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Interview with British wordsmith (and translator) Ros Schwartz


ChevalierOur guest interviewee is Ros Schwartz, a prolific, prodigious and prize-winning literary translator (French>English), as this interview and her CV below make clear. Ros was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to French literature by the French Government.In 2017 she received the John Sykes Memorial Prize for Excellence from the UK Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Ros lives in London, where she divides her time between literary translation and working as a Royal Literary Fund writing fellow at King’s College London. She is co-chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee.


  Ros S
   The interviewee - Ros Schwartz The interviewer - Jonathan Goldberg


JG: . Since you completed your university studies in France, you've been extremely active both as a literary translator and in many branches of the translating profession. We'll talk about your career in a moment, but take us back to your school years. Where were you brought up, at what age did you begin to study French and how strong was your command of French when you entered University?

RS: My parents instilled in me a love of the French language, literature, music, food and wine that has become a lifelong passion. They were both ardent Francophiles, which was quite unusual for 1950s austerity Britain. The songs I heard in my cradle were those of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Yves Montand and Mistinguett. They sang me to sleep with En passant par la Lorraine and taught me to sing Au Clair de la Lune before I knew my ABC.

When they didn't want me to understand what they were talking about, my parents would speak to each other in French, so naturally I made it my business to decipher and master this language very quickly.

At school, an inspirational French teacher, Miss Tucker, passed on to me her love of French literature, and I embarked on a French degree. But I wasn't cut out for academia, and the University of Kent and I parted company. I ran away to Paris, aided and abetted by my tutor, David Bradby, the distinguished historian of French theatre who remained a dear friend until his death in 2010. He helped me find my first job as an assistante in a Paris Lycée. I spent 8 years in Paris, doing a variety of odd (and I mean odd!) jobs (including working for the Gare d'Austerlitz telephone information service – there are probably people still wandering around Bordeaux  today trying to find the train to Port-Bou). During those years I immersed myself in every aspect of French life, from signing on as student at the radical university of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence, unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. My friends in Paris devoted themselves to teaching me the slang of Belleville and the poetry of Verlaine.


JG. You have a LèsL from Université Vincennes-Saint-Denis (Paris VIII). What language courses did you take there?

RS: I actually did a degree in English and American studies with a minor in Italian. The 1970s were an exciting time to be in a radical French uni – the 1968 afterglow. Having been at a staid UK university (and dropped out), I took courses in subjects I could never have imagined, such as "Donald Duck and Anglo-Saxon Cultural Imperialism". But it was at Vincennes that I had my first taste of literary translation, under a tutor called John Edwards. He passed on to me his passion for translating.


JG:. Did you become a translator at the outset of your career?

RS: I lived in Paris for eight years, and then spent a year in India. On my return to the UK, I discovered that despite having languages (I also have Spanish), I was completely unemployable, having never worked in the UK. In Paris I had taught English in companies as a way of keeping body and soul together, but had no 'real' work experience. I was too old to go into a job at a very junior level, too inexperienced to go in at a higher level, and too much of a maverick to fit into a company culture. So I had no option but to invent my own career. I launched myself as a translator, having translated one book before leaving Paris, for which I had not yet found a publisher.


JG:. You've translated over 100 books from French into English. How long did it take you to establish the kind of reputation that put your services in such high demand?

RS: The publishing world is quite small and once you've got a foot in the door, editors tend to pass your name on. Colleagues too. It took a few years of letter writing, taking on other types of work, notably cookery books.


JG. Which of the books was the most challenging, linguistically or in other respects?

RS: Each book has its own set of challenges. My translation of Lebanese novelist Dominique Eddé's Kite was interesting because Eddé writes in French but with an oriental sensibility. It took me way out of my comfort zone, and by the end I had a curious feeling that I'd translated from Arabic, so different is the novel's structure and language from the western narrative tradition. Re-translating a classic, Saint-Exupéry's Petit Prince had a whole set of challenges, linguistic, stylistic, ethical, translating for children, creating different voices. More recently, I translated Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (The Feminist Press, 2017). It’s the memoir of an extraordinary woman who is a translator-activist as well as a poet. Every word of the French is exquisitely judged, so one false note in the translation would jar horribly. My most recent translation, A Long Way from Douala is by the Swiss writer of Cameroonian origin, Max Lobe. He writes in French but uses a lot of expressions in Camfranglais, which is an urban slang made up of English, French and words borrowed from local languages. I’ve talked about about the challenges in a recent interview


JG:  Do you find time to study the works of other literary translators? When you do that, do you have the source and target texts before your eyes?

