The Most Intimate Kind of Reading: An interview with Olivia McCannon

Oxford Writers' HouseInterviews2017AprilThe Most Intimate Kind of Reading: An interview with Olivia McCannon

To pitch an article, please log in/create account

The Most Intimate Kind of Reading: An interview with Olivia McCannon

We're very curious about how different people start out translating. Besides your familiarity with several languages, what was it that first drew you to translation?

‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬Translation ticks all the boxes for me. I feel happiest in the vast border area between languages, cultures, where communication is at its most astonishing, and truthful. I always knew I wanted to be a citizen of that place, which is most definitely somewhere.

When I was 10, I hijacked my sister’s French-exchange partner on a long car journey and made her read me all the French in a bilingual picture book.

At that very basic level, what fascinated me was the way you could use words that sounded nothing like each other to describe the same thing. Suddenly your assumptions about your native tongue, the way you perceived the world, were overthrown.


What really draws me to literary translation is the pleasure of listening to and questioning a work in an intense, disciplined way. As a translator, you develop the capacity to hold yourself open to many possibilities simultaneously, but this sits alongside a fierce discernment, which empowers you, ultimately, to resolve satisfactorily what could otherwise be eternally open-ended. It is a kind of problem-solving, but one which mobilizes your emotional intelligence, and all the craft that any writer might use.

I also have absolutely no doubt that the teaching and example of my university tutors, who were brilliant literary translators, are what made translation a central part of my literary and intellectual development.


What is your translation process? Does it vary much from text to text (or from poetry to prose)?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Yes, it does vary.

Each time you approach or re-encounter a text, you find yourself at a new stage of your life, you mature, your perception of the times and of the world changes; all of that feeds in.

And most importantly, each text has its own personality, a unique tone of voice, and formally, its own demands.


I translated Balzac in six drafts, it took me six years to mature and complete the translation. I wanted to make it resonant, here and now, sidestepping both archaism and anachronism, so I spent a lot of time with my nose in colossal dictionaries in the British Library. I read nineteenth-century novels in English that were written around the same time, to get a sense of what Balzac might have sounded like, if he’d been writing in English. But what I held onto most tightly was the freshness of the French, which didn’t seem dated at all.

Translating Louise Labé has been very different. I feel such a close identification with her writing, that perhaps there has been a lowering of the ‘respectful’ barrier. I wanted more to step in and take possession of the page, I wanted her to belong to my present. I’ve taken liberties, but ones I felt (or fantasized) that she, as a proto-feminist, might sanction. As women, so much of our reading and experiencing has been done through male voices. This felt more… participatory.

Or again, there are texts I love, but which I couldn’t translate in the way I translated Le Père Goriot. For example, I have been fascinated by the Chanson de Roland (Oxford MS) for about 20 years, but as a piece of Crusader propaganda, a ‘foundation’ text which casts a long shadow in the role it has played in shaping collective thinking and discourse on war. I would only feel able to translate it with copious marginalia, surrounding it with context and debate. To be honest, I feel more driven to quarrel with its most objectionable passages, so any translation I might make of it would be riven with that struggle.


Whatever your approach, there is no escaping the ethical dimension of translation.

Even though the English version of a work wouldn’t exist if you, the translator, hadn’t written it again, from scratch, the source text was written by someone else and belongs to both the author and the original circumstances of its creation. Each translation demands a renegotiation of terms, case by case. Awareness of what you are doing is vital: if it is a playful literary theft, or an act of deliberate vandalism, that needs to be flagged up, the intention needs to be transparent, even if the process itself is much greyer.


But all of these examples have their place on the broad spectrum of translation practice: all translations may engage with the text, question it, refashion it, heighten or flatten it, in ways that might be more or less visible or invisible to a reader. ‪


What is the relationship between your poetry and your work as a translator?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Very close. To paraphrase others who have said it better: writing is a form of translation, and translation is a form of writing.


The pulse of writing is passed on from reading, and translation is the most intimate kind of reading imaginable.

A little like writing with stabilizers, or a guiding hand, you learn what it ought to feel like.


When I translated Balzac I started to write prose in longer, more complex, sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses. When I translated Jean Follain I started to write pared back, transparent lines of verse. You borrow, you learn, and you put together your own set of tools.


