Translating is Like X-raying a Book. You Get a Deep Tissue Read.

Sam Taylor photographed in Texarkana, Texas: ‘I feel like I’m bilingual in English.’ The US-based writer and translator on his new novel set in 1930s Vienna, his deep connection with the authors he has worked with and why he always returns to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

Hephzibah Anderson in The Guardian: Sam Taylor, 53, was living in rural France with four well-received novels to his name when he realised that he wasn’t going to be able to support his family through writing alone. After being turned down for bar work in nearby Lourdes, he decided to try literary translating, starting with Laurent Binet’s Goncourt-winning novel HHhH. So began an award-winning second career that has seen him work with high-profile authors including Leila Slimani and David Diop. Now based in Texas, he has returned to novel-writing with The Two Loves of Sophie Strom. Centring on a provocative idea, it opens in 1930s Vienna as antisemitic neighbours torch 13-year-old Max Spiegelman’s home. In a parallel universe, the fire leaves Max an orphan, and he’s adopted by an Aryan family who rename him Hans and encourage him to join the Hitler-Jugend. At night, Max and Hans, on opposing sides of history, dream of each other’s lives.

Where did the idea come from?
Weirdly enough, the spark came from a line in my first novel [The Republic of Trees2005], about the night self and the day self, the waking self and the sleeping self. It’s sliding doors, except the twist is Max and Hans are dreaming about each other, so they’re aware of each other’s lives.

Why did the 1930s and the war appeal?
I needed a setting that offered a sharp contrast in possible fates for the protagonist, and a Mischling [Max’s father is Jewish, his mother Aryan] in the Third Reich gave me that. The war provided me with conflict, dramatic change, and the possibility that my characters could inhabit the same city while also living in very different worlds.

An intriguing aspect of the book is how Hans and Max are on opposite sides of history, yet compelled to experience each other’s point of view.
One of the book’s themes is that idea of trying to find some common ground, to bridge a gap. At the moment, it’s a time in history when the gap seems pretty big. I live in Texas, where probably 80% of the population is conservative and Christian. You meet them and they seem absolutely lovely people. If you started talking about politics, I’m sure they would be Trump supporters. To me, that’s almost physically repulsive, but they are absolutely certain that they’re the good guys.

How come it’s been so long since your last novel, 2009’s The Island at the End of the World?
I wrote a different book first – a science-fiction YA novel. All the feedback was that the dream idea was strong, [but] I should make that the only non-real element. It took me a long time to figure out how I could set it in the real world, but in the meantime I got divorced, remarried, had another son, moved to the States, and translated about 50 books.

More here.