Translating philosopher Catherine Malabou: Ilse Meiler Interviews Carolyn Shread

Carolyn Shread is a Lecturer in French Studies at Mt. Holyoke College and a Lecturer in World Literatures and French Studies at Smith College. Her research focuses primarily on contemporary francophone female writers through the lens of translation. She has published several articles on the process of translating Haitian author Maire Vieux-Chauvet’s novel Les Rapaces into English. Shread has published ten books in translation including five by contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou: Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains (2019); Before Tomorrow: Rationality and Epigenisis (2016); Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity (2012); Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy (2011) and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialect, Destruction, Deconstruction (2009). She has also published several articles on Malabou’s work. She currently teaches several courses on translation at both Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges, including “The Art of Translation,” a weekly guest lecture series. 

Which language(s) do you translate from? 

I translate from French into English. I used to translate from English into French. I no longer do that, now that I know more. 

When did you first become aware of translating as a thing to do? How did you start translating?

That is an  interesting question. Looking back,  I realize the first translation I did was a translation of Paul Éluard’s poems L’Amour la poésie because I loved the poems and I wanted to share them with somebody. It was that impulse of: I want to share this and it’s in a language that this other person can’t access. 

I could also talk about disasters. I think about the early process where you’re just doing [translation]and you are making terrible mistakes. I translated a legal contract for Theodore Zeldin. Theodore Zeldin is an absolutely fluent historian of France, fluent in French, and I translated what must’ve been just a disastrous piece of paper. He gave me a CD ROM with a dictionary on it. Which I didn’t know how to use and completely erased. So, I erased his CD ROM, I gave him a terrible translation and because this man is an exceptional human being, he understood that he didn’t need to destroy me at that point. Instead, he gave me a check and, I think it was last year, I wrote to him to tell him thank you for not destroying me at the moment where you might’ve done so. I am still translating. I’m much better now than I was then.  I was so grateful to be able to thank him for his compassion and his wisdom, at that point, because I’m sure that what I produced was of absolutely no use to anyone. And he probably took it home and recycled it. 

You translate primarily female authors including Haitian activist Marie Vieux-Chauvet and French philosopher Catherine Malabou. What drew you to their works and how do you choose the texts you translate?

I think I’ll start with Chauvet, because that was the first one. It’s hard to trace exactly. I had heard about her and I had been wanting to translate women, knowing that women are not translated. So, there was a political stance there that I wanted to definitely use translation as an amplifying tool for women’s voices. It’s often because you are interested in something not because you’re an expert at it, that you can, through translation, become eventually, if not an expert, at least know more about it. 

Translation is a form of communication, communication has many functions; it’s not all about just expertise. We think that translators should just be in the role of experts, but maybe they are there because they’re interested, because they are curious, because they want to expand beyond what they know.

 I think the chance encounter is obviously a frequent factor in what we end up translating. I happened to be taking a class on the philosophy of translation at UMass and met Brinakle Chang [Professor of Communications at Umass Amherst], who was interested in that topic. He sent me this article and said, “Can you translate this article for a journal, it’s from Catherine Malabou?” I remember I had some interesting exchanges with the editors around the use of pronouns in that article. I think Catherine [Malabou] was copied on those exchanges and became interested and we started being in communication because of that, and because of my position. I wanted to use “her” they said no you have to use “his/her.” And I said, “Why now, do I suddenly have to use ‘his/her’? We’ve used ‘his’ for all this time, I want to use ‘her’.” Out of that first encounter, then [came] a first book, then on and on and on to five books, and I’m now waiting for the next one. 


On that note, what is your relationship with Catherine Malabou, and other living authors that you’ve translated?

I love collaborating with a living author. Maybe it’s partly reassuring, but it’s also that it’s a mode of access that you wouldn’t necessarily have.  It’s a way of participating that’s different from those who are the voices that you are translating, but you are definitely a part of that process. I think what’s interesting about translation is that it’s another mode of being in the world; you don’t necessarily have to be a leader; you might be somebody who would be amplifying.

I think it suits a lot of people to have that role and it’s fine because we can’t just have original leading authors in the world, for example. If we just had that, we’d have no translation, and we would be missing out on a lot.

In French, which you are primarily working with, are there any genres or perspectives that you feel are missing, that are not getting translated?

I think that question is really an important one. Especially once you become a little bit more established, but even as you are starting out, that’s a really important question to ask. The most important question is: “What is going to be translated?”  First of all, women are still not being translated. So, if we’re looking at French across the Francophone world and we’re examining who exactly is being translated, we can see that there are particular patterns in place. One of our roles, as translators, can be to advocate through our encounters to bring other voices into the conversation. Within the Francophone world, we know that there is still an emphasis around Paris, Parisian authors, etc., and that there is at the same time a hunger to get beyond that. 

