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Writers' Room: Ollie Brock on Translation

  • By Sam Sedgman
  • 11th January 2013
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Each week we speak to someone close to Free Word with a story to tell. Recently installed as one of our two Translators in Residence, Ollie Brock is a literary translator of both Spanish and French, planning to explore translation from new angles with a series of events at Free Word. We stole five minutes of his time to ask what the day-to-day life of a translator is like, what plans he has for his residency with us, and whether Google Translate and the like will ever put him out of of a job.

So Ollie. Who are you, and what you do?

I'm a graduate of the crash! I entered the working world just weeks before the banks burst at the seams – so I think of myself as part of that generation. I tend to call myself a freelance translator, but I also work with autistic adults 12 hours a week and co-host a monthly music night. I write book reviews and the odd article. Two weeks per quarter I’m a front-page editor for openDemocracy.

How did you end up as a freelance translator?

The first seed was probably sown when I lived in Brussels for four years as a child. Later I did a languages degree which was pretty literature-heavy, and we translated passages of literature every week on top of the usual essays (my translation teacher once wrote a report that said I was doing well, but needed to ask myself if my translations weren’t ‘occasionally rather too figural or poetic’ – so you can imagine I was chuffed with that…). I worked at Granta magazine for a few years not long after graduating, which was a fantastic experience – but helping edit their first fully translated issue (the Spanish-language equivalent of the recent Brazilian number) made me realise I wanted to work more with my foreign languages as well as literature in English. So I went freelance about two years ago.

What do you like most about doing it?

That it's a perfectly legitimate professional activity to – occasionally – be prone on the sofa, scribbling on a manuscript.

Scribbling aside, day to day, what is translation? What do you spend your time doing?

It’s crucial to keep reading in your own language, so that’s one thing. I often end up ordering a book or three to get closer to a subject and its vocabulary. Even if you have the words somewhere in you – what’s usually known as ‘passive’ vocabulary – it will often be dormant and need waking up. Soon I’ll be tackling a passage from Proust for a translation ‘duel’ at Bath Literature Festival, so that will involve getting reacquainted with a very particular style. But any literary translator will tell you that they have to spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t translating. To me that’s a boon: I wouldn’t want to translate for forty hours a week. I go to events and trade fairs, write to people to see what they think of books and authors, And I’m out of the house for half the week anyway, for the reasons mentioned above…

On a related note, I'm forever asking writers how and where they work – on the kitchen floor at midnight with a glass of milk, wearing a dressing gown in Starbucks… how and where do you work? Or are you one of those types who can work anywhere?

I would take the midnight kitchen over Starbucks, but the living room is going well at the moment. I have some very well-read housemates, so there are books literally to the ceiling, as well as the requisite unruly plants. For a Christmas dinner we borrowed a huge trestle table, about the width of my armspan, and we haven’t got round to taking it back to its owner yet. So that’s my desk at the moment.

What are your main goals as one of our Translators in Residence?

To get people to think about translation as more than just swapping one word for another. To bring lots of new people to Free Word, which does such great work, and to collaborate with some of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in recent years.

Your first two events as a TIR are about the language of 'home' and about what we read in the news – what made you interested in those topics?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear, by David Bellos

When you leave your home country, it becomes more important to talk about it; you regard it in a completely different way. But just when you need to identify with the place more, its words are no longer so available. I think what happens next is an interesting question.

As for the news, originally it was a chapter in David Bellos’s book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which explains how many times some news items are translated before they are broadcast or published. Beyond that, though, there are clearly very important questions of ‘cultural’ translation in how the same news story is presented in different countries and communities. A story about alcoholism or gay marriage, for instance, will be written quite differently for a predominantly Muslim readership from how it would be written here.

What's the future for translators? Are you all going to be replaced by a smarter version of BabelFish, or will we need you more than ever before?

A lot of commercial translation for agencies is already a matter of running the material through a software programme and overseeing or correcting the results, in the same way that most financial trading is now computer-led with human supervision. And although it can be gratifying for us translators to put a sentence from a novel through a machine and laugh at the results from time to time, it’s not so funny how quickly the machines are learning. (In fact, if someone has done the experiment of running the same sentence through Google Translate every six months or so, I’d be fascinated to see the results.) But of course, I don’t think literary translation is about to be taken from human hands. The fact that no two translators will produce the same version of a literary text tells you that a unique mind has been instrumental in creating what you are reading. That uniqueness is an accidental product impossible to design – so I think we’re safe! Computers aside, though, I’d say the future is pretty bright: interest in foreign literature is going up, not down.

Lastly, what are you reading at the moment? And is it any good?

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra, in Megan McDowell’s translation: and yes it’s good! It's a Chilean novel about the impact of the dictatorship on children. Also very good is an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan about the guitarist John Fahey. Fahey is my favourite musician; J J Sullivan I hadn’t read before but am enjoying. But the comparison with David Foster Wallace in the jacket copy is taking it a bit far.

I'm also reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chögyam Trungpa: dense, but I’m getting there. It's mostly against spiritual undertakings as some kind of sexy adornment to our lives. And I’ve just finished Un repas en hiver, by Hubert Mingarelli, which was fantastic. It’s a French novella about German soldiers in a prison camp in Poland. It’s grim but very atmospheric and absorbing. Mingarelli says a lot without ever quite saying it, which is a powerful position for a writer to be in.

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  • This is fascinating! I’d love to know what passage from Proust you’re going to translate.

  • Ollie Brock

    Hi there – it’s the opening of La Prisonnière, up to ‘où ne manquait même pas la présence d’un oiseau.’ (Just before her song is quoted.) Just off to work on it now, in fact…

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