Alyson Waters, Professional Translator & Professor of Literary Translation at Yale University

January 5, 2021


Alyson Waters, winner of the 2013 and 2020 French-American Foundation Translation Prizes

Q. You have a long career translating literary works from authors such as Louis Aragon, Emmanuel Bove, Eric Chevillard, and many others. What makes for a successful translation, and what are you seeking to convey when you sit down to translate an author’s work? Put another way, are there any pitfalls of poor translation that you are trying to avoid?

The primary thing I want to express is an author’s voice. Translating fiction for me is rarely about the message of a work, but rather about capturing the way that message is delivered.  What is it about a particular voice that distinguishes it from all other voices? Metaphors and similes, alliteration, sentence flow, idiomatic expressions and idiolects, all the things that make up style, which can more or less be analyzed, and then the more ephemeral, harder to explain thing we call either narrative or authorial voice. A poor translation for me is one in which that voice doesn’t come through in English. I avoid translating authors whose voice I can’t capture, no matter how much I may love and respect a work. I’ve learned to accept my limitations, at least the ones I’m aware of!

Q. Your translation of “A King Alone” by Jean Giono (New York Review Books) received the Foundation’s translation prize for fiction in 2020. Published just after World War II and sometimes described as an “existential detective story,” Giono’s novel tells the story of a nineteenth-century Alpine village terrorized by a strange outsider. What was most challenging about translating this particular work? And how do you approach the language in works that are published (or set in) an earlier time? 

Everything about “A King Alone” was challenging. A lot of research went into the 3 time periods of the book (time of the “events,” time after the “events,” and the time of the writing). The verb tenses were all over the place depending on who was speaking and when; the descriptions of landscapes and trees and insects and mountains were challenging as well and involved my spending a lot of time in the dictionary, and looking at paintings and photographs of the region where the novel takes place, as well as visiting it back in the good old days when we could travel! There were linguistic regionalisms to deal with, and lots of dialogue that definitely didn’t sound contemporary to our ears, so making sure I wasn’t using anachronistic language involved quite a bit of etymological research as well. Then spending time with the amazing “Dictionnaire Giono” as well, which analyzes characters, places, entire novels, etc. I could go on…

Q. Who are some contemporary authors and translators you admire?

This is a question that could result in a very long list!  But in brief, I love certain contemporary mysteries:  Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penney, Denise Mina, Peter Robinson.  My friend the Canadian novelist Alissa York is an absolutely stunning writer and should be better known in the US. Peter Cameron is another of my favorite contemporary writers. Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, and the less contemporary John McGahern… but McGahern is definitely one of my favorites.  Well, that’s enough. As for translators, there are so many good ones! Camilleri’s English and French translators, Stephen Sartarelli and Serge Quadrupanni respectively do amazing work.  Donald Nicholson-Smith, with whom I’ve been translating Jean-Patrick Manchette’s last four novels missing in English (two each), has done excellent work in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  I think Frank Wynne did a tremendous job with Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex. Linda Coverdale has done so many wonderful translations of contemporary French and Francophone fiction. I’m grateful to Thomas Teal for translating Tove Jansson! I would have been very unhappy had I not been able to read her. And to Don Bartlett for Per Petterson and Jo Nesbø.  And of course there are more… 

Q. You have sat on the Translation Prize jury in prior years. What do you think is important about the French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize and other prizes that bring new works of translation to light?

The prize is a wonderful way of recognizing the work of translators as work separate from the work of the author, but at the same time the jury looks at what makes the author’s work itself valuable enough to enter the English-language canon. I also like the fact that it can be awarded for the text of a living or a dead author (I’ve won the prize for both!).  So many prizes are just for recent work. The fact that fiction and non-fiction are separated in the Foundation’s award is also very important since they really cannot be judged using the same criteria. In the good old days, I have to say the French-American Foundation threw the greatest in-person awards ceremonies! I look forward to the time when we can do that again!

Q. What advice do you give your students who want to follow in your footsteps?

I have quite a few former students who have become well-respected translators! My advice is pick books you love, don’t undersell your work, but be prepared to have a day job at some point!  And always, always thank your editors and publishers for the work they put in behind the scenes.

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