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Talking with Edward Gauvin [in Booklist]

With over 300 publishing credits, Edward Gauvin might be the hardest-working French-to-English translator ever. That tenacity has earned him major awards, including the John Dryden Translation Prize (twice), and lauded NEA, PEN America, and Fulbright fellowships. His nimble skills have provided substantial attention to French graphic novels, including starred Booklist titles such as Gébé’s Letter to Survivors, Nie Jun’s My Beijing (one of this year’s Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth), and Marjane Satrapi’s The Sigh.

Beyond linguistic ciphering, Gauvin doubles as a writer. We’re outing him here: he publishes as H.V. Chao, with story credits in such venerable publications as The Saturday Evening Post and The Kenyon Review. His moniker, he explains, is “in honor of my mother, who raised my brother and me. She grew up in Taiwan, where her family fled in 1949.” As he carries on his dual literary life, appreciative readers can look forward to seeing his name(s) on many more future covers.

What were the major life turns that led you to becoming a French-to-English translator?
By dint of having to origin-story in some form or another over the years, I keep trying to distill this to some not-quite-haiku reply, like the first page of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman: Liberal Arts. Year abroad. Dumb luck. Decent taste.

You couldn’t be more prodigious, with 300-plus translations! How do you pick your projects?
I’ve never really picked my comics work. In the sense that I say yes or no, sure, but not in the sense that I bring projects to publishers. My comics work has really ramped up in the last four years, mostly due to major mainstream French comics publishers – Delcourt-Soleil, Mediatoon (Dupuis, Dargaud, and Le Lombard), and to a far lesser degree, Glénat – securing EU funding to commission translations directly, which are then released only in digital form, thus bypassing US and UK publishers. Despite these being available from the usual services (Comixology, iBooks, Google Play, etc.), I’m not convinced readers know they exist. And though print rights to most of these books remain available to interested publishers, I’m not sure if their digital existence deters interest. But the initiative has allowed these French publishers far more freedom in the choice of material to bring into English as they raid their vast catalogues.

You translate across genres – do you have a preference? Favorite authors?
If by genre you mean novel vs. poem vs. plays, then no. If you’re talking genre like noir or romance, then well … I grew up on westerns and musicals. (There are some fine Western comics, but I’ve yet to see a comics musical.) More recently, I prefer weird fiction and stories of the supernatural.

In general, I like works, not authors. But I’m a bad person to ask about favorites. I am, as the Paris ’68 protesters said of themselves, a Marxist of the Groucho school. Part of not caring to belong to any club that would have me as a member means I can see clear around anything I love to why someone else would hate it, which often leaves me feeling like a fan in bad faith.

What are a couple of your biggest surprises as a translator? Any disappointments?
There’s the disappointment that some of the favorites among the books I’ve worked on already being out of print. There’s the fact that some highly esteemed publishers still feel perfectly fine today offering translators a page rate that’s less than half of what I started out at in 2006, and unashamed to use the language of love to guilt them into rates that, living wage aside, are just flat-out unfair to and unreflective of the labor involved. And it’s criminal that the going industry-wide page rate for basic lettering – not hand-lettering, mind you, or placing sound effects, but just balloon-filling, a job often done by interns – is twice that of translation.

As for surprises: the richness and reward of the work itself, the very process of weighing words so closely, in so many different ways. Previously, people wandered into translation thinking it was something they could do, only belatedly to find its complexities fascinated, and might take a lifetime to fail to master. I’m on the tail end of that generation. It also surprises me how little many authors care to be involved in the translation process, when I’d thought all they’d want to do was talk about their own work. But this has largely spared me the kind of disappointments that plague translator conversations, about tyrannical or meddling authors.

With languages never staying static, are “timeless” translations possible? Do you adhere to any personal rules in your translations to ensure as-timeless-as-possible results?
The adage is that translations date faster than originals, but the dirty secret is, originals totally date. When they do, we add backmatter and call it a scholarly edition: footnotes for references and language, reviews of the era for context. Updating the language of Shakespeare is a classroom staple, and even if you don’t want to call it “intralingual translation,” as an exercise it uses the translator’s toolkit. A thesaurus is like a bilingual dictionary for a single language. The work of art is said to be universal, inimitable, and timeless. Paradoxically, translation puts the lie to these three things, all while enabling them.

These days, I think more along the lines of “whose English?” it is, exactly, that I am working into, and why I’ve adopted it. I also have this pet thought experiment of extrapolating along likely lines of language evolution with a linguist and translating something into the English of a decade from now.

I feel translated titles in general don’t get the exposure they deserve in the publishing world, which makes me ever grateful to emissaries like you to expand/enhance my reading. Any thoughts on encouraging more reader consumption/demand?
Advocating for translations is not quite the same as advocating for translators. A publisher can pour a lot into backing a foreign book while downplaying the fact that it is translated. At the same time, in addition to their central underpaid role, translators are expected to play many others for free: bilingual go-between, author spokesperson, sometimes even agent and rights-person. The first hurdle translators need to clear is giving people a clearer idea of what their work entails, and in so doing, reframe the expectations surrounding translation. I can’t help but feel that greater comfort with the fact of translatedness will lead to greater embrace of translated literature.

In addition to translating, you’re also an author, and working on a fiction writing graduate degree. Has translating affected your own writing process?
I’m due to finish my degree soon, and in the meantime, am seeking representation for a collection of short stories, half of which have appeared in literary magazines over the last decade.

My answer to the second was a knee-jerk no, not in any way. There was no mutual influence. I was a writer before I became a translator, and much of what I translated for a living in no way coincided with my personal interests. I’d even lie in response to this question, just to make its askers feel like they’d gotten something like the answer they were looking for, and claim French syntax had helped me handle long, elaborate sentences in English. When in fact it was probably the other way around: an ease and fascination with long sentences predisposed me toward liking them in French.

I still think the spheres are largely separate. If anything, I seek out authors who are nothing like me, who write what I could not ever imagine myself writing – that’s where all the fun lies in pretending to be them! Translating someone too much like myself would probably make me feel jealous. But I wonder if I haven’t become a better mimic through translation – for instance, in this story of mine at The Saturday Evening Post [“Raymond Chandler”] – since that’s not something I used to think of myself as good at.

A certain “work amnesia” other writers and translators have talked about affects the products of both: you get it out and forget it, though it actually remains a part of you, later surfacing in unexpected ways only a third party can more clearly point out.

When you become that major published author yourself and translation rights sell world-wide, what are your hopes/requests for your international translators-to-be?
Anne-Sylvie Homassel is a dear friend who’s translated three of my stories to date, publishing them in France in the fantastical revue Le Visage Vert and the digital science-fiction magazine Angle Mort. Another appeared in Brêves, translated by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, the first author I ever translated. I’d like to take a long road trip with all of them in a converted school bus, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert-style.

Interview: “Feature: Talking With: Edward Gauvin,” Booklist, July 2019 [click here for a condensed one-page PDF version]

Readers: All

Published: 2019


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