your career-path is somewhat unusual: although you were initially a literary translator you soon moved into the academic study of translating. Your positions have included Professeure du Département d'études françaises at Concordia University and membre de l'Académie des lettres du Québec.

The long list of books you've written includes "Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City", for which you reached the finals of the Ville de Montreal, Grand Prix du Livre. Although some might have regarded that as being an ivory-tower occupation, your writings were widely recognized, as witness the many prizes you have won, such as the Prix Andre-Laurendeau en Sciences humaines.

During your distinguished career, what advances have you seen in the role of the literary translator?

SS: The very fact of the expansion of Translation Studies as an academic field is a great success story of the last 3 decades or so. The growth has been exponential—books, journals, academic programs, summer schools, and the list goes on. The field is especially important in Europe, and literary translation is increasingly recognized as an important creative activity. Translators are getting more recognition, I think, in general—with the wonderful work of translators associations, of high-profile translators, and of academics who take the work of these translators seriously and are making their work the object of serious study. In Canada, literary translation benefits from government support and a certain degree of public recognition. But the same platitudes are often repeated. We still need to work towards further recognition of the creative value of translation—not only in relation to the Canadian scene but internationally.

Translation EffectsJG: Your very latest book, just published, "Translation Effects: The Shaping of Modern Canadian Culture" (written together with Kathy Mezei and Luise von Flotow, McGill-Queen's University Press, pp.496) deals, inter alia, with the subject of bilingualism. For the benefit of our readers who have not read it and may not manage to do so, could you give us one or two points on Canadian bilingualism?

SS: We argue in the book that official bilingualism has in many ways masked the multiform realities of translation within Canadian society. And so the book—which is a collection of 30-some essays—shows how translation is a factor is many aspects of literary and cultural life—through First Nations languages, immigrant languages, and the unequal transactions of French and English. While official bilingualism is an important element of our national self-definition, allowing the country to function, it only applies to the legal realities of the country. The cultural realities are messier, more unequal, but also creative of new mixtures.

JG: So why has the Federal Government gone to such lengths to promote and preserve bilingualism?

SS: Official bilingualism in its current form was a result of the political unrest of the 1960s. There is a very significant separatist movement in Quebec, always ready to re-emerge, and in the 1960s it was very strong. Official bilingualism was one response to this crisis, promising a French presence from coast to coast. But Canada also has a multicultural policy, which gives cultural rights to 'ethnic' groups. These rights are sometimes in conflict with one another, or perceived as such. It is true that official bilingualism has remained in place for many decades now, and seems to have performed its task well. But while the government used to do all its translation in-house, it now outsources practically all translation tasks, and no longer ensures training.

JG: Dr Paul Christophersen of the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, in his book called "Bilingualism", is quoted as saying that it is almost impossible for a "so-called" bilingual speaker to achieve 100% efficiency in both languages. 

SS: Of course there is no such thing as perfect bilingualism. Bilingualism is almost always asymmetrical, however there are many Quebecers who function as well in one language as the other. Usually this is an oral skill. Writing is another story. There are very few people who write as well in one language as the other, and for instance, while many can read equally well in both languages, in Quebec the literary institutions are quite separate. But as for day to day functional bilingualism, there are an astonishing number of people who could claim this capacity in Montreal especially. And while French-Canadians in the past were 'forced' to be bilingual, it is now English-language Montrealers who are increasingly bilingual. But as for 100% efficiency, I would say that this is not really a useful marker. What is 100% efficient when language is concerned?

JG: Mr John Woodsworth, a Russian-English translator and someone who submitted a report to the Canadian government many years ago, proposed to CBC: Replace the current system of separate English and French-language TV networks by a single bilingual network, with a daily schedule of mostly (if not all) Canadian-produced programming originating alternately in English and French, with captions (sub-titles) provided in the second language.

SS: An interesting idea, but unlikely to happen. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission regulates these matters. Twenty years ago it closed down a bilingual radio channel that alternated between French and English. With the present government's stance on public broadcasting, we will be lucky to retain public broadcasting, never mind revolutionize it.

JG: In the course of this brief interview, we have only been able to touch on the diverse fields of erudition that you bring to historical and cultural aspects of translating. Nevertheless, we hope to have given our readers an idea of what they may find in any of the numerous books that you have written. Many thanks.

 Sherry Simon - The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures (in French)


Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.

