Our choice of wordsmith this time is the well-known and prolific translator (from French and German), Mike Mitchell, who kindly granted Jonathan G. this interview. Mike lives with his wife in a hamlet close to the town of Tighnabruaich, County of Argyll, West of Scotland.
JG : You were born in Rochdale, Lancashire, and when you were fourteen you moved with your family to Dartford, Kent, until you went to the University of Oxford to study French and German language and literature. At what age did you first develop a love of languages? How strong was your French when you were admitted to Oxford.
MM: Initially, languages were one of the school subjects I was good at; I had a great love of literature and it was really so as to be able to read French and German literature that I continued with the study of the languages.
The first foreign language I took at school was French; I was very good at that when I left school (top 5% in a national examination); my command increased when I spent a year in Nancy, where I was an English assistant at a school and took courses at the university there, before going up to Oxford. As my second foreign language, my German was weaker but benefited from an intercalated year in Germany during my degree course.
After graduation I spent a year abroad (teaching English in Saudi Arabia) then went back to Oxford to do a thesis (Bachelor of Letters) on an Austrian novelist, Heimito von Doderer. I then taught German as a university lecturer at the University of Reading (1 year) and the University of Stirling (27 years).
JG: You dabbled in translating while you were an academic, but the opportunity of early retirement from Stirling University, in Scotland, where you were teaching, opened the way for you to take on translating as a second career. You are now doing that very successfully from your home on the west coast of Scotland.
MM: My love of literature led me to try translation while I was still at school and I continued to 'dabble' in it while a lecturer—mainly from German, which I was occupied with professionally. In the early 1970s I tried to interest a publisher in a volume of translations of East German short stories, edited by a colleague. The reply from the publisher was so discouraging, I abandoned the project; if I had been more persevering, I might have been translating professionally for much longer.
In the late 1980s I had the good fortune to be asked to translate a book by an American publisher specialising in Austrian literature and culture (Ariadne). Just as the book appeared I had another piece of good fortune: I contacted a publisher (Dedalus, with whom I still work) and they happened to be looking for a translator from German.
At first I was known as a translator from German, but after I had translated about 30 books, I felt I would like to revive my French, which was by now a little rusty, though I was reading French novels submitted to Dedalus. I felt I had enough experience as a translator to be aware of possible pitfalls in translating from French, a language I hadn't used professionally for years.
JG: You have translated more than 90 books, the great majority of those being since you retired from university life. You must work very hard and very studiously at translating to attain both high proficiency and a consistent speed.
MM: Firstly, I find translating literature very satisfying and very enjoyable, so I maintain a high level of motivation. On the other hand, publishers' deadlines give me the discipline I need. (I didn't take early retirement to fill in my time on the golf course.) I prefer to be working on two translation projects at a time, which prevents me falling into a rut or getting tired with one. In general I complete two such 'average-length' books every six months, but the quality of the translation obviously takes precedence over speed.
JG: Have you ever met any of the authors you have translated?
MM: Nowadays email makes contact with authors much easier than when everything had to be done by post. This correspondence can remain business-like, but very often develops a more personal tone, depending on how we respond to each other. It was a matter of course that when I happened to be in Paris, I should meet Mercedes Deambrosis, the author of Milagrosa (Dire, 2000; Dedalus 2002), the first book I translated from French;
I also met Sylvie Germain, when she did a reading tour in England; her regular translator for Dedalus is Christine Donougher, but when she was too busy (translating Les Misérables) I translated Sylvie's novel L'Inaperçu (Albin Michel, 2008; translated as Hidden Lives, Dedalus, 2010). But the author whom I have come to know best is Jean-Pierre Ohl, as well as his wife Véronique, who are both employed in the bookstore business. They have stayed with us, and my wife and I have stayed in their holiday cottages in Scotland and recently we visited them in Bordeaux. Ohl is a great anglophile and an extremely well-read person, in addition to being a first-rate author. I recommended his first novel to Dedalus, which was again translated by Christine Donougher; it centres on two French rival students of Charles Dickens (Monsieur Dick ou Le dixième livre, Gallimard 2004; Dedalus 2008). He has also published a short biography of Charles Dickens. Jean-Pierre is a fascinating person. Your readers can read about him in an article published in The Guardian under the heading "Jean-Pierre Ohl, a Dickens de nos jours."
Jean-Pierre's latest book, set in Scotland in the 1950s, is entitled Les maitres de Glenmarkie (Gallimard 2008) which I translated under the title The Lairds of Cromarty, (Dedalus 2012).
MM: The main part of the book is set in 1953. Mary Guthrie, a brilliant postgraduate student of English from Islay, decides to write a doctoral thesis on Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, the Scottish author, mathematician and translator of Rabelais, who supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War and then died in exile in 1660. Mary visits Cromarty House, the crumbling ancestral home of the Urquharts, where she has various 'Gothic' experiences involving Urquharts both past and present. The other focus of the book is a Catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, a descendant of the Urquharts on the wrong side of the blanket, who sleeps with Mary and then, dissatisfied with his Bishop's response to his confession, flattens him in a rugby tackle and resigns his priesthood to go and work for an eccentric bookseller in Edinburgh.
In memory of Sir Thomas Urquhart, Chevalier of Cromarty. A great Scot, writer and translator of Rabelais
There is also a role for Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who lived on Jura in the late 1940s, where in the novel he saves the young Krook from drowning in the Corryvreckan whirlpool; he also appears in his role as a Republican soldier in the Spanish civil war, where he is involved with a rather disreputable 20th-century Urquhart.
