Frank Wynne is a literary translator of French into Spanish. He has translated works by, among others, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Ahmadou Kourouma, Boualem Sansal, Claude Lanzmann, Tómas Eloy Martínez and Almudena Grandes. His work has earned him a number of awards, including the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán. Below is an extract from his article ‘A View From… France: Posh Bingo and Protectionism’. The full article can be read here.
Neque murmuraveritis nos oportet should be the motto of the translator from the French. “Mustn’t grumble.” I realise this every time I meet up with those who work from other languages, for wherever two or three are gathered in the name of translation, a dispute ensues for the dubious honour of “least favoured language.” At such moments, those of us who translate from French look abashed and say nothing. In the field of literary translation, French has never been the bridesmaid—indeed it has so often been a bride it could be accused of bigamy. The first two books ever published in the English language were both translated from the French (in those early small press days, William Caxton was translator, printer, and publisher) and since that time, though the long culture war between France and England has been marked by centuries of sneering petulance and decades of passive-aggression, French literature has always led the field in works translated into English canon of “world literature.”
A brief aside (read: rant): the idea of “world literature” as something distinct from English literature is, to my mind, one of the most invidious in Anglo-American publishing and academe; it brings to mind the equally spurious category, “world music,” which contains what we deem exotic, like Ravi Shankar and Ali Farka Touré but somehow not Beethoven and Bach.. Literature, surely, is a continuum, an essential intertwining of voices and languages. It is impossible to imagine the evolution of the English novel without the availability of translations. As Milan Kundera (tr. Linda Asher) writes in The Curtain: “…it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, if was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert’s tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed García Marquez the possibility of departing from tradition to ‘write another way.’” Given the insular nature of Anglo-American culture, perhaps it is not surprising that “world authors” are often celebrated precisely for their “otherness,” and world literature is often treated as become something “we” have considered worthy of translation and recognition. (End rant.)
So, what does it mean to be “most favoured language?” In arithmetic terms (according to Rochester University/Three Percent), translations from French accounted for 93 new titles in 2014, almost twice as many as its closest rivals: German (50) and Spanish (46), and more than the combined titles translated from Arabic, Italian, Russian and Chinese. Needless to say, such bald figures seem insignificant considering that more than 150,000 new and revised titles are published annually in the UK. Nonetheless, we might assume that the steady flow of translated fiction from France year on year means that Anglo-American readers have an objective sense of the French literary scene, with the writers and the books that “matter” in the francophone world. But that’s not really true.
In Other Words is the national journal for practising literary translators and for everyone interested in the craft of literary translation. The next edition will be published in January 2018. Find out more and subscribe >>