Interview with Catherine Porter

French-American Foundation: Tell me a bit about your career and what led you to translation.

I had recently finished my dissertation and was teaching French at SUNY Cortland in the early 1970s when I learned from someone I had known in graduate school that a publisher needed a translator for a book by Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov, a book that became, in English, an Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language. I was interested in linguistics, so I took on the challenge and learned a great deal more on the subject along the way! As it happened, Cornell University Press had bought the English-language rights to Todorov’s next three books and invited me to translate them; after that, one thing led to another. The Roudinesco book was my 43rd, and I’ve done three more since then. 

Why did you decide to translate Freud: In His Time and Ours

I jumped at the opportunity when Harvard U. P. offered it, because to me Freud was a highly important thinker and a fascinating figure; I was curious to know more about his life and work in its historical context. 

What was the most interesting fact about Freud that you learned while working on this project? 

I’m not sure I can single out one particular fact, but I was impressed by Freud’s energy and output as a writer. The 20-volume Standard Edition speaks for itself, but even that massive collection doesn’t include all of his texts. In addition, he was an extraordinary correspondent: in the early years he wrote at length to his wife and other family members during his frequent travels, and he later maintained epistolary relations not only with family and friends but also with numerous colleagues and disciples. Much of his correspondence has been published but several more volumes have recently come out in German and are not yet available in English. 

Did you come across any particular challenges while working on this translation?

The author’s expository style was graceful and lucid, so I didn’t have the kind of challenges that sometimes come up with less careful writers. However, the project entailed a great deal of library research, as Roudinesco cited many texts in French translation from English or German; it was my job to track down the original or the published English translation if available.  

How do you approach the task of translating? What does your process look like?

I tend to start by reading the introduction and skimming the rest; then I sit down at my computer and begin to produce a rough first draft, marking passages about which I’m uncertain as I go. The second draft is just about as time-consuming as the first, because I’m comparing my text to the source to make sure I’ve captured the meaning and not left anything out, while at the same time I’m starting to clean up the English: moving phrases around, repunctuating, searching for alternative wordings, checking logical connections, and so on. This draft I usually print out and correct on paper. The third and subsequent drafts (typically up to six or seven) go more quickly, as I reread on screen, looking for the little things I missed earlier, trying to achieve “naturalness” and fluency in English while also trying to preserve what I take to be the author’s style or voice. 

What does the Translation Prize mean to you and how do you think it benefits translation and the literary world?

The French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize is a highly prestigious one in my eyes; it’s certainly an honor to be a finalist! I think prizes of this sort are beneficial not just to the winners but to translators and the authors they translate because of the attention they bring to an often underappreciated or even unrecognized activity.  

Who are some of your favorite authors to read? And to translate?

I have to confess that while I’ve specialized in nonfiction translation, my favorite authors to read tend to be novelists. I was excited about the French “New Novelists” in their day—Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, and others; I don’t think I have a current favorite, but I keep looking.  And to translate? At the moment, I’m tempted to say Bruno Latour, whose works I’ve been translating on and off for more than twenty years. His latest, Facing Gaia, which Polity Press is about to bring out, strikes me as especially provocative and pertinent regarding the way we humans conceptualize the planet we live on and understand our relation to climate change. 

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring translator, what would it be?

Revise! And then do it again, and again, and again… Another piece of advice I’ve found myself giving to undergraduates who think they may be interested in translating fiction or nonfiction professionally is to read the New York Times and Le Monde (or comparable target and source language newspapers) every day. This usually surprises them, but I try to convince them that it’s important for translators to be informed about a wide variety of topics and to be familiar with the terms in which they’re discussed in both languages. 

What current projects are you working on?

I’ve just about finished a very interesting biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski by French historian and diplomat Justin Vaïsse. I haven’t made a firm decision on the next project, but I’m considering a book that has to do with diplomacy and wolves!



About Catherine Porter

Catherine Porter, 2009 President of the Modern Language Association, received her doctorate in French literature from Yale University in 1972. She is a Visiting Professor at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, and Professor of French Emerita at the State University of New York, College at Cortland. A free-lance translator in the humanities and the social sciences, she has published numerous essays and more than forty books in translation from the French, including most recently Elisabeth Roudinesco, Freud in His Time and Ours, and (in collaboration with Susan Tarrow) Jean Bollack, The Art of Reading, from Homer to Paul Celan. Forthcoming titles include Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, and Justin Vaïsse, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategist of Empire.