Spotlight on… Susan Pickford


Susan Pickford is an assistant professor at the FTI. She joined the Faculty in fall 2021 as head of the Translation Department’s English Unit. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford, University Paris X and University of Toulouse, and previously worked at the Sorbonne and the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord. She has also been a professional translator for over twenty years, specialising in art and the social sciences, in collaboration with museums and university presses. Her research focuses on the history and sociology of translation, and today, she will be talking to us about a project that will lead to the publication of a new book.

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Can you tell us more about your project and how it came about?

First of all, thank you for asking me for the interview. I am very pleased to share my work with the wider FTI community. The book I am working on tracks the development of a professional marketplace for translators in 19th-century France, mainly in the publishing market. I chose France because it has excellent publishing archives, such as the Institut Mémoires de l'Édition Contemporaine in Caen, and because my own translation career has been in France so it is a market I know well. I draw on work by cultural sociologists, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Nathalie Heinich, to flesh out the conditions for a professional field of practice and also apply a book history framework to look at the material conditions in which translators worked. The book has been a long time in the making: it is based on ideas I have been thinking about for over ten years, drawing largely on my own professional practice in translation.

Can you detail the arguments developed in the book?

It starts with an overview of all the ways people made a living from translation from the French revolution to the end of the 19th century, looking not just at the literary sector but also at civil service translators and translation entrepreneurs – the earliest translation agencies date from the 1810s. It then focuses on the publishing sector, studying the way translation was described early in the century as a form of manual or even industrial labour: translators were compared to slaves, child labourers, even steam engines. I then outline the legal framework of translation copyright that eventually led to literary translators being considered authors in their own right. Next, I dive deep into the career of one well-known 19th-century translator, Auguste Defauconpret, who was rumoured to run a “translation factory”. I apply a workplace studies approach to his translational output to try and see if the rumours were true. I also aim to include a chapter on women translators – the sector has always been highly feminised – studying their agency within the field depending on their social status and the diversity of their sources of income.

What are the obstacles you came across and/or the limits to your research?

Since I signed the contract with Routledge two years ago, the main challenge has been purely practical. Covid obviously restricted access to primary sources for a long time. The nature of the project calls for a lot of archival work and that has been particularly challenging in the past couple of years. Secondly, the sheer potential scope of the project. There has been very little historical research that seeks to tie together Translation Studies and economics or business history. The temptation is to try and flesh out the entire field, but that would be an impossibly large undertaking. That is the main reason why much of the project is framed in terms of literary translation, simply because that is where the archival evidence is easiest to locate.

And what is the purpose of your research and its publication?

I see the project as part of the recent human turn in translation studies, focusing on the people behind the products. I would like to see more research on the social and economic conditions shaping access to and careers in the translation field, and this is part of that broader project. In the medium term, I would love to supervise MA or PhD students working from this socio-economic perspective. I am co-organising an online conference on the topic on 13 June, with my colleague Dr. Olivia Guillon, who is a cultural economist at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord. I think looking at the economics at play in the literary translation field is not only fascinating, but definitely also under-studied, despite how important it is on a practical level, in terms of determining what books circulate internationally in what conditions.

How does this historical research apply today?

The more I read, the clearer it becomes that very little has changed since the 19th century! Many of the economic mechanisms governing translation careers are still in place – the language pair you work with, whether you have a main alternative source of income, and so on. Translators had to network and schmooze to get work, they were threatened by cheaper competitors and struggled with impossible deadlines, just like translators today do. I have read letters by translators working in 18th-century Germany complaining about rates of pay and workloads, worrying about falling ill and missing deadlines – exactly the same gripes I see translators posting on social media today. Along the same lines, the debate around the Dutch and Catalan translations of Amanda Gorman's poem The Hill We Climb showed that there are important questions of social justice in who does and doesn't get to work in translation. Using a historical lens lets us examine questions of access and exclusion – who can afford to build a career in translation, and consequently who is excluded from doing so – in a less heated context than the present.

Do you have other research interests?

Lots! I generally find myself drawn to under-explored genres of literature, like popular fiction and children's books. It is not because the language is simple that there is nothing to say about the translation. For instance, I just finished an article on the two French translations of the children's book The Gruffalo, looking at how the decision to retranslate was driven by the rise to stardom of the eponymous monster and the translator Jean-François Ménard. Next on the slate is an edited collection of essays on science writing in the long 19th century (1789-1914), for which I am looking at an 1830s geology manual in English and its French and German translations, examining how the translators, who were both geology professors, rewrote the text in line with their two different schools of geological thought, plutonism and neptunism. It might look like I jump around from topic to topic, and to a certain extent that is true, but there is a guiding thread to my research: I am interested in the people and processes of translation and I always take into consideration how the translated book functions and circulates as a material object in the marketplace, not simply as a disembodied text.