Last month Jane Marie Todd was awarded the annual Translation Prize for Nonfiction by the French-American and Florence Gould Foundations for her translation of Dominique Charpin’s Reading and Writing in Babylon. For HUP she has also translated Aviad Kleinberg’s Flesh Made Word, Maurice Olender’s Race and Erudition, Anne-Marie Eddé’s forthcoming Saladin, and many others. What follows below is the speech she delivered upon receiving the award.
I would like to thank the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation for this award, and for recognizing a group of people who do not ordinarily get a great deal of recognition. Translation is not an easy way to make a living; nor is it an easy way to make a name for yourself, since you are always writing in someone else’s name.
I have been a full-time, freelance translator for about twenty years. For the most part, I translate scholarly works for university presses and art catalogs and other publications for museums. I do not have a position at the university. That means, on one hand, no titles, no promotions, no regular paychecks, no travel funds from my home institution, no paid vacations, no sabbaticals. I do not even have library privileges at a university library, so I cannot order books from Interlibrary Loan or access JSTOR when I need a quotation from a scholarly journal. On the other hand, I spent enough years in academia not to be envious of academics.
Is it any wonder that translators are a modest and unassuming lot? We are happy just to have regular work, to get interesting projects, and to be paid promptly and relatively well. I therefore want to thank Sharmila Sen, my editor at Harvard University Press who commissioned the translation of Reading and Writing in Babylon, for supplying me with all those things for a number of years.
Despite its drawbacks, translation is a wonderful way to make a living. I work at home in comfortable clothes, with my little dog dozing at my feet. From my desk chair, I journey through time and space and explore the most diverse disciplines imaginable: from Old Babylonia to the Byzantine Middle Ages, from the early days of cubism to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, from the Chinese literati painters to the gods of ancient Egypt, from Fra Angelico’s monastery to Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, and from Mme de Pompadour’s opulent château to the tiny Gan kingdom in Burkina Faso. One day I might be following complicated arguments from Kant or Spinoza, and the next day I will be asked to translate advertising copy for a milliner’s shop in Paris: “Chez Katharina M, the hats twist into arabesques and whorls... They whirl and pirouette, so airy that—on seeing them—you imagine a bird in flight or the sweep of a rippling gown…” I have always had wide-ranging interests: my degree is in Comparative Literature and I wrote my dissertation on a psychoanalyst and a philosopher. But I can’t think of any other profession where I could learn so much about so many different things.
I am a language nerd: I love learning new words, new specialized vocabularies, and even new diacritical marks (did you know that the Turkish alphabet has a letter “i” with no dot over it?). Translation is extreme close reading, and one of the pleasures it affords me is to be able to follow an author’s thought processes, to see how a mind works with and through language.
Here are two things I learned while translating Dominique Charpin’s Reading and Writing in Babylon. The first is that, when compared to the task of the Assyriologist, translating from French to English is a breeze. Let me read a longish passage from the book to serve as an illustration and to give you a feel for the writing. The section is entitled “How to Read a Cuneiform Tablet”: