Natasha Lehrer is a prize-winning literary translator from French to English. She recently translated Consent, Vanessa Springora’s memoir of her teenage relationship with the writer Gabriel Matzneff, which sent shock waves through France and triggered a rape investigation; and Pauline Harmange’s bestseller I Hate Men, a book-length essay that found unexpected success after an employee of the French ministry for gender equality attempted to have it banned. In this interview, conducted via email, Lehrer discusses the influence of these books on French society, her “winding” career path, and translation as “a profound and political act of decentering the self.”
Madeleine Feeny (MF): Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent is both a courageous exposé and a stunning literary achievement that challenges the establishment on its own terms. Following its publication and that of Camille Kouchner’s book La Familia Grande, French MPs have unanimously approved new legislation decreeing fifteen the age of consent. What other lasting impact do you think the book will have?
Natasha Lehrer (NL): It was fascinating, amazing really, that the book was used by the legislature in January to argue for the crime of statutory rape to be brought into law. I can’t think of another example of a cultural artifact being used to create new legislation (I’m prepared to be corrected about this). Hopefully January’s draft bill will become actual law sooner rather than later. Consent created a huge stir in France and has rightly been garlanded with praise for being a superb literary achievement in its own right. But the country has a very long way to go in terms of protecting women and children from sexual violence. The current, complicated legal requirement for establishing that sex was nonconsensual—even in the instance of the grooming and gang rape of a child [as seen in the case of Julie, which mobilized women’s groups to demonstrate against a judicial “culture of misogyny”]—means that men frequently get away with being found guilty of the much less serious crime of sexual assault, which entails a sentence of seven years in jail, rather than rape, which carries a twenty-year sentence. In addition to that, we’re in the middle of an epidemic of domestic violence. One hundred and forty-nine women were murdered by their partners or ex-partners in France in 2019, which is one woman every 2.5 days. To put that in some kind of perspective, the overall rate of femicide (the murder of a woman by a partner, ex-partner, or family member) in France is roughly 30% higher than in the UK, for a population that is almost exactly the same size. Two books, however brilliant and brave, will not change a deeply patriarchal culture. There must be political will.
MF: In August 2020, Pauline Harmange’s provocatively titled essay I Hate Men—published by the small nonprofit press Monstrograph—made headlines in France when its initial 450-copy print run rapidly sold out after Ralph Zurmély, an adviser to France’s gender equality ministry, threatened legal action. As the translator, what is your take on the debate around the book—which inevitably only served to fuel sales, leading major publisher Éditions du Seuil to snap up French rights and Fourth Estate to acquire world English rights in a ten-way auction, plus a further fifteen international deals?
NL: I am delighted that a scandalously stupid off-the-cuff remark by a low-level male politician led to the book’s meteoric success. I Hate Men is a witty, necessary contribution to the discussion about women’s rights and status in our heteronormative, patriarchal culture, and the fact that it enraged people is proof of how essential that conversation is. If the man who called for it to be banned had taken the trouble to read it, he would have discovered an impassioned, well-argued, and far-from-incendiary treatise on the need for a new form of female solidarity in a culture in which violence against women remains endemic and women still bear the vast majority of the emotional and mental burden in heterosexual relationships and child-rearing. Not many of us who have trodden that path can deny the truth of this.
“I’m really proud to translate work that challenges the patriarchy.”
MF: Did you find that there were any translation challenges particular to Consent and/or I Hate Men? Was the experience of working with these books different in any way from your past translation experiences?
NL: Every book brings its own challenges. In some books I’ve translated—I’m thinking particularly about Nathalie Léger and Chantal Thomas here—the prose is perfectly wrought, intricate and dense, and the challenge is to unravel it and knit it into a different language while maintaining all the complexity and beauty. I translated Georges Bataille a few years ago, and there the challenge was simply to understand what he was saying! It was extraordinarily difficult. I’ve worked on academic history books that required me to do massive amounts of research, including a magnificent book about the Holocaust in France, in which there was a lot of disturbing material.
