Discover the shortlist: Frances Riddle, ‘Literary translation felt impossibly out of reach’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Frances Riddle is translator of Elena Knows.

She tells us about the path that led her to translation, from obsessing over childhood poetry to discovering her passion for the literary world while studying in Buenos Aires.

Frances Riddle

Written by Frances Riddle

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find in particular, translating fiction?

I came to Buenos Aires to improve my Spanish in 2010 and ended up staying to do a Master’s at the University of Buenos Aires, where I discovered that I love translating. I’ve always been a big reader and this city is bursting with gorgeous bookshops and amazing writers and literary events so naturally, I wanted to do literary translation but it was just this burning dream that felt impossibly out of reach. By coincidence, Elena sabe was the first book I read when I moved to Buenos Aires so it was really my introduction to contemporary Argentine literature and it was cool to get to translate it all these years later. I love translating fiction and I feel lucky that I get to sit down every day and do this as my job; I still want to pinch myself sometimes.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

When I was a kid my mother worked as an elementary school librarian and my grandmother had been a librarian and professor of children’s literature so our house was filled with kids’ books. My earliest memories are of being so obsessed with certain poems that I would ask to be read them over and over to the point that I had them memorised. My favourites were from The Golden Books Treasury of Elves and Fairies and A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I can still to this day recite poems from these books.

What did you enjoy most about translating Elena Knows?  What did you find most challenging?

I think the things I found most enjoyable were also the biggest challenges. I was initially drawn to the style and format of this book with its long sentences and long paragraphs and unmarked speech. Elena’s day is structured around her medication schedule since when her pill wears off she isn’t able to move and the book is structured this way as well: the readers witness all the everyday complications of her Parkinson’s disease, which is hard to read about, hard to translate. Then there were other stylistic or word-level issues that I talked about with Fionn Petch, the editor for this book, and he came up with some great, elegant solutions. I love a good editor who can offer an outside opinion on the things that are posing challenges and I’m happy to have another voice come into the text to polish it up and push it to be even better.

I feel lucky that I get to sit down every day and do this as my job; I still want to pinch myself sometimes

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

My translation process involves first just vomiting the text into literal English without worrying at all how it sounds. It sounds horrible. But I like to do this as a first step because I want to let the author’s voice and style come through as much as possible without me imposing my preferences right away. Then my next step is to check the translation against the original, paragraph by paragraph, to make sure I didn’t miss anything or making corrections and also editing heavily because that literal translation is so bad. Then after that I don’t really look back at the original again. Because at some point I feel like I have to start focusing on what works in the English, since that’s all the reader of the translation will see. Once I turn the book in, the copy editor might point out places where the wording still sounds awkward because I’m contaminated by the Spanish and things usually move even a bit farther from the original. I’m happy when an editor suggests a change because as the translator I feel so bound to the original text sometimes, like it’s not my place to make sweeping, dramatic changes, so the editor’s suggestions can be liberating.

Tell us a lesser-known fact about you.

I’m nocturnal by nature. I love being awake late at night and if adult life allowed I would probably stay up until dawn and sleep past noon every day.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

So many books have probably changed my life in small ways, even if it’s just a memorable character that’s stuck with me over the years like an old friend. If I have to pick one I’ll choose Bodies of Summer by Martín Felipe Castagnet, which is the first book I ever translated and it was so exciting to feel like an actual, published literary translator for the first time.

Frances Riddle