In 2011 Penguin published your translation of Balzac's Le Père Goriot. How important do you think the role of translators is in the creation of the canon of European classics?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

When I was translating Goriot I was very conscious that other good translations already existed. So I constantly asked myself – what is my translation going to contribute? I don’t remember now what I answered to spur myself on, but probably I hoped to bring across the timeless vitality that I felt surging through the French, the urgency of that novel, urgent then and urgent now.

There is often a pressure to call a single translation ‘definitive’. I think (to echo other translators) that this misrepresents the nature of the endeavour. Translation is a communal and collaborative activity. To provide another viable version is in itself honourable. How amazing that there is this archive of different translations (or readings, or rewritings) of the same classic work! Maybe all classic texts should be read in translation(s). The questioning work of each translation, which changes as the times change, its particular set of concerns and circumstances, is vital to the position of a work in a so-called canon, a position that must be constantly re-earned. New translations, or previously untranslated works emerging from the past, definitely shake things up. ‪


You've translated poetry by the Burmese author Nge Nge. With its more distinct differences from English, could you tell us more about translating from a non-European language? ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

I truly wish I could. To my great regret, I have no Burmese whatsoever. Instead, I will gladly tell you more about translating from a literal, that is, co-translating with another translator, as opposed to being immersed in the source language.

The Burmese poets project was set up by Sasha Dugdale, the editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, with the support of the Burmese poet Pandora. I was invited to participate. It was a great privilege to be asked to provide a voice for Nge Nge’s poems in English. I have no way of knowing if I did manage to do that or not.

I initially found it hard to find my way in to the process, and strayed a long way from the original. With time, and many useful exchanges with Pandora, who generously provided literals and further explanation, I came back in closer (I hope) to what Nge Nge had written. I regretted not knowing the language, or even being able to hear the sound of the lines (our technological link-up wasn’t good enough to permit that kind of exchange), but solutions were found, new translations came into being and Nge Nge’s brilliant poetry now has a mooring in English. ‪


Last year you were a judge for the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize and this year will join Margaret Jull Costa and Sean O’Brien on the Stephen Spender Prize jury. What do you think makes a good translation?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

The Popescu Prize was awarded to Iain Galbraith for his translations of Jan Wagner in ‘Self-portrait with a Swarm of Bees’, an amazing achievement. Sometimes the answer to that question is: you know it when you see it. Read this book!

Otherwise, I would repeat what I’ve learned and internalized from others: liveliness, a sense that the writing is felt, a convincing tone of voice. You judge a translation on the same criteria as you would judge writing, with the difference, perhaps, that calling a piece of writing a translation instantly triggers a critical state of alert. Readers can seem more open to allowing discomfort, or strangeness of tone, in original writing, as if the translator is somehow the eternal unreliable narrator, or some dark disruptive force. But we won’t let that stop us.

The greatest danger faced by a translator is cowardice. There needs to be bravery, to challenge received ideas about translating, and to ensure the work may be attended to honestly.


I’m looking forward to seeing the entries for this year’s Stephen Spender Prize!


Finally, I'd like to ask you about your views on the translation scene in Oxford, where you read French and German: what do you think of it, and how can it grow further?‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Language provision and learning in schools, nationally, is falling away drastically. Where are the translators of the future going to come from? More initiatives in schools like the Poetry Hub’s Prismatic Translation programme, or translator-in-residence posts within colleges, more study days and symposia (such as those held at The Queen’s, St Anne’s, and St Hugh’s colleges last year), more publishing projects – there’s no doubt of the importance of all of these. But there needs to be a change in educational policy and funding, as well as a mobilization of professionals who care about the future of translation, and are fighting for its survival.

Francesca Beretta

Francesca Beretta

Francesca grew up in Italy and graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Classics and English. While at Oxford, she has written for The Oxford Culture Review, for which she is also Theatre Editorial Assistant, and has previously contributed to Oxford Writers’ House. She is very interested in translation, poetry, drama, and ballet.

Olivia McCannon

Olivia McCannon

Olivia McCannon’s poetry collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and won the 2012 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. She lived for nine years in France (eight in Belleville, Paris) and her translations include Balzac’s Old Man Goriot (Penguin Classics, 2011), medieval to contemporary French poetry, and drama. She co-judged the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize in 2015 and the Stephen Spender Prize in 2017. Her website is and she is on Twitter @oliviamccannon.

This site uses cookies! We set cookies so you can manage your account and navigate the site. To accept cookies, just keep browsing. Click here to find out more.