David Bellos

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.

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David BellosDavid, 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?
This was a relatively new prize then. I didn’t live in the United States at the time. I lived in Manchester in England. I was absolutely bewildered and flabbergasted and overwhelmed to be asked to fly to New York to get a prize for the translation of Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. At that time, the reception for the Prize was held in a room in New York Public Library. It certainly had a huge impact on me, and I think it also gave Perec’s wonderful novel a degree of prominence it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Have you seen many prizes of this sort of initiatives to reward translations?
There’s a bit of it about, but the French-American Foundation remains the senior of these institutions because more books are translated from French than any language, even now, I think it’s the hardest one to win.

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?
I can’t give that away at this stage. We’re down to our short list, but we haven’t quite decided which one impressed us the most. We’re going to argue about that at the luncheon in New York in a few weeks’ time. I would say that I’m, every year, impressed by the quality of some of the social-science books coming from France and by the seriousness of their English-language translators. Works in anthropology especially seem to be extremely well done into English and extremely worthwhile books. In fiction, obviously I have my own tastes, but there are some really talented translators working in the avant-garde, the more literary end of the fiction market. I’ve got my favorites, but I’m not telling you what they are just yet.

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?
No. What’s coming into English from French continues to be a mix of topical books that will disappear very quickly but are interesting for a few months, and that’s healthy; “serious” books – social-science and actual-science books, there’s a steady flow of them; old books – retranslations of classics or forgotten classics – there are a few of those every year; contemporary fiction, some of it popular fiction, some of it demanding literary fiction. Those are the main categories, and I don’t think the proportions have changed massively over the past 20 years. The overall volume, I think, has increased somewhat.

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?
Yes, obviously. There are two things here. One of them is that Amazon is now involving itself in the business of commissioning translations. These are books that appear only in Kindle, electronic format, not in actual copies. Because of its already dominant position in the marketing of books, who knows? Amazon might itself become the biggest publisher of translations in the English-speaking world in the next few weeks or months or years. It certainly aims to do that.

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?
I learned French at school! I had a wonderful school teacher called Mr. Smith. We called him Froggy Smith. I was 11 when I started, and I just loved his lessons. I learned French very quickly, as one does at that age. That’s where my French comes from. I’ve learned a bit since then, but I think about 90 percent of what I know about French I learned from Mr. Smith.

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?
There are just a lot of really good books that just happened to have been written in France, which have circulated around Europe and around the world and continue to echo. Literary France, for me, isn’t directly connected to actual France. I love actual France, as well, but literary France – the France that is Diderot and Balzac and Hugo and Proust, etc. – exists in a kind of hyperspace. Here you have created a global culture that I just love, and I’m happy to spend much of my time tilling that soil and going over it. It’s not necessarily France that produced that culture. So many French writers actually come from somewhere else and always have, but the French language has been a vehicle for the expression of all sorts of rich and interesting and fundamental ways of looking at the world.