My commitment to translating feminist texts goes back to my very first full-length translation, Suite for Barbara Loden. I’m really proud to translate work that challenges the patriarchy, demands a certain kind of close, empathetic reading, and makes readers see the world in a different way. I was thrilled to be offered to translate Consent—it’s a hugely important book, and beautifully written. But it’s important to make clear that the trauma of the book is not my trauma, and I didn’t find it a more challenging book to translate than any other I’ve worked on.
MF: What was your path to becoming a literary translator, and what are the greatest challenges and rewards of the job? Any advice for aspirants?
NL: I took a rather winding path to literary translation. I moved to France seventeen years ago with three young children and a very low-key career as a literary journalist. I’d done French A Level but had a lot of work to do to get my language skills to a decent level. Almost on a whim I decided to do an MPhil in comparative literature—in French. Intellectually, it was the most thrilling thing I have ever done. I was incredibly lucky to have as my adviser a brilliant professor, the writer and translator Tiphaine Samoyault. It was an intense, challenging year, and it had a profound effect on my thinking and my writing.
It took another couple of years to publish my first cotranslation (with Cécile Menon), Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, in 2016. Even now I can’t get over how lucky I was to start my career with that book. It was an incredible learning experience translating this dense, beautiful, complicated text, and I am very proud of it and grateful to Cécile Menon, who took a chance on a woman with no experience.
Luck played a huge part in my ability to break into the world of literary translation. What advice do I have? I’ve learned it’s good to try and hustle a bit. I often contact publishers about books I’m interested in. And read, read, read all the time! Translation is, after all, a form of close reading.
“I get all the joy of writing with none of the agony of creation.”
MF: You’ve translated a wide variety of books, from literary fiction to texts about history and fashion; is this intentional? Can you give us an insight into your process with authors and publishers?
NL: I get the impression that some translators don’t consider nonfiction translation to be in the same exalted category as the translation of literary fiction. I don’t feel that way—I really enjoy translating history or anthropology or philosophy. For a few months, you become an expert in a certain field— what a privilege! I always feel like the luckiest person in the room when I tell people what I do (at least I did, back in the day when one spent time with actual people in actual rooms). I get all the joy of writing with none of the agony of creation. I get to be an expert on a subject thanks to a historian or anthropologist who allows me to dive into their brilliant research. Being a translator means being given intimate access to all manner of areas of human experience that would otherwise be closed off to me. It’s such a gesture of trust on the part of the author to allow their text to be carried over into another language; my job is to do that faith justice.
My process? I do multiple drafts. I reread endlessly. I get quite obsessive as I’m getting toward the end; I’ll stay up till midnight when everyone else has gone to bed and the house is quiet, reading out loud, listening to the music of every sentence to make sure it works. Sometimes I’ll have a list of things I need to clarify with the author. When I am happy with the text, I send it to the publisher. A good editor can make a huge difference to a translation; you need another person’s attentive eye to pick up things you inevitably let slip into the text.
MF: Your translations have won and been nominated for awards including the Scott Moncrieff Prize, the Albertine Prize, the French American Foundation Translation Prize, and the Wingate Prize. How important do you think such accolades are to the career of a translator?
NL: It’s absolutely wonderful to be acknowledged by your peers with a nomination for a prize. Obviously, translation is quite a solitary activity, and sometimes it feels like no one knows or cares what you are doing, so the reward of being shortlisted is itself a prize. Honestly, whenever it’s happened to me, I have walked on air for days and weeks afterward. In recent years, some of the major literary prizes, such as the International Man Booker Prize, have begun to recognize the translator as cocreator of the work, which is a huge step in acknowledging the art and craft of translation. And there are several wonderful and generous translation prizes. But I also think it’s crucial not to get too carried away by prize culture; there are so many amazing translators who don’t necessarily win awards, and focusing too much on prizes can eclipse that landscape.
“Translation pokes a hole in borders.”
