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Translator Relay: Donald Nicholson-Smith

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For March's installment, Alyson Waters passed the baton to Donald Nicholson-Smith, who translates from French and Spanish into English, specializing for many years in psychology and social criticism but more recently straying into fiction, especially noir fiction, and even poetry. His authors include Jean Piaget, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Guy Debord, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, J.B. Pontalis & Jean Laplanche, Thierry Jonquet, Henri Lefebvre, Raoul Vaneigem, and Abdellatif Laâbi. He has received a variety of awards and was short-listed for the French-American Prize for his translation of Apollinaire's Letters to Madeleine (Seagull, 2010). He belongs to the Translators Association of the Society of Authors (London) and the PEN America Translators' Group (New York). He has been named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for services to French literature in translation.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

When I was seven my first French teacher reported that I had a good sense of humor but would never speak a foreign language. But my connection to French turned out to be lifelong: as a teenager I had an exchange family in France, and for my first year at university my subject was modern languages. Later I lived in Paris and I spent a good deal of time in Spain as a young man.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Everything is translatable. Also untranslatable—see my answer to the last question below.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Despite being a Capricorn, I am highly disorganized. Rituals are not my thing at all (nor is astrology!). But I do have one translation habit: unlike many of my colleagues, I prefer to rely on printed dictionaries rather than virtual resources. And I put my dictionaries in the next room to my desk, which makes me get up and stretch my legs every time I need to look something up (which is a very frequent occurrence, let me tell you). A streak of anal-retentiveness lurks somewhere within me; every translator has to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Well, I like the idea that our job is to channel our author. Get inside his or her head. This ideal carries you very far from any strict adherence to the letter, so to speak, of the source language—and thus from one currently fashionable attitude in "translation theory." I am resistant, in any case, to the idea that there is just one, theorizable approach to translation. Channeling an author means fully reflecting that author's idiosyncrasies. I like to quote Ros Schwarz—incidentally one of our finest spokespeople for literary translators—when she asserts so very eloquently and interestingly that by "flattening the text to keep the copy-editor happy, we are, in a way, 'colonising the writer.'"

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I am just about to deliver a translation of Jean-Paul Clébert's Paris Insolite to New York Review Books. We are calling it Paris Vagabond. Written about 1950, this is a kind of literary logbook of a couple of years spent by the twenty-year-old author among Paris's down-and-outs, a profile of the lower depths of the French capital just a few years after the Liberation. Translation problems have centered on the need to echo the author's oscillation between a correct French style and recourse to the argot of the milieu described. For the translator (the "channeler"), the problem has been how to induce a peculiar kind of suspension of disbelief in readers, namely the illusion that they are reading a sixty-five year old book in French, much of it in period vernacular! Happily things may be helped along here by the wonderful accompanying photographs by Patrice Molineau, which were taken in close collaboration with Clébert.

Alyson Waters's question: You have translated some particularly important works. For example, Laplanche and Pontalis's Language of Psychoanalysis and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. How come?

Well, I didn't exactly choose translation. I tumbled into it. I suppose I was looking for a portable job that would let me indulge a mild wanderlust. This was around 1969. A friend in publishing told me that Chatto & Windus were having difficulty finding a translator for Laplanche and Pontalis's magisterial dictionary of Freud's terminology, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Somehow, my complete lack of credentials notwithstanding, I contrived to be assigned this task by Masud Khan, at that time editor of the very orthodox International Library of Psycho-Analysis. I can still recall that considerable contrarian noting with satisfaction that I was "self-educated"—not strictly true, because I had made it as far as university before dropping out! Anyway, I took the book and marched off. I'm not sure that Kerouac's On the Road wasn't under my other arm. That's how I got "type-cast" as a translator of psychoanalysis.

Another specialty of mine, the translation of Situationist writings, I came by in a more organic way: I was a member of the Situationist International in Paris in the mid-1960s and translated quite a lot of their stuff way back then. (It was fun, recently, to revisit and revise a translation of mine from 1965, Debord's article on the Watts riots, for inclusion in A Sick Planet (Seagull, 2008). Naturally the old version—done, as it were, in the heat of battle—was pretty bad!)

As a matter of fact the Situationist years taught me a great deal about translation in the very broadest sense. About the bedrock reality that two different cultures—even two as close as French and English—can never be made utterly transparent to one another. As a kind of go-between trying to convey—to translate—the Situationist critique of modern society to English readers, I ran into the brick wall of the strictly untranslatable! This was doubly unfortunate in that as Situationists we were—well, internationalists!