George Craig, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, is the chief translator for the Letters of Samuel Beckett. For the four-volume edition he has translated the nearly fifty percent of Beckett’s 15,000 letters that are in French. George is also the writer of a volume about his experience working on Beckett called Writing Beckett's Letters.
Mark Thwaite: What exactly is your role within the editorial team working on the Becket Letters?
George Craig: I am responsible for all translation from the French, and act as adviser on French literary matters (ancient and modern). I offer also an insider's familiarity with Irish English, as well as competence in Italian, Spanish, Russian, and, to a lesser extent, German - all except Russian being languages Beckett deploys. The Russian is helpful for questions of transliteration, particularly of proper names. I am also, as it were, the senior proof-reader for the team.
Mark Thwaite: Please tell us something of the practical issues/problems (hand-writing/translation challenges) of working with Beckett's papers?
George Craig: Beckett's handwriting is a perpetual source of difficulty, but long acquaintance makes it, for the most part, manageable. Translation is a problem mainly because SB does not simply "use" other languages, but plays with them. Then again, letters are not carefully prepared and revised texts: shifts in tone and level occur continually.
Mark Thwaite: How tricky has it been working with the Beckett estate?
George Craig: Tricky at first and for some time, because of concerns about possible offence to the families of SB's correspondents. Now good.
Mark Thwaite: My understanding is that you and the other editors may include only Letters "bearing on the work" &nash; have you been frustrated by this stipulation? Were there any letters you'd really liked to have included?
George Craig: As it happens, this stipulation has not made for trouble. SB seldom discusses his work directly: his relation to it emerges in innumerable indirect ways - in, for example, his way of talking about the painters he admires. The only letters we have regretted not being able to choose have been judged too intimate.
Mark Thwaite: Has working on each volume been the same? Looking back at the process, would you proceed in the same way?
George Craig: Not at all. The huge shift between SB the aspiring young English-language writer and SB the author of the great sequence of novels and plays in French has required a very different approach on our part. We ourselves have sharpened our sense of what is appropriate.
The crucial difference from Volume I is that we as editors were constantly aware of what Beckett wrote (as distinct from "hoped or intended to write"), which gave us a detailed sense of the unique characteristics of his work. Later volumes will be marked, not so much by momentous personal change as by wider dealings with writers and directors, familiar and new.
Mark Thwaite: How far are you along with volume three? How many more volumes may follow?
George Craig: Quite a long way. In the early years, when we were unable for legal reasons to publish, we went ahead with choosing and planning. I have already done most of the translating needed for volume III. Our contract with CUP is for four volumes.
Mark Thwaite: Volume II is letters from 1941-1956, but we don't get any war letters (presumably, for quite obvious reasons). How does the War change Beckett as a writer?
George Craig: SB's whole life is transformed by the effect of these years, the transformation including of course the move to French. No short summary is possible: Volume II is your source.
Mark Thwaite: How do you actually work as an editorial team?
George Craig: We agree on a division of labour, carry out our separate commitments, and send each other the results of our work. We then share comments until we arrive at a final version. As it is a Euro / Anglo / American venture, we are dependent on email. The whole project came as a result of SB's direct request to our Founding Editor Martha Fehsenfeld, who subsequently recruited the rest of us.
Mark Thwaite: What have you learnt about yourself, Beckett and his writing as you've been working on this project? What do we, as readers of Beckett, know more clearly now these two volumes of Letters have been published?
George Craig: That I am one of the luckiest people alive, having been given the chance to work on these letters. Readers of Volume II, especially those who know only the Beckett of legend (cold, austere, unwelcoming) will discover a passionate searcher and a man of great kindness.
Mark Thwaite: What did you want to achieve with your own book (Writing Beckett's Letters)?
George Craig: I wanted above all to get away from the notion of translation as pure process buttressed by this or that theory, to give instead some sense of the intimate wrestle that it was in my experience: an urgent conversation with an admired dead friend.
I wanted to make clear that translating Beckett's words required nothing less than a total personal engagement, with the full range of feeling that implies: swings between hope and despair, intuition and bafflement, and the fear of never catching up. The fragmentary form seemed right for that.
Mark Thwaite: What were your reading highlights in 2011, and what are you currently reading and/or looking forward to in 2012?
George Craig: There wasn't much time for new reading (a couple of oustanding memoirs (Michael Frayn and Jeannette Winterson), and much re-reading: the Odyssey, Dante, Calvino, Borges, Eliot).
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you'd like to say?
George Craig: Certainly not. Already said too much.