To celebrate International Mother-Language Day we interviewed literary translator James Christian Brown. He tells us all about his journey into becoming a book translator, his recent work translating The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Rusti and the importance of reading books in translation.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am originally from Scotland but have lived in Romania since 1993. I teach in the English Department of the University of Bucharest and translate Romanian books into English. My first book-length translation from Romanian to English was The Păltiniş Diary by Gabriel Liiceanu (2000). More recently I have translated Răzvan Petrescu’s collection of short stories Small Changes in Attitude (2011), the play Mihaela, The Tiger of Our Town by Gianina Cărbunariu (2016), the volume of philosophical talks About the World We Live In by Alexandru Dragomir (2017), and Doina Ruști’s novel The Book of Perilous Dishes (Neem Tree Press, 2022)
What was your journey into becoming a book translator?
I kind of fell into translation. I had no plans. I have been teaching since the 1990s and there was a great shortage of native speakers who were very much in demand to translate Romanian into English, so people came to me with requests and I learnt how to do it. You don’t have to be a native speaker to be a good translator.
What other work have you done?
The first full size book I translated over 20 years ago was a philosophical memoir and since then I have translated a number of books and articles about Romanian history. This includes various short stories and plays. Recently, I have worked on a very different novel called In the Shadow of the Apocalypse along with The Book of Perilous Dishes.
How did you come to translate The Book of Perilous Dishes?
I met Doina Rusti for the first time ten years ago at an event by the Romanian Cultural Institute. It was sometime later that we made contact and she asked if I would be interested in translating one of her novels. I jumped at this opportunity because at the time I was enjoying a book by Doina. We decided together that the one to work on was Fridays Cat which we agreed in English should be called The Book of Perilous Dishes which will become obvious to anyone who starts reading the books.
What attracted you to the book?
I was attracted to it because of the way Doina evokes the world of 18th century Bucharest and at the same time I was working on a non-fiction book dealing with the same place and time period. These were a number of journal articles about Romanian life, so by a happy coincidence everything fitted very well together. I was going from the scholarly research to the fictional recreation.
What did you enjoy about translating the book?
It is a very engaging story and it kept my attention from beginning to the end with a whole lot of surprises along the way. It combines the detailed recreation of the past that you would expect to find in a historical novel with a story about a young character. I was capitated by the fantastic elements and it combines a brisque narrative with the poetic imageries that you make you stop for a moment and think what it is about. That for me is the most satisfying part of the job and translating literature. It is solving puzzles, finding a solution that works when translating between two languages and of bringing to the reader what the author is trying to convey. However, there is never going to be a perfect solution. As translators we try out best to represent the author faithfully and give the readers a wonderful reading experience.
Why is it important to read books in translation?
It’s a question that is difficult to ask in Romania because most of the books in Romania are translations. In the English-speaking world, things are different because there are so many people speaking and writing in English than in Romanian. Think about what you would be missing because there are so many voices in the world, especially in the continent of Europe, expressing themselves in a variety of languages. We can’t learn to read all these languages of course, but at least we can read translations and find out what some of those voices have to say. I hope that the enjoyment I had in translating Doina’s book will come across when you read the book and that I succeed in sharing some of my enthusiasm with those of you reading the book in English.
The Book of Perilous Dishes is available to pre-order from your local book shop and online.
Watch James’ Interview Below