RS: I'm not an academic, I'm a hands-on practitioner. I read voraciously, both translations and other literature. I am in permanent dialogue with numerous translator friends and colleagues. My work with English PEN's Writers in Translation Programme awarding promotional grants leads me to read a lot of sample translations. And as a mentor and external supervisor I see students' work. But I don't have time to 'study' translations. There aren't enough hours in the day.


JG: For those contemplating a career as a literary translator, would they have any realistic prospect of making ends meet, short of achieving the kind of success you've had.

RS: Making ends meet has nothing to do with critical success. Literary translation simply isn't well paid. And there is a limit to how many books you can translate in a year. Sadly a lot of translators find themselves churning out books in order to make ends meet. The quality of their work suffers. Most translators also have a day job. For years I made my living from running a small translation company and only did one literary work a year, for publishers who value quality and would give me the time I needed to do a good job. Now I lead workshops and am fortunate enough to have a two-year position with the Royal Literary Fund, an organisation that sends writers into universities for two days a week to help students with writing skills. Other colleagues work as teachers or editors or do something completely different as a way of earning a living.


JG: In 2009 you and Amanda Hopkinson jointly won the International Dagger Award for your translation of Dominique Manotti's Lorraine Connection. How did you divide the work between you and ensure a unity of style?

RS: I drafted the entire novel, then Amanda went over it in minute detail and made lots of suggestions, most of which I incorporated. Then we met up and thrashed out the problem sections. It was creatively satisfying. I've collaborated with Lulu Norman on a number of translations, and with Steve Cox and Sarah Ardizzone. For me, collaboration is a form of professional development. You learn a lot from working 'à quatre mains' and the end translation benefits enormously.


JG: In that same year you organised a series for peer-training translation workshops with the Translators Association, funded by the Arts Council of England. Could you explain the concept of a "peer-training workshop".

RS: Yes, it's a translator-led workshop for practicing translators. It can be language-specific or subject-oriented, e.g. translating sex/poetry/subtitles. The idea is to compare notes on techniques and strategies for dealing with challenges we all face. Although there are numerous undergraduate and postgraduate university courses for beginner translators, there's little mid-career training, so we decided to remedy that by devising our own workshops. I also run translation surgeries, where colleagues working with different language combinations bring along a specific issue which we discuss collectively. It’s interesting to see the crossovers and common challenges translators from different languages face, and to see the solutions the hive mind can come up with.

JG. You were also awarded the "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres". Tell our readers how and why you were so honoured.


Ros Scwartz Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres Cert (small)

RS: . It's a slightly mysterious process. In June 2009 I received a letter from the French Embassy in London telling me I'd been 'nommée au grade de Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' in recognition for my 'travail de traduction, et plus largement votre rôle dans la diffusion de la littérature française'. According to the French Ministry of Culture ,the award is made to people for 'la contribution qu'elles ont apportée au rayonnement de la culture en France et dans le monde'.

I imagine it's because I've always worked with French publishers and the Book Office here to bring French titles to the attention of UK publishers (in fact that's how I launched myself).


JG: You have also organised or overseen online translation courses, including one  offered by Birkbeck College. Could you compare the advantages and disadvantages for the participants of online courses as a substitute for face-to-face instruction. Why would a college offer courses free to applicants from throughout the world?

RS: There's no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The online course was one strand of a project that involved a weekend 'taster' course and a summer school. It was for those who attended the summer school and who wanted more practice, and for anyone thinking of doing translation who wanted to try their hand. We received funding for the project which enabled us to offer the online course free. But we weren't proposing it as a substitute for face-to-face teaching, and nor were we suggesting that anyone completing the online course was ready to launch their career. But it's good to be able to offer it to budding translators around the world, not all of whom have the means to come to London for the summer school or to go to university.

One of the most interesting translator development formats I’ve been involved in is the Vice-Versa programme run by the Collège International de Traducteurs (CITL) in Arles, France. The one-week workshop brings together six translators from French to English and six from English to French, under the supervision of a tutor from each language. Each half-day session is devoted to a translation by one of the mentees. So each person has the full attention of eleven others. It’s enriching to have input from the mother-tongue participants as well as from those working in the same language direction. CITL also runs a two-month residency with three translators for each language and three different tutors each in attendance for two weeks. The fledgling translators emerge from this ready to spread their wings. I thoroughly recommend this programme. Details

In October 2019 year I was involved in a workshop and mentoring scheme to train literary translators in Cameroon. It was part of research project led by the University of Bristol and Bakwa publishers in the capital, Yaounde. Cameroon has two official languages, French and English (as well as over 250 local languages), but there is no literary translation activity between French and English. We ran a week-long workshop to train a group of promising translators in each language, followed by a three-month mentorship. The short stories the mentees translated, written by emerging writers from a previous workshop as part of the project, will  be published in an anthology later this year. This experience has reinforced my conviction that mentorship is the most effective way of fostering new talent. 

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


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