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Translation Prize juror shares insights on French literature and the state of translation
March 20, 2014
On March 6, the French-American Foundation announced the Finalists for the 2013 Translation Prize. Read more here.
French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize Juror and 1988 winner David Bellos is a professor of French and Comparative Literature and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, Princeton University.
Bellos gained his doctorate in French literature from Oxford University (UK) and taught subsequently at Edinburgh, Southampton, and Manchester before coming to Princeton in 1997. He worked first in nineteenth century studies, particularly on the novel and the history of literary ideas, then developed interests in modern and contemporary French writing. He has translated works by Georges Perec, Ismail Kadare, Fred Vargas, and Romain Gary. He has written biographies of Georges Perec, Jacques Tati, and Romain Gary as well as a general book about translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (Faber, 2011) which has itself been translated into French as Le Poisson et le bananier (Flammarion, 2012). In addition to winning the French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize in 1988, he received the Prix Goncourt de la Biographie in1994 and the Man Booker International translator’s award in 2005.
David, we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us about your work and your affiliation with the French-American Foundation. Your first experience with the Translation Prize was as a winner in 1988 – the third year of the Prize – for your translation of Georges Perec’s Life, a User's Manual (David Godine Publishers). What was your experience winning the Translation Prize in 1988?
Have you seen many prizes of this sort of initiatives to reward translations?
After a rather lengthy hiatus from being affiliated with the Prize, this is now the third year you’ve served as a Juror for the Translation Prize. This year, which work has impressed you the most?
In the submissions this year and more generally in the last few decades, have you noticed a shift in the works that are being translated from French to English?
What role has the Internet and new technology – ePublishing and the emergence of the eBook – had on the translation industry. Have the Internet and the eBook encouraged or provided new opportunities for translations and for translators?
The ease of putting up a translation on the Web yourself, a work that you come across, the sort of do-it-yourself ePublishing, now that is not so easy because of the question of rights. You can’t just do that. You do have to go through a publisher to acquire the rights to translate something into English. So, for all works in copyright, and copyright last for 70 years after the death of the author, that’s to say pretty much everything written in the last 120 years, self-published translations are not feasible nor legal in the way that your own self-published writing is. I don’t know what the next step or movement will be. The role of publishers as gatekeepers and organizers of translation is not redundant. It’s not going to disappear in any foreseeable time.
When did you learn French?
Obviously, your attachment to France has extended well beyond Mr. Smith. You’ve worked in French and comparative literature. What is it about France and French literature that is special or notable to you compared to other nations or languages?