Interview with Jane Marie Todd

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

Jane Marie Todd: I’ve been a free-lance translator for twenty-five years. After I received my PhD, I spent a number of years in academia, without ever finding a tenure-track job. I was living in Portland, Oregon, where I’d moved for an academic job that did not pan out, and I decided I wanted to stay in this beautiful city. I had taken several translation seminars in graduate school, and going free-lance offered me a great deal of freedom to live where I like, set my own hours and working conditions. And I greatly enjoy translation work. I’m more a word person than a people person, so it’s a good match, better than teaching, I would say.

 

Why did you decide to translate The French Resistance?

I’ve done a large number of translations for Harvard University Press, so when one of the editors there, Kathleen McDermott, offered me the job, I jumped at it. Olivier Wieviorka is a highly respected historian of World War II and the French Resistance. That is always a plus, of course. And it’s a subject that has interested me for quite some time. Long ago, I attended a summer seminar on representing the Holocaust that Dominick LaCapra offered at the School of Criticism and Theory, and I also taught and wrote about Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites and Marguerite Duras’s The War (La douleur), both fictional treatments of the German Occupation of France. Expertise in a given topic is not a prerequisite for translating a book—I have done many books that are far afield from my scholarly interests—but in this case, the two dovetailed nicely.

 

What were some challenges that you encountered while translating the book?

It was quite a straightforward translation. Wieviorka writes well and clearly, and he was very helpful with the questions I had. There were a few plays on words, usually taken from pro-German or anti-German propaganda: for example, members of the Resistance said of Radio-Paris, the collaborationist station, “Radio-Paris ment, Radio-Paris ment,  Radio-Paris est allemand,” playing on the verb for lying, mentir, and the word for German, allemand.  I translated it as “Radio-Paris lies, Radio-Paris deceives, Radio-Paris is  Germendacious.” On the pro-German side, it was said of those who listened to Charles de Gaulle’s broadcasts from England, “Le dingaullisme s’attrape, surtout, par les organes auditifs.” Dingaullisme is a portmanteau word, a combination of dingue, meaning “crazy,” and gaullisme,  “Gaullism,” as in “de Gaulle.” I translated it as, “Dengaulle Fever is caught primarily through the auditory organs,” and was happy to learn that one of the symptoms of Dengue Fever is insanity.

 

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

I do a number of increasingly polished drafts, rather like a sculptor rough-hewing a stone, then going back for the detail work. My first draft is very rough, more like typing than writing, to paraphrase Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac. I feel like, to really understand how to translate p. 1, I have to know what is on p. 301. So I tend to go over a translation many times.

 

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

It’s wonderful recognition for the individual translators, the finalists as well as the eventual winners, but also for the craft of translation. I was a co-winner of the 2010 prize: the trip to New York, the awards ceremony, it was like a dream for me. I live a very quiet life, so to be recognized for what I do, to get to give a speech before a group interested in translation, you can’t imagine what that meant to me. I’d been working in relative isolation for a long time. Most of my friends here in Portland are writers of fiction, not translators. So winning the prize made me feel like I belonged to a larger world.

 

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

I’m a great fan of Lydia Davis, both her fiction and her translation of Proust. I read her version of Swann’s Way a few years ago, and I became entranced with Proust. I went back and reread (or, in some cases, read for the first time) all of In Search of Lost Time. I’m now writing a book on Proust—no one can compare to him. As part of that project, I’ve also translated bits and pieces of Proust. I haven’t had many opportunities to translate fiction, let alone literary masterpieces, so that is very fulfilling and challenging.

 

What is the most difficult book that you have translated? What made it difficult and why?

For the most part, I translate scholarly books. Not all academic authors put a premium on clarity: some are “big picture” thinkers, shall we say, and don’t always attend to the nitty-gritty of their prose. In those cases (I won’t name names), translation can involve a great deal of copy editing: clarifying the author’s ideas, cleaning up syntax, sentence structure. I try to present the author’s best face to English-speaking readers. And then, when a book is outside my fields of expertise and there are many technical terms, that too can be difficult. Early on, I was asked to translate Georges Didi-Huberman’s Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration. I had very little background in the fine arts. Since then, translating museum catalogs and other art criticism has become my favorite sort of work. But there was and is a lot of jargon to learn, words I didn’t know in English. 

  

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

People who choose to do translation generally do it for the love of it: it’s not the kind of job that comes with a lot of perks, recognition, compensation. So I doubt they would heed or need my advice. When you fall in love, you fall in love, and that’s it. If anyone had offered me advice going in, I doubt I would have listened. 

 

What current projects are you working on?

I’m working on a very interesting book by Hélène Valance for Yale University Press on the American nocturne (in the fine arts sense, not the musical one—night landscape painting). And I’m looking for new projects.

 

***

 

About Jane Marie Todd

Jane Marie Todd, of Portland, Oregon, has translated more than eighty books and hundreds of shorter texts for trade and university presses and art museums. She works in the fields of art history and criticism, ancient and modern history, philosophy, anthropology, literary criticism, and women's studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon and has taught French, Humanities, and Women's Studies at Reed College and the University of Oregon. Jane Marie Todd was awarded the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation 2010 Translation Prize for Nonfiction for her translation of Dominique Charpin's Reading and Writing in Babylon (Harvard University Press). She is the author of Autobiographics in Freud and Derrida (Garland Press, 1990; reissued Routledge, 2015), and of two dozen articles and book reviews published in scholarly journals. She is currently writing a book on Marcel Proust.