Alison Anderson’s Literary Voyages

Interview by Michael Schubert

NCTA member Alison Anderson leads a triple life as a novelist, French-to-English literary translator, and employee of the French consulate in San Francisco. After growing up in the eastern United States, she moved to Switzerland as a teenager. There she earned a degree in French and Russian literature and later an M.A. from the University of Geneva School of Translation and Interpretation. Widely traveled, she has taught English in Greece and Croatia and also lived in France.

After two decades abroad, she returned to the United States, finally settling in the Bay Area in 1987. Her first novel, Hidden Latitudes, was published in 1996 and named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a recent NEA grant recipient for literary translations (works of Christian Bobin), and her published translations include Onitsha by JMG Le Clezio and a comprehensive history of the Surrealist movement. Alison’s latest novel, set in Mauritius, is entitled Darwin’s Wink and has just been published by St. Martin’s Press. Alison’s association with the NCTA goes back to 1988.

You’ve cited your travels as inspiration for your novels – specifically, your sailing trip to Mexico for your first novel, Hidden Latitudes, your trips to Mauritius for Darwin’s Wink, and your time in Greece for your novel-in-progress, The Road to the Island. Can you elaborate on how travel inspires you?
ALISON ANDERSON: Travel heightens the senses and attunes you to the exotic. It makes you more aware of the people who surround you, even if you don’t speak their language. Travel opens your imagination.

Are language and culture important plot elements in your fictional work?
Not in Hidden Latitudes, since it’s set on a desert island! They are more important in Darwin’s Wink, because Mauritius is a melting pot of many different cultures. I had to reflect these historic and cultural differences. The Road to the Island is more homogeneous, about a Greek-American woman who goes to Greece to research her family history.

Is your multilingualism and your experience as a translator always present in your thoughts as you write? Do you imagine how people of different cultures will understand your words or how translators will render them?
First of all, I came to writing through translation; it was the confidence I developed through manipulating other people’s words which gave me the strength to try it on my own. As far as incorporating my knowledge of languages into my own fiction, in The Road to the Island, I am aware in writing the dialogs that the people are actually speaking Greek and I imagine this dialog in Greek and “translate” it. The same was true for French in Darwin’s Wink. But I don’t imagine or worry about the job of some future translator when I am writing in English!

Tell us about your career as a translator.
I translate almost exclusively literature now. After I earned my M.A., I began doing general translation work. I tested for the United Nations, but they weren’t hiring. I did various other jobs before finding my way to literary translation. My first translation, of La place by Annie Ernaux, was not accepted by the publishers, but they thought enough of my work to steal my rendering of the title! (The British translation, which they ended up using, had been called Positions; it was published in America under my title, A Man’s Place). My next experiences were better: two books on sailing for Sheridan House. In a nice instance of serendipity, it was through them that I found the agent for my first novel. Since then I’ve translated a number of art books, several novels (I’m most proud of Onitsha, which is a beautiful autobiographical novel about Africa), and am currently working on two more novels, one a fictional biography of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthum.

Do your writing and translation careers compete with or complement each other?
Complement. Of course, they sometimes compete for time, but they complement each other in their methodology. I devote roughly equal amounts of time to both translating and writing, though that can vary depending on my specific projects. My travels, my knowledge of foreign languages, and my experience with different cultures have all helped my careers in both writing and translation.