Barbara Wright: Translator of French literature who adapted Ionesco, Jarry and Genet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Barbara Wright was an exceptional translator who was at the forefront in introducing the "New French Novels" of the 20th century to the British public. She translated works by figures such as Samuel Beckett, Robert Pinget, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco, and was twice awarded the Scott Moncrieff prize: in 1987 for her translation of Pierre Albert-Birot's The First Book of Grabinoulor, and in 1992 for The Midnight Love Feast by Michel Tournier.

In 2008 the Translators Association of the Society of Authors selected her translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style as the best translation of 1958. The work is an astonishing challenge for a translator (as it is for the writer): how to write in 99 styles the same banal event (an encounter on a Parisian bus). However, Wright managed to translate the "untranslatable" and it was this which won Wright her well-deserved prominence as a literary translator.

Barbara Winifred Wright was born in 1915 in Worthing, West Sussex. After school she went to Paris and studied music under Alfred Cortot, and immersed herself in French language and culture. She returned to London, where she gave several recitals as an accompanist at the Wigmore Hall. In 1938 she married Walter Hubbard, a specialist printer. For some time she worked as a teacher at the progressive Beacon Hill school, run by Dora Russell (the second wife of Bertrand Russell, then already divorced from him).

In 1947 she met the Polish couple Franciszka and Stefan Themerson who were about to found their Gaberbocchus Press. Wright's translation, with Stefan Themerson, of a Polish children's book, was acclaimed by the British press and for her next project the Themersons gave her Alfred Jarry's avant-garde play, Ubu Roi (1896). The English edition of Ubu Roi, which came out in 1951, was a work of art in itself. Wright's handwritten text, interspersed with Franciszka Themerson's humorous illustrations, were both incised directly on to the lithographic plates and printed on startling yellow paper. Ubu's opening word, "Merdre!", was translated by Wright as "Shittr!"

As a result of this publication, the Themersons and Wright were all honoured by the Collège de Pataphysique which had been founded in 1948 by a group of French intellectuals who had decided that the French establishment needed to be taken down a peg. One of Jarry's several definitions of Pataphysics was "the science of imaginary solutions." In pursuing this science, the Collège's declared aim was the "collection and furtherance of entirely useless knowledge". In practice they also set about collecting, publishing and commenting on Jarry's scattered work and correspondence.

In 1953 Wright was promoted within the Collège's esoteric hierarchy and elected a Regent of Shakespearean Zozology. In 2001, she was elected to the eminent group of Satraps, together with Fernando Arrabal, Umberto Eco, Dario Fo and Jean Baudrillard.

With her translations of Ubu Roi, Exercices de Style and, in 1960, Queneau's Zazie dans le Métro, Wright became a much in-demand translator. But it was as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement that she first met Pierre Albert-Birot. In 1964, Gallimard published Grabinoulor I, II, III and asked Wright to write a review for the TLS. She went to Paris to meet Albert-Birot and was so enthusiastic about the man and the work that she managed to introduce him to a British audience. He died in 1967, but thanks to him and his wife Arlette, she was by then established as a friend among a network of French poets and artists.

Wright might be labelled an unconventional, very independent spirit; she hated all forms of constraints and ready-made thoughts or attitudes. But at the same time she was very precise and organised. Those who have seen her preparatory work for each piece she translated know how she meticulously came to produce the final text. She often wrote several versions, using pens of different colours to mark the passages she wanted to revise. Working by hand rather than typewriter allowed her to catch the flow of the text in a more intimate and bodily fashion; she was literally listening to the voice, the music of the text. Her archive is now held in the US at the Lilly Library of Indiana University at Bloomington.

Wright had moved to 87 Frognal, Hampstead in 1957. It is this house that those who knew her will remember as a place of welcome, conversation and conviviality, where writers, artists, academics, students, translators, and friends from all nationalities and walks of life came to share Wright's talents and her talent for living.

Talking about her translation of Pinget, Wright said that Pinget's description of his own work as a quest for a tone of voice was illuminating for her. She wrote: "This came as a revelation to me: I suddenly saw that that was the very essence of any translation... the attempt to reproduce the author's tone of voice".

In 2002, Wright was honoured by the French Government as a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contribution to French literature.

Madeleine Renouard, Debra Kelly and Jill Fell

Barbara Winifred Wright, translator: born Worthing, West Sussex 13 October 1915; married 1938 Walter Hubbard (marriage dissolved, one daughter, one stepson); died London 3 March 2009.