You’ve been teaching your course “The Art of Translation” at Smith [a weekly lecture series on translation] for eight years now. What inspires you to keep teaching the course and how does your collaboration with other translators change the way you view translation? 

Well, it’s a little bit selfish. I think I learn as much as anybody else in the class every single night. I have questions and the course  allows me to bring practicing translators and thinkers about translation into our community, into our proximity, to answer those questions and to build on their insights. –It  really is such an exciting momentum and a tradition at Smith that is unique. What inspires me to do it is that we can do it at Smith; that Smith is willing to support it, that is really fantastic.  (See this semester’s program @a WLT 150 POSTER series Spring 2020) The course  actually works; we have about 70 students who are coming and who are participating and taking something from it and then a part of those go on to the concentration [in translation studies] It’s just so exciting to be able to go out to the world, go to conferences, hear people and think, “Yup. Let’s bring that person to Smith. Let’s try and have that voice be part of the conversations that are being held at Smith around translation.” 

On that note, how has collaborating with all these people changed the way that you do your process of translating? How has your process evolved and where do you hope it’ll get to eventually?

It’s really salutatory to realize that  just as there are many ways to communicate as there are people, there are many ways to translate as there are people. It’s useful to be reminded of that on a weekly basis, so that you don’t get stuck into thinking that the way you do it is the best way to do it or the only way to do it, but that you’re constantly engaging with contradictory approaches. Every week somebody comes in and essentially puts forward a proposal for how they construe translation. Some of them align, some of them are completely in contradiction.  

There’s really a whole community of people who are learning and thinking as a result of them. When [Jay Garfield, Professor of Philosophy and Buddhist Studies at Smith College] was talking about evidential language last night, it was so beautiful and so interesting to think about. I wouldn’t have known about it because I don’t translate from Tibetan, I don’t know Tibetan. I think that keeping shifting your frame all the time is a really helpful way to keep your mind fresh.

Are you working on any translations right now?

I am not, and I think that that’s good. I like to go through periods of lying fallow, so that I’m hungry to translate again.   I did write Catherine Malabou, “Is your book on anarchy going to be ready for the summer?” and unfortunately, it’s not; she’s still writing it. 

When you’re translating, what is your process?

Not reading the whole, in the case of Catherine Malabou. I don’t read it all ahead of time; I like the surprise of discovering it as I am translating. So, I like to discover it is I’m going. I do a lot of back-and-forth between what I’ve translated and what I’m looking to translate next.  Soo every time I get back on the computer, I’ll read back over what I’ve done and then I’ll move. It’s sort of like a type of sewing; I don’t let myself move forward until I’ve done that “re-read over.” When I get to a certain point, I’ll send it to Catherine; she will then read through and leave marks and comments. I’ll have questions for her sometimes about, “Where the hell is this quotation from? You say it’s on this page but it’s not.” So actually, the first thing I do with a philosophical text because they are made up of dialogs and citations of references, is I order all the books that are being cited. I will order them in French and in English because I need to find the quotation in the French book in order to then identify where it is in English book, in the standard edition. The point where I know I’m ready to start doing my translation is when I’ve gone through and identified most of the quotes and that helps me prepare the groundwork in terms of the vocabulary, the terms.  

What makes a translation good? What do you think is the goal of your translations?

A good translation, that’s a really difficult question. I don’t think translation studies has answered that very well.

To you, when you read something, what makes it good to you?

The reason I feel more confident around the Malabou translations is that somehow, my voice became affected by her voice and became her voice in English. So, that felt like a success to me. I didn’t know how to write like that before. It was by inhabiting her work that I’ve done that I became able to have that voice, which I love. It is exciting to be able to write like this. I wouldn’t have  been able to do it by myself; I was only able to do it as a result of reading her in French. I feel very much less confident in the Chauvet. I’m still committed to the product because I think it’s useful. It’s not published yet, for all sorts of reasons. I think that that is part of what establishes a good translation from the point of the translator.

 One of the things I’ve done with all of my Malabou translations is I write these little translation manifestos at the beginning of each of them that are not really translator’s notes. These, for me, were an occasion to develop in conversation with Malabou, because I realized while I was translating her that what she was talking about was actually translation. When you ask about the question of my goals in translation, I guess one of my goals is to keep pursuing the notion of how, in this instance, Malbou’s philosophical concept of plasticity might be a useful way to contribute to debates in translation studies.


Ilse Meiler ’20 is currently a senior at Smith College studying chemistry and Russian area studies. She is a student fellow on the Kahn Institute’s TranslationS project.

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