boat collageHow—and why—does someone become a successful translator? The stories of four Barnard graduates suggest a somewhat mysterious answer. It seems almost anything can set you on the path to translation: an interest in theatre or history, a mentor, a romance, a talent for playing the lute.

Still, a closer look at their stories turns up patterns. These women share—obviously—a flair for languages. They are strong writers: All four have published their own writing, on topics ranging from sumo wrestling to black francophone literature. Beyond that, they share a conviction that meaning is fragile. They take up the challenge of carrying it across the borders of various languages— and they take their task seriously.


The four women’s beginnings as translators reflect a commitment to language and varied artistic and intellectual pursuits—though not to translation itself. “I never set out to become a translator,” says Sharon Marie Carnicke ’71, who has translated for the stage some 16 works by Russian authors, including Dostoevsky, Ostrovsky and Chekhov. (Hackett Publishing Company recently published a collection of her Chekhov translations, 4 Plays & 3 Jokes.) Carnicke began acting when she was 12, and performed in on- and off- Broadway productions during her time at Barnard, where she earned a degree in Russian literature and culture. “The Barnard language requirement did it,” she says. “As long as I had to learn a language, I thought it would be fun to learn one with a different alphabet.”

She translated on and off in college for theatre students and businesses, but had no thought of translating as a career until 1979, the year she earned a doctorate in Russian/theatre arts at Columbia. That same year director Gene Nye of the Lion Theatre Company was producing Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and asked Carnicke to help him choose from three translations: “All three seemed to misfire for actors,” she says.

She took four days to draft a new translation and then sat in on all the rehearsals, helping guide the actors through the text and revising as the production progressed. “Every major New York newspaper reviewed not only the performance, but the translation—which is rare. After that, directors came to me.”

Falling in Love with French Poetry

As with Carnicke, the seeds of Ellen Conroy Kennedy’s translation career were sewn at Barnard. A member of the Class of 1953, Kennedy translates from French to English and has translated four books. She was nominated for the National Book Award in 1969 for her translation of Albert Camus Lyrical and Critical Essays, a collection of Camus’ writing edited by the late British scholar of French literature Philip Thody. “I fell in love with French poetry at Barnard,” Kennedy recalls. “Though I wasn’t much of a student at the time.”

Kennedy pursued her work as a student and scholar of French literature and poetry under the guidance of Germaine Brée at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She later became interested in black francophone poetry and lived in Washington D.C., where her husband, Padraic Kennedy, worked for JFK’s (no relation) administration.

“I met Gnagna, the wife of the Senegalese ambassador, and we got to chatting about Sartre and Camus,” she recalls. Gnagna gave her Les Ecrivains Noirs de Langue Française by Lilyan Kesteloot (L’Université libre de Bruxelles, 1963). Kennedy eventually translated the book under the title Black Writers in French (Temple University Press, 1974). “I wanted to be the Julia Child of African poets in French—bring their work to Americans in a beautiful context.” Martha Gaber Abrahamsen ’69 became a translator “by accident,” she says. Music played an important role. Abrahamsen entered Barnard in 1966 as a transfer from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. While at Barnard, she performed her own music (think a combination of Joan Baez and traditional folk music) and majored in Oriental civilizations. She worked two summers as an au pair in Finland, and moved to that country after graduation. She wound up playing her folk music all over Finland. She was a hit: Finnish music lovers found this American lute player and her folk songs “unbelievably exotic.”

Those first years in Finland, she had not only her musical success but also work writing and producing for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. A colleague at the station was part owner of a Finnish translation bureau where she also worked for a number of years. “I translated everything from tourist brochures to love letters on a miserable salary,” she remembers. “It was slave labor.”

Abrahamsen also began to develop her career as a freelance translator, taking myriad jobs in order to establish a network of clients and contacts. She eventually moved to Denmark, where she maintains a long-term relationship with Copenhagen’s David Collection (one of her major clients), which includes a world-renowned collection of Islamic art. Over the last 20 years she has translated exhibition texts, online content, and other publications sponsored by the collection.

Today, she translates from Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish into English often in art and architecture, crafts, and history; she’s also proficient in conversational French and Italian. Even so, making a living remains tricky: “I never know what my income for the next year will be.”

