An Interview with Luba Jurgenson and Meredith Sopher, Author and Translator of Where There Is Danger

In the midst of National Translation Month, we are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of Luba Jurgenson’s Where There Is Danger, translated by Meredith Sopher.

In Where There Is Danger (originally published Au lieu du péril, Verdier, 2014), Jurgenson meditates on what it means to live between two languages—in this case, her native Russian and adopted French. Earlier this month, we released a Fall 2019 Literature in Translation Sampler featuring an excerpt from Where There Is Danger (download it here). Today we bring you an interview with Luba Jurgenson and Meredith Sopher exploring the ins and outs of bilingualism, the process of translating the book, and more!

Academic Studies Press: Meredith—can you talk about how this translation project came to you?

Meredith Sopher: When I was working on my translation and interpretation degree, a classmate told me that her aunt and uncle knew an author who was looking for a French-to-English translator for her book. My classmate had been offered the job but declined because it was a rather large project to take on while in the middle of a MA program. I thought the book sounded fascinating and I was eager to have a literary project to work on, so I asked her to pass on my contact information.

ASP: Luba—how involved were you in the process of translating Where There Is Danger?

Luba Jurgenson: Working together with Meredith, I could not claim to know better than she did how to write. I could not pretend knowing better than Meredith while working with her.

I trusted my intuition, and I felt that her sentences sounded right, that she had grasped the tone of the book. However, I was vastly involved in the details, because the details are of great importance in this book. In French, I had looked for the right word for each image, and I wanted it to be the same in English, so that we wouldn’t succumb to the easy option, the cliché. I wanted the same level of requirement in English as in French, and Meredith lived up to the challenge. When you write, you don’t consider the complexity of your text. My text seemed simple to me. It deals with the ordinary life, the body, the sensations linked to the language. It was by putting myself in Meredith’s shoes that I realized how difficult this translation could be! The fact that the book is a reflection going back and forth between French and Russian only added complexity to its translation into English. 

But I was convinced that this book did not only concern Franco-Russian bilinguals, or even bilinguals in general, that it concerns everyone, and that is why I am also very pleased to see it translated.

ASP: Considering the book’s focus on language and bilingualism, and the fact that you are a translator yourself, how did it feel to see the book in English?

LJ: Seeing my text being translated into English was like observing its extension, a new life of the book. A written book always escapes us: we don’t know how it will be read, what the reader will remember. Perhaps the reader will understand something quite different than what we meant. This is proof that the book is alive. Translation is part of these later lives of the book and of course, these lives are extended differently according to the languages. It has another “acoustic body.” The speech organs do not work in the same way in French and English. And these different sounds undoubtedly activate different zones of imagination, different sound memories, different connections.

It is always a pleasure to see your book translated, but when it comes to a book about language, it is increasingly exciting! Especially in English, a language I love, even if I have a passive knowledge of it through reading.

Meredith—what were some of the challenges of translating this particular work? Did you seek advice from Luba or anyone else in the process?

MS: I’m glad that Luba was willing and able to provide support during the translation process. I often had questions about specific references to Soviet/Russian authors and works of literature. I went down many, many Internet rabbit holes while researching songs, poems, names and historical events. Luba’s book exists within a rich literary and historical context and certain ideas that would be familiar from a Western European/Francophone point of view were challenging to communicate to an American/Anglophone reader.

ASP: Do you know any Russian? What was it like translating sections that describe Russian language?

MS: I do not know any Russian, so Luba was very helpful there. I may have asked some Russian-speaking friends questions too.

ASP: You work as both a translator and an interpreter, different forms of a similar concept. Does your experience as an interpreter inform or influence your work as a translator, or vice versa?

MS: For me personally, I find that when I spend a lot of time interpreting, I loosen up and get more creative in all of my work. Interpreting is a game in which you exchange meaning for meaning, not words for words. Translation is not a word-for-word exchange either, but the translator is more closely bound to the source. While I was working on Where There Is Danger, Luba also requested that I stick fairly closely to the source text and even the source punctuation. If I were to translate the book now, after having spent some time focusing on interpretation, I think the result would be quite different!

Luba—in Where There Is Danger, you write about the challenges and rewards of thinking bilingually, and the way geographical place and physical spaces inform and are informed by language. For instance, in Moscow, to reach a destination one must “walk between two apartment blocks or under an archway to get to the courtyard,” whereas in Paris, “The buildings are sandwiched together tightly enough to protect you from the idea that a world beyond could snatch you up at any moment.” Is there a similar sense of confusion or claustrophobia when moving between languages?

LJ: Each language has its own representation of space. Navigating between languages requires an effort of orientation. We live in the language as we live in a city, with its own routes. In Russia everything is big, in France everything is compact, tightened. No doubt, if I had written in Russian, I would not have worked on the language in the same way. French always encouraged me to seek conciseness, to work the word inwards, to condense my sentences. Cities are metaphors for describing the relationship to language. At the same time, they are very real cities, with their particular connection between the center and the margins, between the visible and the invisible, between the past and the present, between the real and the imaginary. This relationship in its turn involves the language, the verbal system, the adverbs of time and place, etc.

When you are bilingual, you project yourself into these different spaces, you also question them. They are not given at once, they move, they must continuously be constructed. You can feel lost in the universe of words, but you can also feel each language as a habitable planet, a welcoming place.

You can feel claustrophobic when you translate, you feel terribly cramped when it comes to transposing a natural expression into a language in which it doesn’t exist. It implies creating a room for it. We push the walls of the tongue, we create nooks and crannies.

Meredith—in Where There Is Danger, Luba wrote (and you translated) that “To be human is to translate.” How do you interpret this?

MS: How would I interpret this, indeed? I would say that as living creatures, we are constantly translating the sensory output we receive from the world into something that we can understand. And then, we have to figure out how to translate our thoughts and feelings into a language that others will understand. We are constantly telling ourselves stories to make sense of something that we have experienced, or struggling to describe to someone else a situation that the other person did not witness. As humans, we seem to have a deep need to make ourselves understandable and to understand. This process could be called translation.

Luba Jurgenson is Professor of Russian Literature and specializes in representations of mass violence in East and Central Europe. She also serves as Director of the research centre Eur’ORBEM at the Sorbonne and as an editorial board member for the journal Memories at Stake.

Meredith Sopher studied French-English Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She currently works as a freelance translator and interpreter in France.

Where There Is Danger is available November 19, 2019 from Academic Studies Press. Pick up your copy here or from your favorite bookseller.