I was very saddened earlier this week when I learned that Joan Pinkham, who translated Pierre Vallières’ autobiographical essay, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, into English, and whom I had interviewed in 2008 during my doctoral work, died a few months ago, at the age of 83. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Joan in person, we continued to correspond via email in the years after the interview, and I enjoyed her thoughtful and kind messages. During our interview, she reflected on her career, first as as a bilingual secretary at the United Nations from the early 1950s until 1961, and then as a French to English translator. Initially she translated magazine articles for the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review, but in later years she translated a number of non-fiction books such as Henri Troyat’s works on Catherine the Great, Alexander of Russia, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Given my interest in translated works related to Quebec nationalism and the sovereignty referendums, our interview focused mainly her translation of Nègres blancs d’Amérique, which was first published in 1971 in the US by Monthly Review Press and then republished in Canada that same year by McClelland & Stewart.
As a tribute to her, I thought I would reprint an excerpt from our interview correspondence. In 2011, she granted me permission to post the full interview online as part of a collection I’m putting together that includes interviews with political translators and other archived material. The collection isn’t quite ready to be shared with the public, so I won’t post a link to it here, but when the rest of the interviews have been transcribed, approved, and posted, I will write a blog post about them.
The following excerpt is from our early correspondence, in which Joan discusses her background, her career and her motivations for translating:
Since you ask, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., because my father was a government official. My mother (Anne Terry White) was a prolific and acclaimed writer of non-fiction books for children. She taught her daughters the love of literature and a curiosity about words, and throughout their childhood she provided them with the constant and fascinating sound of an Underwood standard typewriter.
As you will see from the résumé, I studied French in college and graduate school (including in Paris) and had the good fortune to improve my knowledge of the language during ten years as a bilingual secretary at United Nations, where I worked for and with French staff members.
As a translator, I am basically self-taught. At the time I was in school, there were no official academic programmes in translation in the U.S. (or none that I was aware of). Courses at the British Institute in Paris and at Middlebury College in Vermont — they were called “Stylistics” – were invaluable but insufficient for my purposes. So I studied on my own, reading such books as I could find, preparing translations of Maupassant and comparing mine to the many different printed versions, learning much from the bilingual documents that constantly came across my desk at UN.
3. My career
In the course of my ten years at United Nations I did quite a bit of informal translation from F to E but soon gave up my ambition of becoming an official translator. I don’t know whether my French would have been good enough for the job, but proficiency in a third language was required, and it would have taken too much time and effort to bring my feeble Spanish to the required level. (It turned out that I had an increasingly responsible and interesting job as a bilingual secretary with WHO, and I never regretted having abandoned the other possibility.)
It was only after I left United Nations and began raising children that I started translating for publication. That was owing solely to a stroke of good luck: I was friends with the founding editors of the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review (Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy), and it was they who asked me if I could translate an article for them. I did, they loved my work, and that led to other articles and to my first three books: the Nizan, White Niggers, and the Césaire, all published by MR Press.
These assignments all came to me unsolicited, but when MR had nothing more for me to do, I had to hustle jobs. Making the rounds of the New York publishing houses, I eventually got contracts for the next couple of books (Goldman, Israël) and then for Troyat’s Catherine the Great. Dutton liked my work, as did Troyat, so I went on to do everything else of his that Dutton took on.
Then, as you will see from the résumé, nothing. To the extent that I had a career and my name was known to a number of editors in New York, that career and those connections were interrupted by my eight years in China (whither I first went in 1979 because my husband had been invited there to teach journalism). I’ve done other things since our final return from China in 1994, but they haven’t included the daunting task — résumés, letters, cold calls to editors, job-hunting safaris — of trying to re-establish a career as a translator.
4. My choice of projects
I never chose my projects, except in the sense that I could have rejected them when offered. I was hungry for work and would have accepted anything that I didn’t think was actually pernicious. (I seem to remember that I did that once, with Viking, but perhaps I was not dealing with a firm offer.) Fortunately, I had total confidence in the MR editors and was proud and happy to undertake the jobs they proposed. I felt that this work constituted my small contribution to the propagation of ideas that I believed in. . . my justification for being, as Sartre says somewhere in the introduction to Nizan. I felt an affinity for Pierre Goldman, and was more than pleased to do Dr. Lucien Israël’s fine book on cancer. As for the Troyat books, although they were not political, I thought they were good and marvelously well written. They were a pleasure to work on.
Fiction would have been harder than non-fiction, but I would have cheerfully attempted it if any had been proposed.
5. Typical aspects of my career
You didn’t specifically ask about this, but your questions suggest that you may be interested in the following more general comments about the profession.
Unless circumstances have changed for the better in the past twenty years since I was active in the field — and I believe they have changed for the worse — literary translation is not a “career” in the United States. Technical translation, for staff members of international organizations and for inkstained wretches hired and exploited by commercial agencies, has always been a career. There may also be professional literary translators in the U.S. who make a living as such, but I have never met one (e.g. at a conference), or even read about one.
The distinguished translators who introduce the new works from Latin America or Europe, and whose names guarantee reviews, all seem to be academics, writers, lecturers in their own right. Presumably, they have separate sources of income. And no doubt the most celebrated ones command a part interest in the books they translate.
In this regard, my own experience is probably typical. That is, my work was subsidized by another source of income — not mine, as it happens, but my husband’s (he was a university faculty member). Even in the years when I was working full time, the income I earned was dérisoire in terms of the hours of skilled labor required to secure it, and I could not have supported myself in that way. Possibly in Canada, which is an officially bilingual country, the conditions of employment for translators are better.
Once, when I was doing the Troyat books for Dutton, I complained to my editor there about my rate of pay (a flat fee at the time; later I insisted on royalties). I was told that a certain literary agent, who was then the “gatekeeper” of foreign works brought into this country, negotiated the contracts with the French publishers even before the rights were sold to an American house, and that it was to him that I must apply if I objected to the terms. I made bold to write to this agent. Making the case that the work of the translator was fundamental to the success of the imported work, I asked if it was not reasonable for him or her to expect a greater share of the benefits. The Great Man’s assistant replied that the translator’s case did not merit special consideration: after all, the jacket designer likewise thought he deserved a larger share.
That experience was consistent with what I had found to be the general level of respect accorded a translator. At the time — the situation may have somewhat improved by now– most reviews of translated books never mentioned the work of the translator, for good or ill. Often, indeed, one would never have known that the book had been originally written in another language.
Nor is the translator necessarily respected by the publisher. In dealing with one of the biggest houses, I repeatedly had to wait months for replies to correspondence and even came to the point of considering legal action before I was paid what was owed me for completed work.
6. Why I translate
Despite these grievances, I have continued to translate so long as I could get jobs. Because I love the work. Because I believe in my authors. Because once every few years a reviewer or an editor praises my work. Because some of my authors –Amin, Vallières, Goldman, Israël, Troyat — kindly answer my queries, thank me for my collaboration, and tell me that they prize what I have done for them.
For example, I was touched and honored by the note that Pierre Vallières, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at last in Quebec in the summer of 1971, inscribed on the flyleaf of my copy of the English book:
A Joan Pinkham, pour son travail extraordinaire et sa profonde amitié, je dis ma plus sincère estime, ma grande admiration et mon amitié indéfectible. Vive le Québec libre! Vive la révolution mondiale! Nous vaincrons! Pierre Vallières 29-7-71.