Interview with translator and editor Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

Eve Lindemuth Bodeux has worked as a professional translator and consultant for over twenty years. She earned an MA from the University of Virginia (USA) and a graduate degree from the Université de Lorraine (France). An Alaska-born, dual French-American national, she has traveled extensively in the US and Europe and currently resides in the Denver, Colorado (USA) area. She serves on the ATA Board of Directors.

Eve and I met back in 2012, in Budapest, during an ELIA event where she was presenting. Since then we’ve been following each other’s work though social media. Back in January I joined her newly founded book club for translators. So, it was time for an interview.

In January 2020, you launched the Global Reads Book Club for Translators, which is a quite active group with its own Slack channel. Can you tell us about it? What’s your goal? Why did you feel a book club for translators was needed? 

The idea of the book club is to celebrate books in translation, in all different languages. Members can read the books in any language they have been published in. We often have a good time discussing translation issues that are apparent when we compare the various versions. We also look at each book simply as readers too, discussing plots, characters and various literary perspectives.  

I announced the club in December 2019 and kicked it off in January 2020. We work on a two-month cycle, reading a book every other month, discussing it the second month. We all vote to choose the books we read, choosing from a list of three that I send out. The books voted on can be suggested by me or other members. By the end of the year, we will have read and discussed six fiction books in translation. 

I had been thinking about forming such a group for years. Now there are a lot of tools that can be used to run such a group online, so it all fell into place. As you noted, we use Slack for asynchronous discussions about the books and meet on Zoom to discuss each book together, in real time. I have also conducted interviews with one of our authors and one of the translators. They were both fantastic speakers and so generous in sharing their time with us. For one of our books, I sent written questions to the translators of various languages and shared their replies with the group (with their permission, of course). So, we do have some fun “special events” in the mix. I also use MailChimp to send out periodic emails to members to let them know what’s on the schedule.  

My motivation in starting the book club was just that I wanted to talk about books with my colleagues around the world and no one else was already doing that (that I know of). So far, it has worked out well and I have enjoyed myself immensely and, from the feedback I get, it seems like others are enjoying it too. To share some statistics, there are now over 300 members who read in over 40 languages. That is pretty good considering that, originally, I thought I’d be doing well if 30 people signed up!  

 I do plan to continue the club for 2021 and already have my eye on some great books in translation that we will be voting on for the January/February session. If anyone is interested in signing up, they can do so here.

According to the Three Percent project of the University of Rochester, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation and that includes (literary) fiction and poetry. Why is the US publishing industry so challenging for books in translation?   

That’s a big question. My thoughts are that this fact is a reflection of the larger American tendency to be insular. The United States is a big country that only borders two other countries, Canada and Mexico, and Canadians (mostly) speak English (with some French, of course), like Americans do. 

In general, compared to Europe, for example, the United States is lukewarm on the idea of interacting with foreign languages or providing funding for foreign language study in schools. I read an article that states that 92% of European students learn a second language in school, and even starting in primary school. In the US, there are only 20% of K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th grade) students enrolled in foreign language classes. Even though, obviously, if we are reading books in translation in the US, they are going to be in English, but, in general, I think this shows that, once again, Americans are less welcoming to things they think are “foreign.” This also fits with Americans’ reticence to watch subtitled or dubbed films. They are still considered “art house” films. And, in addition to Americans’ general attitude toward all things “foreign,” within the publishing industry itself, we have to remember that if an acquisitions editor can’t read a book in a given language to decide if it is any good, it is hard to get the editor interested in the book.  

My personal impression, however, is that the American public would be open to reading more translations than publishing houses are willing to give it credit for. For example, our food choices as a country have opened up a lot since, say, the 1970s, and we are much more cosmopolitan. People travel more than they have at any other time in history (well, at least they were doing so before the pandemic), and, so, in general, are open to a more global outlook. 

I attended the New York Book Expo in 2019 and attended a panel discussion where various literary agents discussed their attempts to get more books in translation published in the US market. They also discussed successes that they had shepherded through the US publishing system and they were encouraged by that success. The agent for A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch, was on the panel. That book was a huge success in the US and, just anecdotally, pretty much all my friends around the country told me that they had read it in their own book clubs. It really made its way into “middle America.” Interestingly enough, the author, Backman, has a 2020 book out in the US market called Anxious People: A Novel, this time translated by Neil Smith. I have requested this book at my local library and am one of 153 people on the wait list in my little town!  

Another translated book that was a recent hit in the US market is Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. I actually first heard about this book in Real Simple magazine, which is pretty “American”! My conclusion is, it seems that the fabled consumer prejudice against translated works may be changing and I hope that publishers grab on to this trend and make translated literature more readily available to the American public

How can the work of translators contribute to change this situation? And what would your advice be to an English translator who wants to convince a US publisher to bet on a foreign book? 

I think that translators can contribute to this as both translators and readers. We all need to support literature in translation. Buy it, check it out at your library, and talk about it! As translators, it is hard to get a US publisher to notice you unless you already have an “in”. They are often reticent, as I mentioned above, to consider a book if they can’t understand the text themselves. If, as a translator, you are passionate about a book that you would want to translate, think about contacting a US publisher or agent and providing them with at least a synopsis of the work in English. They are the ones who would be buying the rights. But it is still a tough sell. An author might be enthusiastic about getting their work published in the US market, but don’t usually own the rights or have a say in who the translator is (unless the book was self-published).  

