Roland Glasser is the translator of Fiston Mwanza Mujila's Tram 83 (2015), which was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. He translates literary and genre fiction from French, as well as art, travel, and assorted non-fiction. He studied theatre, cinema, and art history in the UK and France, and has worked extensively in the performing arts, chiefly as a lighting designer. He is a French Voices- and PEN Translates Award-winner, and serves on the Committee of the UK Translators Association. Having lived in Paris for many years, he is currently based in London.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Fiston Mwanza Mujila's work?
Roland Glasser (RG): One of the most fortunate days of my life was that summer day two years ago when I received an email from Will Evans, the dynamic, visionary founder of Deep Vellum—who published Tram 83 in the US—telling me he was thinking about buying this book, of which he knew little more than it was a “jazz novel” by a writer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and would I read it for him and report back as soon as possible?
I readily agreed, sat down with the manuscript, and barely stirred for the next few hours. Within a few pages, I was physiologically transported by Fiston’s tight, driving prose. I could smell the stale beer and diverse bodily odors, taste the salty sweat pouring down my face, hear the cacophonous waves of jabbering voices, my body undulating to the rhythms of jazz, rumba, Guadeloupean dancehall . . . I was there. In Tram 83, the den of all iniquities.
It is rare that a writer has such a powerful, visceral effect on me. Rarer still is the ability to sustain it for an entire work, and with such captivating stylistic effects, and a voice so fresh and original. I knew, just knew, that I had to translate this book.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you'd done?
RG: The translation of Tram 83 demanded both a highly analytical, forensic approach to the text, teasing out nuances of meaning and idiomatic twists, and a sensitivity to the work’s rhythm and musicality. It often felt like translating prose poetry, yet this was a novel all the same, with carefully constructed characters and their trajectories, so it was important not to get lost in the prosodic flow. In addition, it was essential to retain the text’s capacity to live off the page, to be declaimed at full voice, for the genesis of Fiston’s writing is the stage, both theatrical and public—he often recounts how the lack of dedicated cultural spaces in the DRC means that writers have to read their work where they may, be it the street, a hair salon, the train station, a bar . . .
I was very fortunate to develop a close working relationship with Fiston as I translated Tram 83. He recognizes how important it is for a writer to make themselves available to their translator, and he not only understands but is very interested in the different incarnations a book may take after publication, and the way in which every translation (the book has now appeared in half a dozen languages) is a new and different thing, more subtly different than a stage or movie adaptation, perhaps, but nevertheless with a life of its own. And we took things still further in the course of a three-week tour across the US, creating together yet another iteration of Tram 83 in the course of our reading-performances. And even now, as I translate a number of interviews with him that have come about because of the MBIP2016 longlisting—not to mention writing this, and other, pieces—it feels as if this collaborative process is continuing . . .
YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY: Adrian Nathan West's review of “Tram 83” (WWB's September 2015 Issue)
More interviews with 2016 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators