You were born in France. When and how did you learn English?
At secondary school where it was my first foreign language. But I was better at Italian although I took it up later; so at the baccalauréat and thereafter at university, where I read French lit, Italian became my first foreign language with English in a supporting role (in comparative literature for instance where reading the foreign text in its original language was optional).
My first love is for good writing. I loved Italian and got better at it because, closer to French, its beauty and its finer points were more readily accessible to me. As luck would have it, my desire to go to Italy as an assistant for a year was thwarted. As I had resolved to live abroad and was lucky enough to have relatives in England, I came as an au pair for a year and fell in love with the country. In order to stay on, I found a job as a French teacher and went on to teach in secondary education for over twenty years.
How did you become a translator?
It was a dream I had entertained for a long time. To begin with, my English was not very good and I instinctively turned to books to deepen my knowledge not only of the language but also of the culture, applauded in this by my cousin (a translator herself). The appreciation of literature with a capital L and a good turn of phrase had been my pride and joy: having settled in England I had a visceral need for the same accomplishments in my new current language. From time to time I was seized with the urge to translate a book I had loved.
Then, one fine day, I was through with French teaching – which had in the meantime provided ample food for thought on the respective workings of my two languages. I decided to quit and to satisfy my ambition.
You translate from and into French and english; that must have raised a few highbrows...
It is discouraged but, ironically, I did not have much choice! I wanted to try translating... Fine, but how do you start in the profession? I had to get qualifications, specialisms. I knew that the Institute of linguists who serves all foreign language professionals offered a Diploma in translation. That was all fine and dandy but a few hours spent on passed papers had soon persuaded me that I still had a lot to learn.
Translate indeed, but from and into which language? I had found that I could intimidate my British colleague with the quality of my English and students naturally more inclined to criticise than to respect our knowledge would often turn to me for tricky language questions. (I had garnered a vast vocabulary and could explain grammar.) Meanwhile my assiduous practice of English had weakened my grasp on my mother tongue. I was unemployed so I settled down to the translation of two books, one into French one into English, on alternative day: we’d soon find out. Now the translation of Puckoon towards French proved much more difficult than that of Le Très-bas towards English. This will come as no surprise to professional translators, who are well acquainted with the difficulties associated with the translation of humour, let alone Irish humour!
For good measure, in those days enrolment for the exam was subject to graduation in the language from which the candidate translated. My degree was in French literature therefore I had to take the exam translating towards English, with the native speakers. I passed, and got a merit in literary translation. However, what with French being my mother tongue, the Institute first insisted on my translating only into French. I decided that I would satisfy demand as it came: after all, I had the same qualification as my English speaking colleagues. In due course, the IoL recognised me as a bilingual translator.
Was it difficult for you to build a clientele and to gain a foothold in the profession?
Yes. My specialism in literature and history did not open many doors... I owe it to professional organisations and to my colleagues to have made it as a translator. A translation company offered me a work placement and continued to use me from time to time (I got a break as an interpreter for Oxfam that way). But I am even more grateful to Jamie Robertson at AlphaPlus for the good care he took to introduce me to colleagues and networks. This lead to the creation of a small multilingual team in a position to offer services in a number of languages and in this way, we landed several contracts with publishers. We worked to a cooperative model which enabled us to respond fast and aptly to demand both in terms of language and specialism and relying on mutual trust and respect. This experience would later place me in a position to respond at a moment’s notice to a demand from the French ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among translators, professionalism and mutual support seem a matter of course.
Do you often meet colleagues? Do you find participation to translation forums online profitable?
In my career, contacts have been paramount. Professional organisations (not restricted to languages) helped me meet local colleagues and we were able to support each other. At the same time several translation forums came online and I found more colleagues willing to share resources. I enjoyed this rich generosity which has in turn enabled me to ease colleagues into the profession. One of my joys is to collaborate on occasions with one of my former students! Online exchanges are very rich. I have learnt a lot that way, about languages, of course, but also about professional integrity. Our languages evolve constantly and it is not unusual to come unstuck and turn to collective wisdom for resolution. Methodology also comes under scrutiny there. Besides I owe the medium some good friends.
Translating is a lonely pursuit. Does solitude weigh on you?
No. Much to my own amazement, even in the early days when I was not connected to the internet (which was not the sophisticated tool we now know) five of or six hours of wrestling with a sales contract were pure delight. Admittedly, time is subjective and they could seem a good deal less long than an hour and a half with some thirty kids bereft of any interest in French – and intent on letting you know... The fact of the matter is that I needed such solitude.
Do you work for agencies or private clients?
Mostly for private clients in the fields of art, politics, development aid, history, socio-economics. There too, I have forged some friendships.
What is your greatest ambition?
To succeed in having at least one of the four novels I have translated published. In three cases (one towards English, two towards French), I had the authors’ collaboration and I despair of my ineffectiveness in honouring their patience with me and in having them appreciated.