Helen Stevenson was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Alain Manbanckou’s Black Moses.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?
Helen Stevenson: Serpent’s Tail asked me in 2003 or 2004 if I’d like to translate Broken Glass. I was living in North London and had just had a baby, and the sheer seediness of that particular book was a real tonic! I feel incredibly lucky to be Alain’s translator, to have had the opportunity to learn about the Republic of Congo, its history, landscape, society, people, and writers. I love his humor and deep seriousness. Until the day—which can’t be far off—when Alain’s English is so good that he can write straight into English if he wants to, I am the lucky person who gets to be his English voice.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
Helen Stevenson: I’ve translated many contemporary French writers and obviously the most striking difference between them and Alain Mabanckou is that he is African. His French is stretched into more different, unusual shapes. He has none of the assumptions of the French literary elite, but has mastered their mannerisms and the result is often very funny. I like translating a deep male voice; it takes me out of myself!
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
Helen Stevenson: I’m reading Ladivine by Marie NDiaye—it was on the longlist last year, translated by Jordan Stump. I recently read the wonderful Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes by Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston. It’s set in Hollywood, and is the story of a white actress’s passion for a black man who is directing a film version of Heart of Darkness. Everything she writes is gripping and authentic and strong. I was bewitched and moved by Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Sur Ma Mere, which has been translated into English by Lulu Norman and Roz Schwartz.