Translating cultures

Anastasia Fedosova in conversation with Frank Wynne about the world of literary translation

Award-winning literary translator and writer Frank Wynne is one of the most versatile and skilled creatives in the field. Having spent over two decades living in France, the UK, and South America, Wynne has encountered diverse cultures and interacted with many voices that have enriched his work. Wynne works with French and Spanish languages, translating texts from or about different regions, including Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Lebanon, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Peru and Central America. Among the authors whose work he has translated are Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Ahmadou Kourouma, Boualem Sansal, Claude Lanzmann, Tómas Eloy Martínez and Almudena Grandes. Trinity News spoke to Wynne about his life spanning continents and cultures, and the development of his career as a literary translator.

Wynne’s emergence into the world of literary translation can be seen to coincide with the end of his time in Trinity. Like many other young Irish people, Wynne moved to Dublin from his hometown in rural Sligo, hoping to obtain a degree in English and Philosophy. However, there were other things in the cards for Wynne after breaking up with his then-boyfriend and his difficulties growing up as a gay man in 1980’s Ireland, he decided to cut his studies at Trinity short and move to Paris. Wynne notes how he “had never been to France. I had not studied French at university. I had never spoken French at all.” But his heart was set on a fresh start and soon he would arrive in Paris with €200, no job, and no place to stay. These first couple of nights in the French capital would inspire his stay of over three years, where Wynne would begin his career in literary translation.

“I had assumed that when you speak another language or when you write in another language, you are effectively saying or writing what you would in your own language, you are just using different words. The moment you learn another language, you discover that this is completely untrue.”

In France, Wynne discovered his natural aptitude for languages. Within half a year, he was fairly fluent in French. He began to recognize his interest in translation while working in a Parisian bookshop: “I became fascinated by something that hadn’t particularly occurred to me. Like a lot of people who are monoglot, I had assumed that when you speak another language or when you write in another language, you are effectively saying or writing what you would in your own language, you are just using different words. The moment you learn another language, you discover that this is completely untrue.” He began doing small pieces of translation for government agencies, consisting mostly of economic reports. His interest in literary translation would continue to grow during his move to South Kensington in 1987, with his discovery of bandes dessinées.

Bandes dessinées, which translates to drawn strips in English, are popular comic books that have deep roots in Franco-Belgian pop culture. “Even now, when we talk about graphic novels, none have the breadth and the scope of those that you will get in France, where the artists are creating what are effectively visual short stories,” said Wynne. He began translating bandes dessinées, which would earn him an invite to the Festival d’Angoulême (an international comics festival) as an interpreter. “This was madness,” recalled Wynne. “I’d never done any interpreting. And there I was having to interpret in both directions.” As this happened to coincide with the brief period when mainstream British publishers were interested in graphic novels, Wynne developed some connections and began to work as a publisher’s reader. Wynne’s job consisted mainly of creating reader’s reports, which would include a book synopsis and the publisher’s reader’s prediction of the book’s popularity if it were to be translated to English. His reader’s report of Dominique Sigaud’s L’hypothèse du Désert led to the publisher asking Wynne to do a translation sample, and afterwards to translate the whole book: “That was the first book that I translated.”

‘“The success of Atomised “did not in any way make me famous,” said Wynne. In fact, a friend of his once approached him with a copy saying ‘You have to read this! This is an amazing book!’”

In the early 2000s, Wynne was asked to translate a book by Michel Houellebecq, for which he had written a rather mixed reader’s report, saying that “it was a very important novel, good at slaughtering sacred cares of 1960s liberal French politics, but was also ugly and likely to be criticised.” The novel was published under the title Atomised and took its place on UK bestsellers lists. “Your average book in translation sells about 5000 copies, 10000 including paperback sales,” Wynne said. “Overtime, Atomised has sold just under a million copies.” The following year, the novel won the 2002 Dublin Literary Award. The success of Atomised “did not in any way make me famous,” said Wynne. In fact, a friend of his once approached him with a copy saying ‘You have to read this! This is an amazing book!’. However, the book’s success did push Wynne to the forefront of French translation in the eyes of publishers. At this point, he decided to devote himself fully to literary translation. He left London for South America, where he spent the next decade, and soon started translating from Spanish. 

This year, Wynne’s translation of Alice Zeniter’s novel The Art of Losing won the Dublin Literary Award. Dealing with the Algerian War of Independence, the novel follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day, exploring themes of loss, roots, and identity. Written by a third-generation Algerian immigrant, the book attracted Wynne’s keen interest in literature that centres around Francophone diaspora: “Because it is the story of a young woman discovering the story of her family and the country that they came from, it is a way into Algerian history that many such novels would not do. It doesn’t assume the reader is familiar with the origins and the course of the Algerian war, it doesn’t take things for granted.”

“The most basic element of translation is meaning. But it’s also the least important. Technically you can do that mechanically with a dictionary,” explained Wynne. “But you also need to be able to recreate the cadence and rhythms of the original language, the humour, the wordplay, the bathos.”

The Art of Losing, alongside a number of other novels translated by Wynne, demonstrates the importance of cultural elements within literary texts. “The most basic element of translation is meaning. But it’s also the least important. Technically you can do that mechanically with a dictionary,” explained Wynne. “But you also need to be able to recreate the cadence and rhythms of the original language, the humour, the wordplay, the bathos… Part of that means that you will need quite a lot of cultural references, because there are words or phrases that in the original language resonate with people because they, let’s say, are part of a nursery rhyme, or because they’re emulating the title of a famous novel, or it’s a three-word quote from a poem,” he continued. “As a translator you need to know these things.” The way the language is spoken is structured differently depending on the dialect. This includes the register, intonation, cultural references, and many other nuances. Wynne emphasised that “having a sense of the culture and being prepared to explore that culture while you are translating in every single book is absolutely crucial to what you are doing.” 

Speaking about translation studies, Wynne acknowledges their usefulness, saying that such a degree will “give you interesting critical tools to use while you are translating.” He added that it would be helpful for students to be taught more about the practicalities of the publishing world. However, “in and of itself, translation studies cannot make you a translator.” Understanding different critical concepts shapes the way one works. So does one’s life experience and reading material. “If I translated The Art of Losing next year, or if I had translated it 10 years ago, the text would be different from what it is now. Because we are the sum of everything we have experienced, and everything we have read, and all of the voices that we have in our head.”

“I spent 12-15 years trying to get publishers in the UK to publish Modiano. And then one day I woke up and I got 11 phone calls that morning, because of course Modiano had just won the Nobel Prize.”

At the moment, Wynne is working on six novels in French and Spanish, and hopes to add Arabic to his repertoire one day. There are quite a few titles on his translation bucket list, including a short novel by Algerian author Rachid Boudjedra and a new translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, described by Wynne as “the finest novel of war ever written by anyone in any language.” He added, “one of the people who used to be on that list was Patrick Modiano. I spent 12-15 years trying to get publishers in the UK to publish Modiano. And then one day I woke up and I got 11 phone calls that morning, because of course Modiano had just won the Nobel Prize.” 

Wynne highlighted that a novel in translation is essentially one’s performance of the author’s words. “Eventually, the text in the target language belongs more to the translator than to the author.” “Translation thrives on curiosity about all aspects of translation and culture,” he added. “It’s crucial that you spend a lot of time reading in your target language. In part, this is where our voices come from.” Wynne summarised: “Basically, what will make you a good translator is understanding at least one other language, and being able to write in your own language. If you cannot write prose in the target language, if you cannot recreate a sentence that not only has the words, but also the music of the original sentence, then you will never be a translator. All the theory in the world won’t get you there.”