I emailed Jordan Stump, the translator of Television and a professor at the University of Nebraska, a few questions about translating, and he was kind enough to answer them.
Derik Badman (DB): How did you start translating French literature? Did you do other types of translation first?
Jordan Stump (JS): No, I really hadn't done any translation at all before I launched into literature. The University of Nebraska Press has a superb reputation for (among other things) its extensive catalogue of recent French literature in translation, so when I was hired to teach French at the University of Nebraska, the Press's genial (then-) director, Bill Regier, asked me if I had any interest in translating, and if I knew of any contemporary French authors I might like to work on. As it happens, I had just discovered the magnificent novels of Marie Redonnet, and Bill was more than enthusiastic. After our conversation, I rushed right back to my office and started translating, and I literally have never stopped since.
DB: I'm curious about the translation process. Harry Mathews wrote an interesting essay ("The Case of the Persevering Maltese" and others, I summarize here) that discussed translation and his process. How do you go about translating a novel? How do you work to maintain both meaning and style? When I read Television in English for the first time I was impressed with how much the voice of the narrator had maintained a consistency for me from the French to the English.
JS: Well, thanks; that, of course, is the goal, and the loss of the original voice is a translator's greatest fear. I have my own perhaps idiosyncratic way of doing a translation. I do the first draft as quickly as I can, without worrying in any way about the "quality" of it: my goal is simply to have something on paper to work with, and something that translates the text more or less literally, so that the meaning is there, and the ideas. Then begins a very lengthy and extensive process of revision; I generally do six or eight drafts, trying to avoid looking at the original insofar as possible. Once I've got a draft that I think more or less does the job, I ask my wife Eleanor Hardin to read the English text aloud to me, while I follow along in French. This is important for many reasons: first, it will reveal any sentences I might have missed in my first drafts (a strangely common occurrence); second, it will reveal awkward repetitions and other infelicities that might not be apparent when one is simply looking at the words on the page; third, it allows Eleanor to point out passages that she finds awkward or unclear, and to suggest alternate wordings. This last part is vital, first because she has an excellent ear for elegant and inelegant wordings, and second because I am in a sense hobbled by the fact that I have read the original. I know what the original says, and a rendering that may (for that reason) be perfectly clear to me might be entirely impenetrable to someone who hasn't read the original--which is of course my intended audience.
How to keep the voice? The question I always ask myself, at every moment of the revision, is this: does this sentence sound like something that the narrator (or the characters) of this novel would say? If not, it's no good, no matter how efficiently it conveys the meaning. You've really got to know the narrator, and the characters, and the book; if you do, it's not all that hard to find the right words, or at least to recognize the wrong words.
DB: Did you have any correspondence with Toussaint during the translation? Do you generally talk with the authors of books you've translated (when possible)?
JS: Yes, I always try to work with the authors I translate; I always have loads of questions for them, of all different sorts (such as, for instance: what on earth does this sentence mean?). In Toussaint's case, we were unable to meet while I was doing the translation, but we wrote back and forth a bit by e-mail, to discuss a few relatively minor points of meaning. Since then, I have indeed met him, and I greatly look forward to working with him in a more detailed way should I have the opportunity to translate another of his novels, which I dearly hope I will have.
DB: Besides the process of translating the work itself, I'd be interested to hear more about the business end, that is: how do you end up doing a particular translation? Are you approached by publishers to do a specific work? Do you decide you want to translate a work and then try to find a publisher?
JS: By and large, I'm the one who decides what books I translate. Occasionally a press will suggest a book to me, and occasionally I'll take them up on the suggestion, but only if it's a book or an author that I was thinking I'd like to translate anyway. I can't translate a book I don't love, so most commonly I find a book I want to translate and then start looking for publishers. Sometimes it's hard to find a publisher whose tastes are congruent with mine, which is endlessly frustrating, and sometimes infuriating.
DB: You've translated a number of contemporary French novelists (Redonnet, Chevillard, Oster, Modiano), are there any other contemporary authors you'd like the chance to translate?
