From ‘La Bamba’ to Houellebecq: Frank Wynne’s linguistic odyssey
Ireland’s most distinguished living literary translator is devoted to shape shifting
Frank Wynne: “language shapes the way you think, shapes the way you behave.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
In 1937 the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote an article for a Polish magazine about the French translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The translation, he argued, gave one an idea of the “power and perfection of this complex style” but the gap between the original language and the language of the translator prevented “more intimate contact”.
Gombrowicz’s melancholic assessment is not uncommon, and translation is routinely associated with loss, betrayal, approximation. Frank Wynne, Ireland’s most distinguished living literary translator, has little time for this gospel of inadequacy. He points instead to the extraordinary ability of translators to shape shift, their capacity to look into the “ways in which language shapes the way you think, shapes the way you behave”.
Wynne, who is from Strandhill, in Co Sligo, achieved the unprecedented feat of having not one but two titles from two languages longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize: The Impostor, by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas, and Vernon Subutex 1, by the French writer Virginie Despentes.
The big breakthrough came in 2002, when Wynne’s translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award
When Wynne describes his journey into languages and translation it is more odyssey than scheduled itinerary. After abandoning a degree in English and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1980s he followed in the path of the great literary exiles of Irish modernism – “there is nothing more self-dramatising than a young person” – and headed for Paris. Working in a bookshop in the French capital, he found that he had “a gift for language”, and he soon developed a fluency denied him by years of instruction in an education system that at the time did not even have an oral examination in French.
Wynne, like those exiles who had gone before him Joyce and Beckett, found that playing with a language that is not your own means “there are fascinating things you can do with it”. The more he experimented with French the more he began to think about English and the possibility of sharing his literary enthusiasms in French with his nonfrancophone friends.
On free evenings and at weekends he typed out a full translation of the novel La Vie Deviant Soi, or The Life Before Us, by the French novelist Romain Gary (who also published under the name Émile Ajar). Later, in London, where Wynne worked as a bookseller specialising in graphic novels and as a publisher’s reader, translation re-entered his life when a publisher asked him to produce a sample translation from French of a novel he recommended.
The big breakthrough came in 2002, when Wynne’s translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. “That was huge,” he says. Houllebecq, whom Wynne describes tactfully “as not one of the world’s great conversationalists”, is animated on subjects close to his heart but otherwise will sit in “silence akin to coma”. Although the Irishman had no contact with Houellebecq when he was working on the translation of Atomised it subsequently transpired that they had met earlier, when the Frenchman, then a little-known poet, had frequented a writers’ group in Paris hosted by one of Wynne’s friends. Houllebecq’s novel has sold almost a million copies in the UK alone.
The Irish translator found after a number of years in London, however, that it was time to uproot himself once more and begin the adventure of language learning all over again. He arrived in Costa Rica with, as he puts it, a knowledge of Spanish that barely extended to the badly pronounced “lyrics of La Bamba”. The years he spent living there meant Wynne was able to start translating Spanish-language authors such as Cercas, Tómas Gonzálaz, Almudena Grandes and Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
He has twice won the prestigious Premio Valle-Inclán, for his translation of Kamchatka (2012), by Marcelo Figueras, and The Blue Hour (2014), by Alonso Cueto.
Wynne also found the time to tell the fascinating tale of Han van Meegeren in I Was Vermeer: The Forger Who Swindled the Nazis (2006). Van Meegeren, a small-time art dealer, was arrested in 1945 for selling a forged Vermeer painting to Hermann Göring, Hitler’s deputy.
Wynne notes that forgery is not an occupation for the faint-hearted. The successful forger “must become a skilled art historian, a restorer, a chemist, a graphologist and a documentarist if he is to exploit his talents”.
Wynne accepts there is an element of forgery in all successful translation – not in duping readers with shoddy imitations but in restoring the vividness and excitement of the original for new audiences in different settings. As a traveller and bridge-maker between languages and cultures Wynne is acutely conscious of the ethical task of the translator. He is worried by our time’s hunger for borders and walls and its systematic suspicion of the other. In his view, what translators can do at their most effective is to substitute insight for ignorance, empathy for enmity. Wynne is sceptical about translators who attempt to “iron out a lot of the strangeness” in fiction written in another language. Making a text available in a language readers understand does not mean reducing its complexity to only those things readers have previously understood.
Wynne’s awards also include the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation of Windows on the World, by Frédéric Beigbeder, in 2005, and the Scott Moncrieff Prize for his translation of Harraga, by Boualem Sansal, in 2016. He acknowledges prizes’ role in drawing attention both to the work of the translator and to the value of translated fiction. Indeed, he sees the media attention around the Man Booker International Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award as important in bringing new readers to translated works in the English-speaking world, where translations generally account for less than 3 per cent of published output.
Wynne refers to translators as compulsive eavesdroppers, scouring conversations in their mother tongue to find the appropriate equivalent for a voice from another language
He also points to the emergence of independent publishing houses that specialise in foreign fiction, such as Fitzcarraldo Editions, as indicative of a new appetite for fiction in translation in anglophone countries.
The British author Adam Thirlwell once observed that a translator needs “not just a talent for languages. A translator also needs talent.” This talent is abundantly obvious in the varieties of voices that Wynne makes audible in the writings of authors as diverse as Houellebecq, Despentes, Pérez-Reverte and Cercas. But, as the Irish translator pointed out recently in a public conversation with Cercas, one of the languages he is required to be most gifted in is English itself. He spoke of translators as compulsive eavesdroppers, scouring conversations in their mother tongue to find the appropriate equivalent for a style, a voice, a register from another language.
It is this relentless curiosity about the quirks of language, its capacity for change and play, and the deep recesses of culture that lie under the simplest of words that animate Frank Wynne as he enters the language worlds of the authors he translates. As one of our foremost citizens in the world republic of letters, he knows translation to be the supreme act of hospitality on a planet noisy with the rancour of exclusion.
Frank Wynne’s translation of Vernon Subutex 2, by Virginie Despentes, is published today and will be reviewed in Ticket on Saturday. Found in Translation: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Translated, selected by Frank Wynne, will be published by Head of Zeus in September; Michael Cronin is 1776 professor of French at Trinity College Dublin and director of Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation