VEVEY – "The translator dances the tango with the text. When the text leads with the left foot, the translator steps back with the right. It is an extremely tight embrace, and, if possible, graceful..."

Josée Kamoun, the French translator for the works of Philip Roth, John Irving and Jonathan Coe, chooses her words carefully. But right now, she is preparing to take part in a translation festival in Switzerland where, for once, it is the translators who will be celebrated, rather than the authors.

Modest and joyful, Kamoun is having fun with this rare moment in the sun. "I like that people are talking about us, but not too much. I like being in the shadow of my authors," she says. "One of the reasons I do this work is because it allows me to avoid writing myself." 

Kamoun describes the translator's "extremely ambiguously status" in the literary process. "He or she is a double agent, perhaps even two-faced. You can never be sure that the translator is telling the truth," she says. "The translator is an unpleasant witness to the fact that we are unable to read the original version of the book. The translator serves two masters, is even a bit seedy. But we like translators because without them we would not have access to the text."

Listening to her Latin teacher

For Kamoun, translation is the combination of a mask to hide behind, the possibility of performance – she compares her work to that of an art restorer or actor – and a rare pleasure.

It all started with a prediction, made in high school by her Latin teacher, who envisioned Kamoun doing just this kind of work. But this star translator also taught English literature for 15 years and still works in the national education system. She never wanted to make translation her only job. "I never thought about starving for translation," Kamoun says. "Besides, the work of a translator is painstaking and solitary. There are better things for your social life."

Teaching English has given her a deeper understanding of the texts. "If you don't understand both literary traditions, it is hard to be a translator. I've also read a lot of the French classics. Having taught literature for so long, I am comfortable with the written word. It defeats me. It excites me. It nourishes me. That's it."

The adventure, Kamoun explains, is in the texts – they're what leads to a certain intimacy with the author. Indeed, when she was translating Philip Roth, the publisher sent her to spend a week with him once a year. "It was surprising. He neither speaks nor reads French. My questions for him were frequently cultural. You don't translate words, you translate effects. But in order to do so, you have to be sure of the author's intended effect. Then I read my text and he read his. And he told me ‘That doesn't have the same rhythm!' And I told him, ‘I can't do exactly what you do, but I can do my best to get as close as possible.'"

Turning down Toni Morrison

Has she ever turned someone down? "Before Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, I refused her very beautiful novel, Beloved. I read it and had the option to do the translation, but I said no. It's a story about infanticide, where a woman slits her daughter's throat with a circular saw so that she won't be taken back to the slave plantation, and the daughter returns as a ghost. I couldn't live with an infanticidal woman for a year."

What about Jonathan Coe? "It was love at first sight. When I opened The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, I felt like I had been born into it," Kamoun recalls. "I translated it with ease, without pain, and very quickly, which is quite rare." 

Read the original article in French