When I first moved to France 11 years ago, intending to make my career as a novelist, I spoke barely a word of French. And, though my wife was French, I never made any particular effort to remedy that. Apart from attending one five-week intensive course, understanding and fluency came to me through a process of osmosis: family mealtimes or post-football conversations as important as reading Proust and Camus. So it was not until I discovered, as many authors had before me, that novels alone are rarely a sufficient source of income, that I began to consider translation as an option.
There is no set way to become a literary translator. I was lucky: I contacted my publishers Faber to say I would be interested in providing readers’ reports on French novels, and was given a “rush job” to do – Laurent Binet’s HHhH had won a Prix Goncourt and my editor needed a report within 48 hours because various publishers were about to bid for it. I read the book in a frenzy and loved it – more than I had loved any novel for years. I wrote an ecstatic report and, though the rights were bought not by Faber but by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and by Harvill Secker in the UK, I emailed those editors to say I was interested in translating the book. I was told that more than a dozen translators had said the same thing, and was asked to send in a sample translation of about 30 pages. I did so, and was thrilled to be given the job. My translation, the result of six months’ labour, was published last week.