From animation to sumo, Lora Sharnoff ’69 works in Tokyo as a freelance translator for clients that have included the University of Tokyo where she worked for 15 years, translating online content, conference papers, and administrative documents as well as interpreting; and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, where she translated official documents, letters, and pamphlets. She also worked as an interpreter at the Ministry. Sharnoff also has translated countless animation scripts for popular Japanese shows such as Dragon Ball and Doraemon. But she most enjoys translating art and photography books (recently a book about kimonos and fabrics), and work on her own books, which include Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition (Weatherhill 1989, 1993).

The sheer variety of her work reflects the need to make a living as well as the depth and breadth of her interest in things Japanese. Sharnoff studied Japanese literature at Barnard and earned her Columbia master’s in Japanese language and literature before traveling to Kyoto on a Fulbright in 1973. She took most of her undergraduate language classes at Columbia—with mixed results: “When I arrived in Kyoto I could read fourteenth- century Japanese poetry, and could buy something in a store, but I wasn’t able to ask if I could try something on.”

Her conversational skills soon improved, and she decided to stay in Japan after her Fulbright studies were completed. Her first gig was for a feminist press that couldn’t pay her, but paying jobs soon followed.

Theory and Practice

These days, translating plays different roles in each woman’s life. Since 1987, Carnicke has been a professor of theatre and Slavic languages at the University of Southern California, teaching courses on subjects such as Greek and Roman drama, acting theory and Shakespeare. She’s also one of the leading scholars of the Stanislavsky method of acting. Her skill as a translator has informed and inspired much of her work on Stanislavsky, a topic that caught her eye while at the HB Studio, a New York theatre school. “An acting teacher, Aaron Frankel, asked me to look up a term from Stanislavsky’s Russian books,” she recalls. “When I looked at the books, I found that his native language writings bore little resemblance to the familiar English translations.”

That discovery eventually led to her first book, Stanislavsky in Focus, which came out in 1998 and is now in its second edition. She’s currently working on Active Analysis: Stanislavsky’s Approach to Dramatic Texts. Kennedy worked for 13 years on her third book, The Negritude Poets (Viking, 1975, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989), an anthology of poetry written by four generations of black French-colonial poets from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands, with a foreword by Maya Angelou. Kennedy’s research for the project included the work she did on Black Writers in French, trips to Senegal and Algeria, and as much time reading as she could spare—time that was hard to find while she and her husband were raising a family.

Lost in Translation

Work as a translator can open new horizons, but each culture has its challenges. Sharnoff, for example, soon encountered strong gender bias in Japanese culture (the bias has since diminished, but by no means, disappeared).

The demands also vary from job to job. For example, Carnicke talks about the difficulties of translating Chekhov for the stage. “When I translate, I am really looking to retain all the ambiguities and all the gaps. I don’t want to make the actors’ choices for them, I want to allow the actor to pick this up and hear the voices of the character as I hear them in Russian.”

Abrahamsen’s method for translating technical descriptions of art and architecture is more cut and dried. “I am not at all interested in translation theory—I am a very practical, very down to earth person—I’m very square, and I want things to be correct.”

With that in mind, Abrahamsen often has to research the right architecture terminology in English. “I read the term in Finnish, Danish, etc., and I know what it looks like, but you don’t want to say ‘it goes up and is pointy in the middle.’”

And then, of course, there is the issue of income. Ellen Kennedy’s commitment to her work has earned her a reputation as a translator and scholar, but it hasn’t earned her much money. “I can’t talk about a career in the business—I certainly have serious pursuits and financial support for them, but I couldn’t have lived on what I made as a translator,” she says.

Advice for would-be translators? First, work on your own writing. “If you’re not a good writer in your own language, no matter how good you are with the foreign languages you’re not going to be a good translator,” says Sharnoff.

Second, follow your bliss—and find your niche. “Find a topic that you absolutely love, and then find some strange aspect of it that no one else knows about and make that your specialty,” says Abrahamsen. “That way you’ll be happy and make money.”

-by Harper Willis, illustration by Katherine Streeter