Ros Schwartz dropped out of college in 1973 and ran off to France where she spent eight years doing a variety of odd jobs, from enrolling at the radical University of Vincennes to picking grapes in Provence to working on a goat farm in the Cévennes. She was unaware at the time that this was the best possible training for a literary translator. Schwartz returned to the U.K. in 1981, discovered that she was unemployable and invented herself as a translator, now with more than 100 translated works of fiction and nonfiction to her credit, including her new version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince (published in 2010). In 2009, she was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. She most recently translated I Who Have Never Known Men by the Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman (Transit Books, May 10, 2022), an post-apocalyptic novel of female friendship and intimacy.
On your nightstand now:
About 50 books! I keep buying books that I want to read but can never quite keep pace. I'm reading the great Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin alongside an intriguing French book Le Poulailler métaphysique, a philosophical meditation on chicken rearing, sent to me by the author, Xavier Galmiche. I'm also reading Afterlives by Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, a novel set in East Africa (present-day Zanzibar) under German rule at the beginning of the 20th century.
Favorite book when you were a child:
When I was little, I loved A.A. Milne's poetry book When We Were Very Young, especially the poem "Now I am six." I always give that poem to friends' kids when they turn six and they love it. As an older child, I didn't have a favorite book, but a favorite series. I was completely obsessed with Enid Blyton's Malory Towers novels, set in a girls' boarding school.
Your top five authors:
Only five! Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Faïza Guène, Ian McEwan, Kamila Shamsie, Stefan Zweig.
Book you've faked reading:
Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. I had to study it at college and I just couldn't engage with Proust's world. Some years ago, I was commissioned to translate Dining with Proust by Anne Borrel--a clever concept that featured recipes for all the dishes mentioned in Proust's oeuvre, alongside quotes from the novels where these dishes were mentioned. I spent a lot of time plowing through the books to locate the relevant passages, because the English editions didn't correlate with the French. By the end of it, I knew In Search of Lost Time inside out.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Mireille Gansel's Translation as Transhumance--a memoir-cum-meditation on the act of translation by an extraordinary French poet and translator. A child of Jewish refugees from Central Europe, Gansel has spent her entire life bringing persecuted voices into French, seeking out East German poets and even traveling to Vietnam during the Vietnam War in order to learn the language and translate the poetry of that country, as her way of protesting against the war. I was viscerally affected by Gansel's story, her exquisite writing and her profound reflections on translation--which she likens to transhumance, the Mediterranean shepherds' practice of moving sheep to the fertile mountain pastures in the summer and bringing them down to the valleys in winter. I championed this book and found a publisher in Les Fugitives in the U.K. and the Feminist Press in the U.S. Being inhabited by this book had a profound influence on my own translation practice.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I don't recall ever buying a book for its cover. It's what's between the covers that interests me.
Book you hid from your parents:
I grew up in a house full of books and no book was prohibited. I read Henry Miller in front of my parents. But I did secretly read the Kama Sutra which I found in my father's bedside drawer when I was around 14.
Book that changed your life:
Tracks by Robyn Davidson, the account of a woman's solo trek across the Australian outback. I came across it at a turning point in my life, when I had left Paris but wasn't ready to settle back in England. Reading this book spurred me to set off on my own journey across India, where I spent eight life-changing months.
Favorite line from a book:
I love this quote from An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which resonates with me: "Home isn't where you land; home is where you launch."
Five books you'll never part with:
Make that five hundred, or fifteen hundred. I don't like parting with books. Each one that I've read becomes a little part of me, even the old battered paperbacks of my youth. I look at my books and it's like seeing my reflection in a mirror. I don't lend my books, I buy an extra copy if I want to share a book I've loved.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I've reached that age where I've forgotten the detail of so many books I read years ago and loved, so I'm torn between wanting to reread those and wanting to read my growing pile of new books. I'd like to revisit the classics: Zola, Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre foremost among them.
The joys of translating:
I can honestly say that I learn something new each day. I feel like a lucky butterfly, flitting from flower to flower in a lush garden. One day I might be translating a contemporary novel, and the next a political science tome. It's like being a perennial student. The greatest reward is the friendships I have built with some of the authors I translate and knowing that they are happy with my work.