An Interview with Frank Wynne, Albertine Prize-Nominated Translator

An interview with Frank Wynne, translator of Vernon Subutex 1 (FSG / Librairie Générale Française) by Virginie Despentes and Animalia (Grove Press) / Règne animal (Gallimard) by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo,  nominated for the Albertine Prize, an annual reader’s choice award that recognizes American readers’ favorite work of contemporary Francophone fiction that has been translated into English and published in the US within the preceding calendar year. Learn more at

Why did you choose to translate these two books?

Not all translators get to pick and choose their work – unless they have a full-time job on the side.  I am fortunate enough to be offered more work than I can take on these days, so I get to choose the titles I translate. I read Règne Animal when it was first published, and before realizing that the rights had been acquired. When I heard rights had been bought by Fitzcarraldo, I got in touch with the English editor, Jacques Testard  (something I rarely do) to tell him how much I loved the book and to hint that I might like to translate it, and was devastated that he was already talking to another translator. Luckily (for me, and in a very different sense for her), the other translator could not take on the book because she was pregnant, so Jacques came back to me. I was thrilled, because the rich, dense, lyrical prose was so exhilarating yet so visceral that I very much wanted to do it. 

When it was first suggested I might translate Vernon Subutex, I said I’d cut my right arm off to be able to do it. No novel could be more different to Animalia and its bucolic tragedy. Vernon is resolutely urban, a dazzling, razor-sharp satire of contemporary French (and world) society. I was drawn to it because it is slangy, staccato, polyphonic – a fresco of a world in crisis, struggling, real…

What did you absolutely want to keep and convey in these translations? Was there any specific segment you struggled with, things you were not able to keep in English?

All translations are different, and what one strives to preserve is different. With Animalia, there is a sense of history, a specificity of language, a panorama that sweeps through a century of human (and animal) suffering. Preserving the tone and register, the subtle nuances of formal and demotic was a real challenge. Never has the fact that I was raised in rural Ireland, among small tenant farmers, and suffocated by Catholicism been more of an asset while working on a translation. With Vernon Subutex, the most important thing to preserve was the energy – capturing Virginie Despentes’ prose is like catching fireflies in a jam jar – infinitely difficult but dazzling. Each chapter shifts in tone and register to reflect the character who is the focus of the scene, this requires a deep-rooted sense of kinship, and kinship with each character (and while some of  Despentes’ characters are repellent, she never loses her empathy and compassion for them). Vernon Subutex is a broad-brush fresco, but one that is most powerful inn its details, of frailty, of suffering, of dreams gone awry, of lives that failed to live up to expectation. But it is also hopeful, joyous, filled with a belief in the power of music and of love. The fact that Virginie and I are about the same age, and, over the decades shared the same musical tastes and maybe the same vices made this a joy to translate

What did you find the most challenging in translating these books?

In Animalia, the challenge was to preserve the sense of the numinous that pervades Jean-Baptiste’s exultant sense of nature, the luminous scenes of Jérôme in the graveyard,  contrast with the fragility of humanity, disease and death – all of which he depicts with bright flashes of humor – and, in opposition to nature, the brute, hulking mechanical force of modernity that crushes animal and human alike, grinds the body and the soul to barren pragmatism and materialism.  With Vernon Subutex, the challenge was to replicate the polyphony of voices, the idioms, the vernacular, the slang, the verlan, the dozens of rich individuals who make up a microcosm of Paris, of France, of the world.

How was the editing process with the authors and publishers?

No translator works alone, the contribution of publishers, line editors, and copy editors is crucial to the process of revision – and it is in revision that translations take on their final form, it is here that they are honed and tested. My editors on both books (Jacques Testard and Peter Blackstock for Animalia, Christopher Maclehose and Robina Pelham-Burn on Vernon Subutex) are people whose eyes and ears I trust, who make my work as good as it can be. With authors, relationships vary – I am always in touch with authors to ask questions, to look for clarifications, but rarely to settle on the final English form of the text. The relationship between author and translator needs to be one of trust; the author needs to feel that the translator “gets it”, and is doing everything in her/his power to recreate not only sense, but cadence, rhythm, humor, register… since no story worth telling should be reduced to a flat approximation.

Do you find important that the translator takes liberties with the text while translating a book? If yes, what kind of liberties?

All translation is an act of interpretation, and therefore requires the translator not merely to transcribe, but to perform – as an actor does a role, or a musician does a score. Each translator’s version of a text would necessarily be different, since what each of us “hears” in the text will depend on so many factors. There are times when individual words, images or similes cannot be directed translated because the denotation or connotation would be different, or because the resonance of the image/idiom would be lost. At such times, a translator has to find a way around, a form of phrasing that generates a similar emotion or reaction in the reader of the English text. There are no hard and fast rules for this – on the one hand, a translation is a whole, a single piece that must hang together; on the other, each word, each nuance, each beat if a phrase must be individually tuned so that the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters and the whole do justice to the original.