May 19, 2017
A British novelist and literary translator.
Sam Taylor is a British novelist and literary translator. Born in 1970, he worked as an arts journalist for the London Observer until 2000, when he moved to south-east France. There, he wrote four novels, raised a family and learned French. His first translation was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which was shortlisted for three awards, including the 2012 French-American Translation Prize. He now lives in the United States and has translated more than twenty books, including Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), Joel Dicker’s best-selling The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the highly acclaimed graphic novel series The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. He is currently working on his fifth novel and translating another book by Maylis de Kerangal, Un chemin de tables.
He is the 2017 Fiction Winner of the French-American and Foundation Florence Gould Translation Prize for his translation of The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal.
See pIctures of the event here.
What drew you to Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart? And how did you decide to translate the title from the French “Réparer les Vivants?”
The language was what drew me. As soon as I read the first few pages, I knew it was a novel I wanted to translate. It’s so rich, vivid and true, so dense and multilayered, it reminded me more of Shakespeare than of anything else I’d ever read.
For the title… I loved the book and wanted it to make an impact, and I just thought Mend the Living wasn’t a great title in English. The book is about a heart transplant, and it is also a philosophical disquisition on what the heart symbolizes and means in human history and culture. It seemed the perfect title to me, and luckily my editor agreed.
The novel abounds with long, lyrical phrases and what has been described as an audacious style. Did capturing the unique language and lengthy, rolling sentences pose a particular challenge?
I think the challenge was to remain true to the audacity and lyricism while rendering it in readable English. Because I loved the book, I wanted lots of other people to read and enjoy it too, and for that reason it was important to me that it didn’t read ‘like a translation’ – i.e. something difficult, worthy, obscure. It has a gorgeous flow in French, and to have a similar flow in English you can’t simply reproduce the original sentence structure, phrasing, punctuation, and so on. It has to sound natural in English.
How did translating The Heart compare with translating some of your other works, such as the novel “HHhH?”
It was the most difficult (and rewarding) book I’ve ever translated, bar none. With some books, I can translate 6,000 words per day, and feel fine; with The Heart, I translated 3,000 words and felt like I’d been run over by a freight train. It was exhausting! HHhH was a completely different experience because it was the first novel I ever translated and I had a very flexible deadline; it’s still a relatively complex book, but nothing like The Heart in terms of difficulty.
How do you approach the task of translating? Do you have a particular work style?
I translate quickly and instinctively, but I never let a sentence go until I’m happy with it. When the translation is complete, I spend at least a week revising it, making sure that it works as a whole, not merely as a series of isolated sentences and paragraphs. I always aim to translate a certain number of words each day. That number can change, depending on the difficulty of the translation, the pressure of the deadline, and whether I’m also writing that day. An average day’s translation would probably be about 4,000 words.
In addition to translating, you are also a novelist. How does writing compare with translating?
It’s an interesting counterpoint to writing. At the moment, I’m doing both in tandem – translating in the mornings and writing in the afternoons – and I really like the balance between the two. Translation is more regular and straightforward because you’re running along tracks that have already been laid by someone else. That’s not to say it’s not a creative experience, but you can’t take wrong turnings in the way you can with writing. Writing is freer, and consequently both scarier and more exhilarating.
Can you tell us a bit about your book “The Republic of Trees?”
It was my first novel. I wrote it when I was in my early thirties, just after leaving London and moving to rural southern France. It was published in 2005. I haven’t reread it since it came out, but my memory is that it’s true and beautiful in parts, but also very flawed. Most first novels are.
What does the Translation Prize mean to you and how do you think it benefits translation and the literary world?
I really like the way the French-American Translation Prize is judged, because it’s very specifically about the quality of the translation, rather than some vague amalgam of the original book and the translation. As with all literary prizes, it shines a light on books that people may not otherwise have heard about; unlike most other literary prizes, it also shines a light on translation and translators. I’m proud to be on the shortlist for the second time, and I would be even prouder if I won it.
What advice would you give to aspiring translators?
Don’t get so close to the original book that you lose sight of what you’re creating. It’s a bit like painting – you have to stand back to see it the way it’s supposed to be seen. I think there’s a temptation to become so hung up on the details that you lose a sense of the overall flow and tone. And with every sentence, you should ask yourself: does this sound weird in English? If it does – and if it doesn’t sound weird in the original language – then you need to rethink it.
What current projects are you working on?
I’m translating a couple of screenplays, and after that I’ll be translating Clémentine Beauvais’s Songe à la douceur, which is both a verse novel and a young adult novel – two new challenges for me.