JG : The Historical Novel Society reviewed The Lairds of Cromarty very favourably : "For all its Gothic twists, this is a book filled with humour, acute observations of character and place, and literary citations worthy of a professional bookseller — Ohl's other career." The reviewer also wrote : "It has been flawlessly translated by Mike Mitchell in what deserves to become another of the latter's award-winning works." You have quoted Ohl as telling you that he prefers the English tradition of literature to the French. And he obviously has a strong affinity for Scotland. Did your own familiarity with Scotland enable you to plunge yourself into the translation with added enthusiasm and insight, in order to produce a "flawless translation"?
MM: It was fascinating to translate a novel set in the country that has been my home since 1968. My familiarity with Scotland enabled me to correct a few little errors, in particular where customs or facts had changed since the early 1950s; for example Jean-Pierre did not realise that until comparatively recently pubs did not remain open all day but were subject to strict opening hours and that meant I had to carefully—and as unobtrusively as possible—rewrite two or three scenes.
I also 'translated' the title. The French publishers, afraid they might be sued by present-day Urquharts because one or two of their 20th-century clansmen in the novel were somewhat disreputable, had insisted Jean-Pierre use fictitious names. As Sir Thomas is a historical character and Jean-Pierre quotes from his works, this didn't seem to make sense for an English version, so I persuaded Dedalus to use the real names (Urquhart, Cromarty); I did manage to contact a senior member of the Urquhart clan, who said he didn't imagine anyone would take offence.
MM: Dedalus felt that he is a major French writer, whose works are not well known to English readers, although Bruges-la-Morte has been translated previously.
JG: The Historical Novel Society review, quoted above, referred to the awards you had won. I know that in addition to such awards and prizes, you've also been shortlisted many times – in fact 4 times for The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize alone.
MM: I won two prizes in the 1993 British Comparative Literature Association's translation competition and the 1998 Schlegel-Tieck Prize (for translations from German) for my translation of Herbert Rosendorfer's Letters Back to Ancient China.
Otherwise I have often been the bridesmaid, never the bride. I do think that being shortlisted means the committee thinks your translation, as a translation, would be worthy of the prize, then other factors come in the reckoning; it is nice, though, to actually win, especially for the publicity.
JG: Your published translation, “Where Tigers are at Home” (original: « Là où les tigres sont chez eux »), written by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, was published in the US after an earlier publication in the UK. The Times Literary Supplement critic (to name only one who enjoyed your translation) wrote : “Long in the making, and rejected by thirty-five publishers, this clever, exuberant philosophical novel, the winner of the three major French prizes, now appears in a splendidly complicit, fluent, vivid translation by Mike Mitchell. “
MM : Yes, he was referring to le Prix Médicis, le Prix du jury Jean Giono & le Prix du roman Fnac. It is usually impossible to know if a critic has in fact compared the source language with the English translation, but it gives me sufficient gratification to read that critics of a book I have translated have formed a very positive view of the style of the English text, judging it as if they were reading a book written in English.
JG : What is your latest translation?
MM: It is another book by Jean-Pierre Ohl, Le chemin du diable — The Devil’s Road.published this year (2019). Set in early 19th-century England its subject is the beginnings of capitalism, industrialisation and the dominance of the entrepreneurial middle class. It focuses on the building of the Stockton to Darlington railway under George Stevenson, and his affluent backers who believe in Adam Smith’s profit motive as the essential force of progress; it also presents the dire situation of the exploited workers and even has a role for Jean-Pierre’s favourite, Charles Dickens — as a young boy working in the blacking factory; and it is to him that one of the men in the debtors’ prison, where his family has to live, gives a dramatic account of the Peterloo massacre. Jean-Pierre’s love of the English novel also appears here in an echo of the Gothic novel in the relationship between a local aristocrat and his French wife who disappear under mysterious circumstances.
JG : You have been very busy translating the books of other authors, but you found time to write one book yourself.
MMK : One of my favourite historical characters is an Austrian, Franz Kyselak, who was an almost exact contemporary of Franz Schubert. He was a minor civil servant but was famous in his day because he was an outstanding walker who walked all round the Austrian Empire; his name was also well-known, if not notorious, because he wrote it everywhere, on buildings, precipitous rocks etc. He also wrote an account of one of his journeys on foot and when I couldn't find an English publisher for a translation, I wrote a fictitious account of what his journeys might have been like, Kyselak Was Here, under the pseudonym Michael Robin.
JG : I understand that you have just taken another trip to the South of France. How do you get there from your residence in Scotland?
MM: My wife and I enjoyed making the journey part of our vacation: we went by ferry across the Clyde, train to Glasgow and London, Eurostar to Paris, where we spent the night (a chance to absorb some Parisian atmosphere—and food and wine); in the morning we took the train to Cahors, where another in the party met us by car; we did the return journey from Bordeaux, having stayed with Jean-Pierre Ohl and his wife, getting to London in one day and taking the overnight bus back to Scotland.
JG: Congratulations on your success in both of your careers. We hope that you will continue to be prolific for many years to come.
MM: Thank you very much for your interest and encouragement.
Original interview: June 2013. Updated 31.12.2019
Cet entretien est accessible en français ici. Traduction Jean Leclercq.