French language

Jörn Cambreleng

Translation, a complex and always-incomplete intellectual undertaking.

A translator of drama and literature himself, since 2009 Jörn Cambreleng has headed the Association pour la promotion de la traduction littéraire (ATLAS) and the Collège international des traducteurs littéraires in Arles (CITL).

Updated on 29/05/2020

5 min

Jörn Crambreleng
Jörn Crambreleng
© Romain Boutillier- Atlas

At the Collège international des traducteurs littéraires, you run a programme called "The Translator Factory” (“La Fabrique des traducteurs”). So, is translation really an intellectual construction project?

The Collège des traducteurs was born out of the desire to pass on expertise and to train new generations of translators, which we have seen are lacking, particularly in certain language combinations. The title of the program is deliberately ambiguous: participants can define themselves as the “products” or “producers” of the factory. In some cases, they arrive as translators; in others, they become translators when they leave. If we were to assume that translators have some innate skill, we would have to define a moment in which the translator is born. Much like writers, translators would enter the profession based on a single founding event. But, in reality, this “birth” can only occur when certain prerequisites are met, including mastery of two languages – particularly the target language. Above all, there is a need for a particular appetite for this complex and always-incomplete intellectual undertaking.

In some cases, they arrive as translators; in others, they become translators when they leave.

You favour an approach based on international exchanges and the creation of pairs of translators. Is this method particularly fruitful?

The initial idea is to allow a rare working situation – probably the most powerful of all – in which you have, at your side, a native speaker of the language of the text that you have to translate. This working in pairs makes it possible to trade ideas on a thousand questions, to access all the cultural implications, all the nuances of the linguistic registers. Like a kind of living dictionary – but much better than a just a dictionary! Another feature has emerged from this way of working: by helping someone else to translate into their language, we learn a great deal about our own. Working with your peers or your elders makes it possible to share translation strategies, ask the right questions, even call into question the very profession of translator and thus develop it.

What place do translators occupy in today's literary landscape?

Everything depends on the place that the translators have managed to carve out for themselves, and also on the languages involved. When it comes to frequently-translated languages, such as English or German, the translator almost never initiates the translation: rights are exchanged between publishers and he or she has very little responsibility. For other languages, such as Arabic for example, translators play an active role: their proposals are the source of many translations because editors rely on their opinions to enrich their catalogues.

We are seeing more and more re-translations of literary works. Do these new translations have any real added value?

In my opinion, the multiplication of re-translations is quite a good thing – some publishers, anxious to make a profit from their investment in a translation, might not agree. The main argument used to justify a re-translation is updating. On closer inspection, I think I can say, somewhat controversially, that this is often a red herring... I challenge anyone to distinguish a current translation from a translation completed in the 1950s! On the other hand, a longer time difference between two translations can indeed make a difference: by adopting a very contemporary language, we can replace the reader-spectators of today with those of yesterday, or, in the opposite sense, put them in a historical situation of by allowing them to understand exactly what the reader-spectator of yesterday would have. From a purely intellectual point of view, I consider the multiplication of different readings of a work to be enriching. I am convinced that everything should be translated and that nothing should be suppressed.

A longer time difference between two translations can indeed make a difference.

Is it harder to translate a living author?

Translating under the gaze of the author is a major responsibility. It is in all our interests to establish a relationship of trust with him or her and to handle things carefully so that the project is successful. Intellectual proximity is essential in the case of certain authors whose texts are full of hidden references. I am thinking for example of A world Within Reach (“Un monde à portée de main") by Maylis de Kerangal, which requires a very sophisticated understanding of French. The novelist is also very interested in the question of translation and even describes his writing as the translation into language of something that precedes language. His novel inspired us to create a new kind of workshop which we have called “L’Auberge du lointain” (“the hotel  for the remote"), borrowing Antoine Berman's metaphor for translation. It will bring together the author and seven of his translators in June 2019.

Have globalisation and new technologies changed the role of translator?

The increase in international exchanges could have led to increased use of translators – both literary and commercial. Yet automation, like everywhere else, is making great strides and continues to eliminate much of the work once done by humans. While statistical methods barely threatened the profession of translator, neural translation, which appeared a few years ago and is based on artificial intelligence, produces spectacular results. This is why this year at ATLAS, with the help of translators, linguists and artificial intelligence experts, we have created a centre for research on automatic translation. Its first results will be presented at the Literary Translation Conference in November. Translators need to be aware of these challenges, in order to use them to their advantage. If we manage to enslave the machine rather than be enslaved by it, we will have won.

Translators need to be aware of these challenges, in order to use them to their advantage.
Jörn Cambreleng
Jörn Cambreleng
The Institut français and the project

The Collège international des traducteurs littéraires in Arles and its workshops - most recently The French/English Translator Factory (19th-23rd March 2019), The Atelier Vice-Versa in Florence (7th-14th May 2019), and the "A World Within Reach" workshop bringing together translators of English, Arabic, Catalan, Croatian, Finnish, Italian and Romanian (3rd-6th June) – receive support from the Institut français.


Through its translation support programmes, the Institut français participates in the global dissemination of French-language literature. 


Learn more about the translation support programs.


L'institut français, LAB