Diaspora Q&A Series: Charlotte Coombe

Welcome, diaspora translators! It was wonderful to see such a great response to the launch yesterday; the website statistics showed readers from all over the world, and our Facebook group is growing steadily. So fascinating, too, to see all the different language combinations and locations — and there were some beautiful photographs shared on Twitter yesterday after new member Louise Lalaurie tweeted a picture of her surroundings with the questions ‘Where am I? Where are you?’. We look forward to getting to know you all, and what better way to do that than with our Diaspora Translator Q&A? This will be a regular feature on the blog, and besides offering an insight into how other literary translators live and work, we hope it will also provide resources and tips that could be helpful to others, whether they are resident in the same country or not.

The first is with Charlotte Coombe, a British translator from French and Spanish who lives in Morocco. She is also co-admin of the TA Diaspora Facebook and Twitter, and is helping to develop the network.

Tell us a little about your cultural influences. What place(s) do you consider ‘home’ and where are you based now?

CNV00051I originally hail from the southwest of England. When I was a child my family moved around a lot with the army (Germany, Hong Kong, UK), until we finally settled in Salisbury, Wiltshire (which is handy for Stonehenge). I have lived in Bath, Brighton and London, as well as Barcelona, Zaragoza and Paris. But now I am based in Marrakech with my husband, who is Moroccan. We have been here for almost a year and a half now. I/we go back to the UK every few months or so to visit family and friends, so my home is here in Marrakech, but also I suppose it is partly in Salisbury with my family, and in London where most of my UK friends now live. Home is wherever you are. Or where the laptop is. Or where your loved ones are. It’s a tricky subject to get into…

What language(s) do you translate from (and into, in the case of bilingual translators working into others besides English)?

I translate from French and Spanish, into my mother tongue, English.

What you love most about being a literary translator?

What’s not to love? (Apart from the endless challenges, frustrations, working and re-working of texts, the feeling of never quite being satisfied…). I love: Playing around with words. Creating. Searching for the perfect phrasing. The variety of subject matters that a novel can bring up (it’s strange what you find yourself researching – a literary translator’s internet browsing history must make for very bizarre reading!) That moment when you find the author’s voice, or when that devilishly difficult paragraph finally clicks into place. The joy of bringing a text to an English readership; knowing that people will get to read a story that they might otherwise never have had access to. I love being that invisible bridge between languages and cultures (although of course, I would like literary translators to become a bit more visible in the publishing process, and am keen to campaign for this). Seeing your words in print (the smell of a new book is always incredible, even more so when the words inside are yours). I love it when an author tells you how happy they are with the result, with seeing their novel ‘reborn’ in another language.

What is your daily work routine like? Do you work from home/in a library/in a co-working space?

I tend to work from home most days. Our sunny spare room doubles as my office space, a little haven where I can shut myself away in peace and quiet to work. Sometimes, if I am feeling slightly stir crazy, I take my laptop, book or printed drafts to a nearby café and work from there. Marrakech has a thriving café culture, so there are plenty of nice places to sit and watch the world go by, to avoid feeling like I spend all my time cooped up at home. I try to be at my desk by 9 am, although I’m not really a morning person so sometimes it ends up being later (by sometimes, I mean fairly often, but sshhh … don’t tell my clients). Generally though, I try to keep office hours as I do a lot of other translation and proofreading besides literary, and I need to be available from 9 am to 6 pm. I deal with emails and some social networking first thing, then settle down to work. Depending what I am working on, I try and work in 2-hour blocks, with various breaks for procrastination, house cleaning, that sort of thing. I try to get out for a walk or to run some errands, to break up my day and get out in the Moroccan sunshine (if it is not too hot). But my schedule is far from set in stone, and I often end up burning the midnight oil. I am a bit of a night owl and my creative juices tend to flow better in the evenings. On occasion, albeit incredibly rarely, I wake up around dawn and get a couple of hours of writing or translating done in the quiet stillness of the early morning.

Do you attend translation events in the UK or U.S., and if so how often?

I go back to the UK regularly, and while I am there I try to fit in at least one seminar, workshop or networking event if possible. I also try to attend the London Book Fair every year as it’s a great opportunity to meet people, catch up with colleagues and meet publishers in person who I previously have only had email contact with.

How do you maintain and strengthen your working relationship with UK/U.S. publishers while living abroad?

This is hard – I have to say it is mainly by email and keeping in touch via social networks – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I like to try and source new books and pitch to potential publishers using these methods, and then follow up with an email. It seems to be quite effective. Then, once a year, I try to meet face to face at LBF if possible.

Is there an active translation community in the city/country where you are based?

Not really – or if there is, I haven’t found my way into it yet! I don’t know any other translators living here (not even French, let along English ones) – but I am still on the lookout.


How is the literary translator regarded there? Are there organisations and initiatives (such as the TA in the UK and ALTA in the U.S.) working to improve the translator’s status, rights and visibility?

Speaking only from my experience when I tell people what I do – they seem to think it is a very ‘cool’ job to translate books (but I also get the feeling they think I sit around doing nothing all day – I keep getting unwanted advice about how to turn my translation skills into a business, as if I have not already!). There are various associations for professional translators (like this one) but they are not specifically for literary translators, and there are some minor literary translation initiatives (like the research centre Dar Al Ma’mun), but there is nothing akin to the TA or ETN in the UK. There are no major international book fairs, as far as I am aware. I would like to try and promote literary translation more here, and find some initiatives to be involved in, but literature does not seem to be high up on the list of priorities for most people in Morocco – illiteracy is still high in the country.

Depending on where you live, you may be immersed in the language of your source language(s) and distanced from your target language, or perhaps even distanced from both. What do you do to keep your mother tongue and other languages active and evolving?

French is the second language here in Morocco, after Arabic, and is widely spoken. Most people speak it to some extent, and so I speak French a lot here. My mother tongue does not suffer, as I speak in English with my husband. If anything, as he is constantly improving his English, I have to think about points of language in my mother tongue fairly often, which is good.

I have to make an effort to speak with Spanish people when I can, and to listen/watch/read in Spanish as much as possible to keep my language thriving. There are a surprising amount of Spanish speakers in Morocco – in fact, in the north they speak Spanish, rather than French – so all things considered, I am managing quite well to keep up all of my languages. My Darija is also coming along; I have quite a good level of understanding and my vocabulary is growing. This comes mainly from immersion and talking with my husband and his family/friends.

And, finally, what are you working on at the moment, and what book would you still like to translate?

I finished my last book project at the end of last year, a romantic fiction title by a new young Venezuelan author. Right now I am busy with a lot of non-literary translation and proofreading jobs, as usual, and trying to find my next book to translate. I am working on a sample for a funny new Spanish title, a sort of ‘Mum-Lit’ genre book, which I will submit to a literary agency with a view to finding a UK publisher. I also have another sample in handwhich I have been pitching to publishers, by a Moroccan-French author. The book I would still love to translate is Amor, curiosidad, prozac y dudas by Lucía Etxebarría – I approached the author about translating it into English, but she never got back in touch, unfortunately. It was one of my early favourite books in Spanish, and has not yet been translated into English. I would love to be the one to do it.

Charlotte Coombe
Literary translator, French & Spanish into English
BA Hons, MCIL, AITI, DipTransIoLET

email: charlie[at]cmctranslations[dot]com
skype: charlotte.coombe
twitter: @cmctranslations


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