MF: Do you think the status of translated literature has changed in the English-speaking market since you began translating in 2015? How can we continue to promote it?
NL: Translation has definitely gained visibility in the last few years. Obviously, I think this is wonderful and important. It’s tied to the times we’re living in, for good and for ill. The twenty-first century has seen new frontiers go up, literal walls put in place to keep refugees out, the rise of nationalism, and political ideologies like Brexit. Now, with COVID, we’re seeing some countries closing their borders to keep the virus out. Translation pokes a hole in these borders. It acknowledges the urgency of remaining curious and open to the world, of seeking out the unfamiliar; it reminds us that there is value in difference. Every choice we make as translators—from the works we translate to the words that we use, and above all the writers on whose behalf we elect ourselves emissaries into another language—is political.
MF: Can you tell us about the literary translation mentorship program for schools you’re developing with Shadow Heroes?
NL: Shadow Heroes is an inspiring UK organization that takes translators into schools. They encourage students to consider issues of language and power, drawing on heritage languages that students speak at home but largely don’t bring into school. Representing the UK Translators Association, which I’m on the committee of, I’m collaborating with them to put together a program of mentored workshops in literary translation for students interested in exploring the possibilities of working with languages. It’s clear that the key to increasing diversity in the world of translation—an important topic, brought to wider attention recently in the wake of the controversy around Amanda Gorman’s European translators—is hooking young people’s interest as early as possible. It’s a really exciting project to be involved with.
“I try not to domesticate these things; I don’t want to erase the cultural context of the original.”
MF: Do you feel you are “a different person in different languages”? How frequently do you have to reach for alternative idioms or cultural touchstones when translating French into English?
NH: I feel very much myself in French now. It’s been really hard-won! There are certainly words that encapsulate ideas that don’t translate easily back and forth between English and French, but there are always ways to say these things, even if you need a full sentence instead of a single word. I try not to domesticate these things; I don’t want to erase the cultural context of the original, and sometimes that means intentionally making things sound strange. Because that is also what translation is—a way of offering the reader a different way of seeing and being in the world. The French philosopher Barbara Cassin has this really powerful idea: while linguistic diversity has often been seen as an obstacle to the emergence of a united society and a common political space, translation actually reverses this by proposing itself as a model for citizenship in an increasingly diverse world. I love this concept, and want to live by it—translation as, both literally and metaphorically, a profound and political act of decentering the self.
MF: If you could translate one French classic, which would it be?
NL: I’m in love with the poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, who wrote in the first part of the nineteenth century. She has been all but forgotten, not an unusual story for a woman writer of that period. Her poetic voice is like a whisper compared to the bombast of the male Romantic poets of the era. I’m slowly working on a personal project about her.
MF: Which emerging French literary voices should we look out for right now?
I’ve recently been lucky enough to translate a short story by Nina Leger for a forthcoming anthology. She is a brilliant writer who has started off her career with a bang (her first book, The Collection, was published in English last year by Granta). I’m excited to read Thesée, by Camille de Toledo, a book about the secrets families keep that haunt subsequent generations. Natassja Martin’s Croire au fauves is an astonishing book, an unclassifiable exploration of the author’s experience of being attacked by a bear that segues into an interrogation of our relationship with the natural world. I love Émilie de Turckheim’s writing. Every novel she publishes is a new and surprising take on the bourgeois certainties of the exteriorized world.
Natasha Lehrer’s criticism and essays have appeared in The Guardian, The Observer, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Haaretz, and Fantastic Man, among others. She began translating in 2015. Her translations include Consent by Vanessa Springora, The Survival of Jews in France (1940-1944) by Jacques Semelin, Journey to the Land of the Real by Victor Segalen, Villa of Delirium by Adrien Goetz, The Most Beautiful Job in the World by Giulia Mensitieri, The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse, and Chantal Thomas's Memories of Low Tide. She won a Rockower award for journalism in 2016, and her cotranslation of Nathalie Léger's Suite for Life Barbara Loden was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize in 2017.