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Interview with literary translator Rosalind Harvey

  • By Tom Chivers
  • 5th January 2012
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Tom Chivers interviews Rosalind Harvey, one of Free Word's two Translators in Residence and author of the acclaimed English translation of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos.

Hola Rosalind! How did you get into translation?

After studying Spanish at university, I was working in a foreign language bookshop (Grant & Cutler, now part of Foyles) when I heard about the Poetry Translation Centre’s workshops run by Sarah Maguire. I went to a few, which I found by turns inspiring and intimidating (always good to do something that scares you a little), and through a fellow translator there I learned about BCLT’s translation summer school up at UEA. I went that summer, fell head over heels in love with translation, quit my bookshop job and moved to Norwich do a Master’s in Literary Translation, but it was about a year and a half after graduating that I eventually got lucky with an offer from the wonderful Anne McLean to partake in a co-translation of a Colombian book, Oblivion.

Can you describe the process of translating Down the Rabbit Hole? Did you translate all in one chunk, or bit by bit, and what editorial influence did editors/the author have on your work?

I translated a couple of sections first as samples to show publishers, and then the rest in several drafts, and finished the whole thing in about five months. There wasn’t a particularly heavy editing process, in part because the book is so short and concise, but I had great editors whose main influence was to suggest some very good solutions to a few things I had been struggling with. Juan Pablo didn’t influence the translation per se, but was very helpful in terms of providing answers to my questions about Mexican food, swear words and in-jokes.

How did it feel for the book to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award?

It felt great! We were all really pleased: Juan Pablo, everyone at And Other Stories, and me of course. And although we didn’t win, being shortlisted did so much for the book: we had reviews coming out of our ears, Juan Pablo did lots of interviews, and the book turned up in some quite unexpected bookshops. It was the first translation ever to be shortlisted, so quite a turn-up for the book(s)!

You recently commented on a Guardian review of a translated book, asking for the translator's name to be included. Why do you think translators are sometimes ignored? What can we do about it?

When a reader or a reviewer reads a book, the first name they notice is, quite rightly, the author’s, and in a small space (which is all that reviewers of fiction, and translated fiction especially, have to play with these days) then clearly you want to discuss the plot and style etc. in terms of the author. But if a book has been translated then a reviewer should at least mention this fact, even if it’s just to say ‘this book was translated by …’. It takes a lot of time and love to translate a work of fiction and this should be acknowledged. Translators don’t have as much clout as authors and are, by and large, a meek bunch, but we have more power now thanks to organizations like the Translators Association, which fights for our rights, as well as an increased awareness among both publishers and the public that translation not only exists, but is an art in itself and one worth recognizing. I think things are a lot better than they were a few years ago, and the fact that you can comment on an article in the Guardian, say, means that the author of that article sees it instantly and can be named and shamed into putting things right. In the review you mention, the writer did actually end up naming Katy Derbyshire as the translator on his own website, but the Guardian hasn’t yet changed it on theirs.

How did your residency at the Free Word Centre come about?

The residency was a new initiative funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation and dreamed up by Free Word’s previous director Shreela Ghosh and BCLT. The main aims were to develop a programme of activities that would open people’s minds about translation, and to bring new audiences into the Free Word Centre.

It was enjoyable being part of an organisation that does exciting things, and having the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to with translation – it felt exciting, scary and more than a little mad at times, and has opened up lots of new doors for me. I also loved the sociable side of it, and how different it was to my translation work.

You worked with Coney to design a real-world translation game in Brick Lane. What was that like?

Working with Coney was great – as you would expect, they’re a playful bunch, and doing an event out in the real world was a very new experience for me. It was loud, messy, fun, spontaneous, exhausting and hilarious. Despite my concerns about people not following the instructions correctly and so getting lost or feeling bored, it worked really well, mainly because most people are a lot more flexible and inventive when faced with new situations than we sometimes give them credit for – something we should bear in mind if we ever feel uncertain about how the British reading public might react to literature in translation. (Read more about Word Keys translation game.)

Why is translation important, and how can we help to promote it?

Translation is important because without it we would all be less aware of the rest of the world – its people, cultures, literatures, languages, beliefs, idiosyncracies, fears, obsessions and panaceas – and how essentially similar we are all to each other. It does so in a small and subtle way, but one that enriches both us and our own literature. As for helping promote it, it depends who you mean by ‘we’ – it’s easy to point the finger and blame publishers, or readers, or booksellers for the dearth of translations in the UK. As translators we can stand up for ourselves more: try and demand the recommended rates, make sure our contracts are more favourable, and be as public a face for our books as we can, appearing at festivals and talks and speaking with the author about the book; if we can persuade publishers and the organisers of literature festivals that we know the book best then we can do the promoting ourselves, which isn’t hard to do if you love a work of literature.

What are you reading at the moment?

Right now I’m still in holiday mode so I’m not reading anything serious or work-related (over Christmas all I read were detective novels and the TV listings – glorious!), but I’ve just been sent a beautiful book by a Mexican writer friend called El libro vacío by Josefina Vicens, so that’s next on my list.

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