Smaller presses may be more amenable to hearing from a translator if a book from abroad is a good fit for their niche. And don’t think that this is a totally crazy idea. My kids loved the Pyjamasques books in French when they were little. I thought it would be so fun to translate them but thought they would not go over that well with the general American public. I never contacted the French or any US publisher about it, and they may not have chosen me as the translator anyway, but, now, as anyone with little kids in the US knows, the PJ Masks (as they are called in English), are HUGE in the US, with books, a TV show, and lots of merchandise in every toy store in America! The lesson I take from that is, if you think it is a good idea, someone else may too, and, if not, all they can say is no. You sure can’t win if you don’t try! 

You’re on the ATA Board of Directors. How can professional associations like the ATA contribute to improve the position and visibility of translators (literary and non-literary)? What is ATA doing in practice? 

A very practical way that the ATA encourages translator visibility is with its online Directory of Translators and Interpreters. This online directory lets clients easily find translators and interpreters based on the parameters of their particular project. In fact, the directory had 1.5 million pageviews over the past year, so that is some significant visibility! The directory benefits both ATA members and those seeking professional language services. Last year, I co-wrote an article with my colleague and current President-Elect of the ATA, Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo, about how members can get the most out of their Directory listing. ATA has a card it hands out to prospective clients at networking events and tradeshows that provides tips on how to use the directory most productively for their needs.  

The ATA also engages in active public relations efforts to promote translators and interpreters to business and general public, raising awareness of the role that translators and interpreters play in society. In fact, I am the Chair of ATA’s Public Relations Committee. ATA interacts with the media to shape the story told about translators and interpreters and has a dedicated group of writers who highlight issues in translation and interpreting. Their articles are placed in various media outlets to promote the important work translators and interpreters do. Here, as an example, is a piece produced by an affiliate of NPR (National Public Radio) in which Elena Langdon, ATA Board member and writer, was quoted about interpreters facilitating communication on the current pandemic for non-English speaking patients in the US.  

 ATA is also very active in advocating for translators and interpreters. I personally participated in an event that took place in Washington, DC during the ATA’s 2017 conference. It was organized by the ATA and the Joint National Committee for Languages. ATA members lobbied and educated the Congressional delegations from their specific state on various issues important to language professionals. More recently, the ATA has been very involved in speaking out on behalf of T&I professionals in response to governmental actions at the federal, state and local levels, including AB5 in California. AB5 has drastically affected the legal status of translators and interpreters and has serious national implications for contract linguists’ ability to make a living as practicing language professionals. ATA has also advocated government entities for pandemic relief for translators and interpreters and educated ATA members on what relief packages are available to them.  

As you may know, ATA also focuses on continuing education for members in many forms, including live and on-demand webinars and the online and hard copy versions of the magazine the ATA Chronicle providing information to help translators and interpreters improve their position in the marketplace. In addition, ATA’s conference is one of the largest T&I events in the world and offers many opportunities for learning and networking. This year it takes place online from October 21 to October 24. More information on the conference is available online. The ATA also has programs focused on client education and school outreach as well. The latter focuses on the next generation of translators and interpreters, students attending university as well as those in elementary through secondary schools. And, lastly, the organization has over 20 “divisions” in which members can participate, ranging from the Audovisual Division, the Korean Language Division, the Literary Division and many in between. These special interest groups help members become more fully versed in areas of interest. Visit the ATA’s site for a list of all Divisions

You wrote a book, “Maintaining Your Second Language”, and you yourself have a bilingual family (French/English). One would think that with all the technology at our disposal it should be easy to maintain and even expand your language skills. Still, the choice online is ginormous and not always of high quality. Could you suggest any strategies or techniques or even criteria to select the right resources? 

You make a good point that with the Internet, for language resources, and really anything at all, the quantity of resources offered online does not necessarily equal quality. However, the current online world does open up so many more resources than even 10 years ago, that it is worth the trouble to spend some time looking for the right resources to help maintain and improve one’s non-native language skills.  

My uber tip is always to focus on integrating practice of a second language into daily life, rather than separating it out as a required chore or task. I think taking that perspective will also help you to more naturally be able to identify high quality sources, rather than simply searching somewhat at random for second-language resources.  

For example, if you love getting into a good TV series, make sure you pick at least one that is in your second language to put on your schedule. And, even though various series may be available on the “Internet,” you can often locate them in reputable places like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or the many other video streaming services that exist, no matter what country you are located in. On YouTube it may be a bit trickier, but it can be done. Yes, in the US, I have had the experience of searching for “French” films on YouTube and had many that turned up be of the soft porn variety, which was not my goal. On the other hand, now that many TV channels worldwide have official outlets on YouTube, by searching those out specifically, it is easier to avoid getting undesirable results. In addition, outside of YouTube or streaming services, you can find the websites of many broadcast channels and they often contain free content that may or may not be accessible in the region where you live (consider investing in a reputable VPN if you find that language-specific content is often blocked for you). 

In addition, the Internet can be a way to access resources that are not actually online resources. For example, you can order hardcopy books in different languages from in-country or specialty bookshops through Internet sites, but then have these “real world” books delivered to your home, reading them to forward your language skills.  

The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. If you can’t do that by traveling there (due to the current pandemic or to the more usual constraints of time and money), there are still many ways to do be immersed, such as watching native-language videos (not videos for learners), reading native-language texts (not texts for learners), listening to native-language music, podcasts or news, reading recipes or poetry, taking notes or keeping a journal, etc. Anything that you would do in your primary language, you can do in your second language, choosing between the online and offline worlds. They key is to fold use of your second language into your daily life, so it is not a separate “chore” but just something you do as part of your daily living.