Interview with British wordsmith Nicholas de Lange

De LangeYanky Fachler kindly acceded to our request and  travelled to Cambridge to interview Professor Nicholas de Lange, the English translator of over a dozen books by Israeli author, Amos Oz, including Judas, which was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. An ordained Reform rabbi, Professor de Lange is Emeritus Fellow and Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Cambridge University's Faculty of Divinity and Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He has held visiting positions at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hungary in Budapest, the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, the Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Toronto and Princeton University. He is a prolific translator of contemporary Hebrew fiction, and has served as Chairman of the Translators Association. In the following extracts, Professor de Lange shares some insights on the art of literary translation.


Yanky FaschlerYanky Fachler is a translator, broadcaster and writer of  several books in the field of Jewish history. He was born in the United Kingdom, spent almost thirty years in Israel and currently lives in Ireland, where he is founder and chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland.






Y.F. :  How would you define a translator?

A translator is a reader who is also a writer. I read the text, and then I write it. My aim is to write a book that is word for word like the original – without being a word for word translation. Since I also write many books of my own, I see no difference between a translator and an author. As an author, you convert material from your mind on to the page. As a translator, you convert someone else’s work to the page. I am uncomfortable being asked which specific words of phrases in Hebrew I find difficult to translate. I don’t like being asked whether I find Hebrew a difficult language to translate. The actual words are almost irrelevant. I translate paragraphs.

 Y.F. :  Do you read a book before you start to translate it?

I don’t like to read the book in advance. Partly because translation is so badly paid that it takes up too much time; and partly because I like to discover the book as I go along. This approach, though, can lead you astray. In Oz’s My Michael, there is a couple living in Jerusalem who drink endless cups of tea. One day, the man is ill and he asks his wife to bring him tea with milk. With my British background, I found this strange. How had he consumed all the previous cups of tea? Then I learned that in Israel, tea with milk is only given to sick people. I had to go back and rewrite all the tea scenes, replacing cups of tea with glasses of tea. Going back to the question of reading a book before translating it, some of the other translators at the Man Booker event agreed with my habit of not reading the book first. But one translator was adamant: “I must read the book first, because I might not accept it.” The only time I have turned down a translation job is when I was too busy.


Y.F. : The actor Lawrence Olivier claimed that actors must learn to love the unsavoury characters they portray on stage. Does something similar happen with translators? Do you have to love some of the unsavoury characters you translate?

Laurence_OlivieN.d.L. :  Translation isn't impartial. Like Olivier rightly says, you must be on the side of the character. You must love the characters you translate. Many of the characters that populate Amos Oz's books are unpleasant, but I don't let my dislike of them stop me from portraying them as they should be portrayed. Anyway, unsavoury characters make interesting characters. You need enormous sympathy for the characters you are translating. For example, some of the books I translate have no narrator – they are entirely epistolary. Everything is in direct speech. Just as a theatre audience needs to know the distinct voice of each actor on stage, so the translator must make the reader aware of which character is speaking at any particular time in an epistolary piece. While on the subject of dialogue on stage and dialogue in translation, I once translated a piece for BBC Radio 3 that was only intended to be read aloud, not to appear on the printed page. The actress called me and said she had a problem with a couple of phrases. "Could you please go back and check the Hebrew to see whether that is what the author really meant?" My heart sank. This was going to be a disaster. Yet when I went back to the original, she was absolutely correct. Without knowing any Hebrew, the actress had stumbled upon a couple of places where my translation did not do justice to the original.

Y.F. : You are quoted as saying that a faithful literary translation demands transcending the words to convey the whole cultural context. Could you elaborate?

N.d.L. :  As a translator, you have to translate the context of the book you are translating. You are asking people to read about a culture they don't and can't know. You have to make the context clear in a subtle way. For example, when there is a reference to Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel's national poet, you don'; have the luxury of using footnotes. You need to find a more subtle way of letting the reader know who Bialik is. It's the same with biblical and Talmudical references. I don't feel the need to explain what the Bible is or what the Talmud is. I leave it to my readers to pick up allusions and to look stuff up for themselves.

Y.F. : What is your latest Hebrew literature translation project?

