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Celebrating female translators for #WITMonth

Posted on: 22/08/2018

Today is the publication of the brand new riverrun Editions series – three classic books released with their best ever translations. And it turns out that many of the books we now know as modern classics were translated by women.

Female translators were so important to the literary modernism, as it was a career that was open to women, so often barred from academic roles. It was also flexible, so suited women with children.

We’ve been delving into the lives of the extraordinary women who translated the riverrun Editions and thought we’d share some of the wonderful tidbits of information we’ve uncovered…

For example, did you know that Beryl de Zoete, translator of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, also…

  • Was a classically trained ballerina who taught an early form of aerobics
  • Studied at Oxford when university education was still very much an exception for women
  • Travelled the world to watch international dance performances, and then wrote about them for places like The New Statesman and The Telegraph
  • Wasn’t interested in domesticity of any kind, serving “tinned baked beans accompanied by hot house grapes and good wine” at dinner parties, so as not to detract from her creative energy
  • Hosted a troupe of Jewish ballerinas escaping Nazi persecution during the war, most likely saving their lives

Nancy Mitford is well known as an author in her own right, writing witty books set in the upper class world she was so familiar with. But did you also know that she…

  • Was fascinated by French history, and wrote two historical biographies in her later years
  • Worked for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil war, which hardened her anti-fascist beliefs even as two of her sisters joined the Nazis in Germany
  • Edited and produced a magazine full of gruesome murders for the entertainment of her siblings
  • Worked at the Heywood Hill bookshop in Curzon Street

And Constance Garnett introduced some the biggest names in Russian literature to the English-speaking world, but most people have never even heard of her. This remarkable woman…

  • Won a scholarship to read classics at Cambridge at a time when very few women went to university
  • Didn’t speak a word of Russian until she was pregnant with her first child
  • Translated 70 volumes of Russian prose for publication in the UK, including all of Dostoyevsky, hundreds of Chekhov’s novels and nearly all of Tolstoy, among others
  • Was close to DH Lawrence, who remembered her ‘sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvellous translations in Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high – really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.’
  • Went nearly blind working on War and Peace. She had to hire a secretary to read the original prose to her out loud, and would then dictate the translation back to her
  • Was the only translator of Dostoyevsky Hemingway could bear. He told a friend that he could never get through War and Peace – not ‘until I got the Constance Garnett translation’

What an inspiring bunch, and there are so many more shared over on the Quercus Books Instagram feed.

What’s your favourite book in translation?

Post author: Hannah Winter

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