Translator Profile: Lydia Davis

I began to see that I enjoyed [translation] and also that it was a form of writing I could do without the problem of having to be "inspired."

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which is Can’t and Won’t (2014). Her Collected Stories was published in 2009. She is also the translator, from the French, of Swann’s Way (2003) and Madame Bovary (2010) and has been appointed, this year, the French-American Foundation’s inaugural Laureate in Translation. A bi-lingual edition of her translations from the Dutch, of the very short stories of A.L. Snijders, first presented in our Fall 2011 issue, will be published in Amsterdam by AFdH in September.

Who are you and what do you translate?

I’m Lydia Davis, both fiction writer and translator. I’ve been both for as long as I can remember, and they complement each other nicely. I spent decades translating from French and then, about ten years ago, started widening my scope of languages—first with Spanish, then with Dutch and German. I’ve also—just for the challenge—translated one story from the Portuguese and a few from the two principal Norwegian languages.

I should add, since you asked what I translate, not from which languages, that my most recent major translations from French were Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. After those two projects, which occupied several years each, I vowed to translate only very short stories. I have mainly stuck to that vow.

Describe your current/most recent project. Why is it cool? What should we know about it?

My current project is a translation of a slim volume of Proust’s letters to his upstairs neighbor in an apartment building on the Boulevard Haussmann in the years before, during, and after World War I. This cache of 26 letters was discovered recently—I have yet to find out the details. The woman he is writing to is someone he rarely met, though they corresponded for years. She was the wife of an American dentist, one Dr. Williams, whose practice was on the floor directly above Proust’s head. Dr. and Mme Williams lived on the floor above that. The letters are charming. They do regularly mention the noise, and request various accommodations to his chronic condition of illness and difficulty sleeping and breathing. He was always bothered by noise. But they are also humorous, compassionate, friendly, informative. The style is a wonderful challenge to translate, since it is syntactically elaborate and tends—in his haste and often discomfort—to skip punctuation. I am honoring it closely.

What is the best translated book you’ve read recently?

As for the best translated book I’ve read recently, it was the Norwegian Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night, translated by Agnes Scott Langeland. I’ve been told that the translation flattens it a bit, that it is wittier and sharper in the original, but it is a very well done book. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that it has so many passages in which thorny moral questions are explored at length and is short on interactions between characters, even though it opens with the witnessing of a murder. But I found it very satisfying in the end. Solstad is perhaps the most important contemporary fiction writer in Norway.

What translated book/ translation/ highly-accoladed book were you disappointed by?

This question is more difficult, the first one because, although it certainly happens often enough that I’m disappointed or unmoved by much-hyped books, I am reluctant to criticize my contemporaries—it is hard enough work to write a substantial book, even one that disappoints. And I tend not to read older books unless they are good and strong. Some contemporary books I read in the last few years that did live up to their hype were: Jaimy Gordon’s horse-filled novel, Lord of Misrule; Daniel Mendelsohn’s fascinating investigation, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Older books in translation that lived up to their reps were Clarice Lispector’s eccentric and innovative The Hour of the Star (Giovanni Pontiero), Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Ralph Manheim)about the death of his mother—and the wonderful Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes (Carol Brown Janesway), a hilarious account of the award ceremonies he endured, in which his vitriolic contempt is complemented by the gentleness of his patient aunt who often accompanies him. And a recent one—Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment (Ann Goldstein)a tight, tense account of coming unhinged while trying to care for one’s small children.

What author would you like to see more popular/translated in the first place?

In answer to this question, I’ll mention one novel that I read a bit of and actually wanted to translate and that is now being translated into English, and that is a Dutch classic from 1947 called De Avonden (The Evenings) by Gerard van het Reve. It portrays just ten days in the tedious life of a clerk who lives with his parents. It is very funny and strange—the clerk arguing with his mother over such things as the spoiled herrings she keeps trying to serve for dinner, or her absurd attempts to smoke a cigarette. Reve is a writer who may yet “catch on” in the Anglophone world.

How did you know you would become a translator? How did you become a translator?

I was always interested in foreign languages, ever since I learned German (by the—involuntary—immersion method) in second grade. A few years ago, I found a high school journal in which I wrote “Maybe I’ll become a translator”. This surprised me when I read it—I wouldn’t have said I was very aware of translators when I was sixteen. Then, after college, I went to live in France. One of the ways I could earn some money (not very much) was by translating whatever came to hand—film scripts, art catalogues. I began to see that I enjoyed it and also that it was a form of writing I could do without the problem of having to be “inspired.” 

What is a recent translator puzzle you’ve overcome rather cleverly?

I’m not sure I can think, off-hand, of a translation puzzle I have solved cleverly. But I can think of two rather puzzling moments in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in which I was very much helped by reading, online, the transcriptions of his earlier drafts. Why was Charles, when a poor student, banging his foot on the wall? Ah, an earlier draft had the explanation: to keep his foot warm in the unheated apartment. Why were the ladies at the ball carrying gold-stoppered flasks in their white-gloved hands? In an earlier draft, Flaubert specifies that the flasks contain vinegar—commonly used at that time to revive a person from a fainting spell. Other translators, not having access to the earlier drafts, had supplied perfume. But Flaubert does not say, in the final text, what is in the flasks, and that is a good reason for not saying so in English either—you might make a wrong guess and seriously misrepresent your original text. I, being a faithful translator, could not supply vinegar, either, but I mentioned it in an end note.

What advice do you have for aspiring translators?

For aspiring translators, my advice would be to concentrate on your writing, your writing of English, first and foremost. Read the best writers in English, poets, fiction writers, essayists. The second body of reading should be in your foreign language. In this recreational reading, don’t worry about looking up every word—get used to reading along without understanding everything. Try to immerse yourself in the foreign language in every possible way, including visiting the country—I remember watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” dubbed into Spanish, things like that. Oh, and get to know not only a wide vocabulary from your chosen language, but also the etymologies of individual words, ditto for English—know how a word developed and where it came from, and how it is related to cognates in other languages.

What should every young translator be able to do?

Well, this is just more advice, really, but every young translator should be able to be very patient, spend a long time with a text, get it better and better, keep coming back to it. Patience and steady focus, undistracted—these may be harder to develop nowadays, but they are very important. Be a perfectionist!


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