N.d.L. :  I don't go out of my way to look for Hebrew books to translate, but I am currently engaged in translating perhaps the most challenging Hebrew novel, Days of Ziklag by S Yizhar. This hugely influential modernist work was first published in 1958, and is one of the two most difficult Hebrew books to translate. The other is Yakov Shabtai's Zikhron Devarim (Past Continuous). I was drawn to the Days of Ziklag project because it is the ultimate challenge for a translator – a bit like translating James Joyce. Although Yizhar was writing before the emergence of Holocaust literature as a genre, his War of Independence themes resonated with Holocaust themes such as ethnic cleansing.

Y.F. : Do you ever collaborate with other translators?

N.d.L. :  Right now, I am collaborating on S Yizhar's Days of Ziklag with a former student of mine, Yaacob Dweck. But what with me living in England, and Yaacob living in the USA, we have calculated that it will take us many years to complete the project [1] . I am not unaware of some of the perils of working with a collaborator. The translator Ros Schwartz once told me of her experience in co-translating a book with another translator. She soon discovered that they each had their own style, and this made it very difficult to find a consistent voice. Even little things like the propensity of one translator to use "start" where the other translator used "begin" caused difficulties. As a rule, I often feel uncomfortable reading other translators. If a book is translated from a language I don't know, I find myself asking what the original was like. I suppose I only enjoy translations that are extraordinarily well done.


Y.F. : In Judas, Shmuel gives Yardena a gift for her secular birthday and another for her Hebrew birthday. Having two birthdays is like having two identities. As a translator, does English represent your secular identity, and Hebrew your sacred identity?

N.d.L. :  That is a very subtle question. Yes, English is my secular identity. I certainly regard Hebrew as a sacred tongue, and I prefer to use it only for sacred purposes. I have translated more medieval Hebrew poetry into English than modern Hebrew literature. I don't speak modern Hebrew. I can't read a Hebrew newspaper. [2]  I can listen to the news, but I get lost when they talk about politics. I am unfamiliar with many modern colloquialisms. I do not even regard myself as an expert in Hebrew literature. At the get-together of the Man Booker Prize short-listed authors and their translators, the authors were asked to read from their work in the original language. Amos Oz wasn't there, and they asked me to read. I refused, because my spoken modern Hebrew is not good enough.


Y.F. : Jews have traditionally been multi-lingual. They spoke the language of the host country, they prayed in Hebrew, and conversed in Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic or Arabic. Does the Jewish cultural DNA give Jews an edge when it comes to translating?

N.d.L. :  It is true that through the ages, Jews used their linguistic versatility to become great translators. But the golden age was during the medieval period. In the world of modern literature, Jews no longer have an edge. Most of today's best translators are not Jewish. A lot of translations of modern Hebrew literature used to be clumsy, with translators often not even translating into their mother tongue. But things are much better nowadays, because the authors themselves have learned to be more choosey about who will translate them.


Y.F. : You seem to be drawn to works associated with Israel's War of Independence. Do you think that the war could have been avoided?

N.d.L. :  The main theme of Judas is the conflict between David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister – a true-life character, and the fictional character of Ben GurionShaltiel Abravanel. Ben Gurion believed that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine, so the only alternative was to fight them. Abravanel insisted that war was avoidable, and for his views he was expelled from the ruling elite. He did not think that Israel should be a Jewish state, rather a country in which all could live in equality as brothers. Whatever my views on Abravanel's views may be, I do not let this influence my translation.


Y.F. : In Israel today, some people brand Oz a traitor for his controversial political views. How have his views impinged on your long-term collaborator as Oz's translator?

N.d.L. :  I don't have any opinion about Amos Oz's political views. I am a translator, and I'm really not involved or interested in Israeli politics. I am an academic. It is not my job to pass judgement on the opinions expressed in the book. It is not my job to impose myself on the text. It's not my job to get involved in the politics. It is my job to translate what's put in front of me.


1. The interviewer, Yankjy Fachler, explained to us that de Lange apparently believed that despite modern technology, such as Skype, he and his assistant would have needed to sit together to pore over many fine points in order to perfect the translation.
2. We asked the interviewer how it was possible that Professor de Lange could not read a Hebrew newspaper and yet had translated all the books of Amos Oz, which are written so beautifully and at such a high register. Mr. Faschler explained that Professor de Lange was a specialist in medieval Hebrew and has translated much medieval Jewish poetry and liturgy. However, he had first met Amos Oz at Cambridge when they were both young, and apparently through that friendship he had developed an impressive command of modern Hebrew, despite his claim that he could not read a newspaper.
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.