Liz Waters (b. 1960) graduated in philosophy and theology at the University of Manchester and worked at a literary agency in Amsterdam before becoming a freelance translator, mainly of quality non-fiction. She has translated Linda Polman, Fik Meijer, Paul Scheffer and Lieve Joris amongst others.
How long have you been translating Lieve Joris?
I first translated a book by Lieve Joris in 2008 for Grove Atlantic: The Rebels’ Hour, a non-fiction book written as a novel. A year or two later The Paris Review asked me to translate a short, beautiful book called The High Plains. The magazine then published a lengthy, skilfully edited extract.
Have you been to the countries she writes about?
No, I’ve never been to any of the countries Lieve Joris has written about other than Hungary. Both the books I translated were about Congo and the various short pieces I’ve done have all been set either there or in China.
Is it more difficult translating travel books about places you haven’t visited? How do you get around this? Is much research involved?
I’d like to have visited Congo, although at the time I was translating the books travel there was extremely difficult and dangerous because of ongoing war and instability. I doubt I would have picked up very much in a short visit anyhow, since I’ve never been to sub-Saharan Africa and am not fluent in French. I would have become more familiar with the sights, smells, colours and sounds, but probably little else.
I read a lot about the country, both about the way it is today and its history. After a while I discovered that more and more young Congolese are blogging in English, which gave me an impression of their experiences and attitudes, though perhaps a rather superficial one. I relied on the author to correct factual or more subtle errors in the translation and she was extremely helpful. Although her second language is French, she has an excellent ear for English and never hesitated to question anything she didn’t feel was absolutely right.The Rebels’ Hour was fictionalized partly to protect its real-life characters, so Lieve was able to provide a great deal of information about the reality behind the scenes. One of her most valuable resources was her private collection of photographs, many of them taken by a professional photographer.
I understand that the two of you have become friends, have you considered travelling with her in the future?
I’d love to travel with Lieve, but that’s not on the cards simply because she always sets out alone and travels in the company of local people. She hires local guides, packing everything she needs for the journey into a locked suitcase and a small rucksack, staying with people she meets along the way and their contacts. She’s no doubt right in thinking that this is the only way to get to know how people live. It sounds reckless, but although it is undoubtedly a hazardous undertaking, she has spent years garnering local advice about whom to trust and always seems to find herself in the company of people who take pride in ensuring she’s safe and gets to all the places she’s determined to reach.
What are you working on now?
I’m just putting the finishing touches to a translation of De passage naar Europa by Luuk van Middelaar, to be published by Yale UK in 2013 as The Passage to Europe. It takes a completely fresh look at the European Union, rising above the inevitably tedious detail to tell the story of European unification from 1945 onwards as a historical phenomenon. There’s a strong current of political philosophy all through the book, which helps to give the reader a completely new perspective.