JS: I'd kill for the chance to translate Jean Echenoz, but alas he already has a very fine translator indeed in Mark Polizzotti. I'd love to translate more books by Antoine Volodine, but American publishers (and, it would seem, American readers) are somewhat skittish of writers as wholly original as he is. There are other writers I greatly admire, but whose books (so far) don't seem to me likely to translate well: Iegor Gran, Nathalie Quintane, Jacques Serena...there are a great many more like that. Any one of those could at any moment write a book that I think will work in translation, and when that happens I will pounce like a ravenous tiger.
DB: May I ask you to play favorites, which is the translation you are most proud of?
JS: I think my Balzac translation (The Wrong Side of Paris) is pretty goddamn good, and Claude Simon's The Jardin des Plantes also turned out nicely. But--and this is a cliche, but who cares--my favorite project is the one I'm working on now, Jean Ricardou's Les lieux-dits (I still haven't figured out how to translate the title).
DB: You've written on a book on Queneau (On Naming and Unnaming), one of my favorite authors, and I'm told that you are working on some translations of his work. Can you talk about that at all? Which works are you translating? How has studying and writing about Queneau influenced your translating? Any comments on translating Queneau's notorious use of wordplay, puns, and the demotic?
JS: Queneau's one of my all-time favorites, too. I really can't think of another twentieth-century writer whose voice and manner have so strongly marked the novel of the twenty-first century. For the University of Illinois Press, I recently translated a selection of his essays, taken from Bâtons, chiffres et lettres and Le Voyage en Grèce; I think that translation will be out in the Spring of 2007. Queneau's essays, particularly those from the late 1930s, are quite suprising: funny, vitriolic, wildly impatient with the literary world around him (surrealists, humorists, intellectual fakes). They really offer an understanding of his thinking that's quite different from what one might derive from the novels alone. There's not too much wordplay or demotic in those essays, though there is some, particularly in one essay, "Written in 1937," which has a whole longish passage written in "neo-French"--how the hell do you translate that? Once again, with patience, continual revision, etc.
DB: One of the other LBC readers is curious about the use of the word "pensive" in Television. He found it obtrusive in its repetition and wonders if there is something particular about it in the book?
JS: It does pop up with some frequency, and maybe it's meant to be somewhat obtrusive, because that word so neatly summarizes the narrator's nature (a sadly familiar one, to anyone who has ever tried to write): he loves to think, but he doesn't love to work. But since he feels guilty about not working, he convinces himself that thinking is the same thing as working, that somehow thinking about his project is getting him closer to writing it (or to having written it). "Pensive" suggests serious reflection, but also inaction: little surprise that the narrator should so often use it to describe himself (in a positive way), and that the author should so often use it to temper that flattering self-portrait with a tinge of irony.
DB: Any under-recognized French authors you'd like to recommend to the LBC or its readers? Either those available in translation or not.
JS: Virtually every French author is under-recognized in this country (and some even in France). I think the authors I've translated are all terrific, so if you haven't yet read Chevillard or Redonnet or Volodine I strongly recommend it. Apart from that, let's see: Jean Echenoz, Marie Ndiaye, Christian Gailly, Patrick Modiano, Lydie Salvayre, Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Rouaud, Eugene Savitzkaya, the last three I mentioned under number 5 above, Patrick Lapeyre... Again, there are a great many more. Since about the mid 1980s, the French novel has had a real renaissance, and there are so many audacious and fascinating authors out there it's staggering. One thing that I recommend to your readers: if you like one book produced by a given translator, you may well find a great many other remarkable books among his or her previous projects. One way to keep up with French literature, in other words, is by way of its translators' choices: look at the back catalogue of translators like Mark Polizzotti, Linda Coverdale, Richard Howard, or me, and you'll find a wealth of new and fascinating books to consider. Most translators translate only what they love, so if you like one book chosen by a given translator, you may very well like the rest.
(Thanks to Jordan for answering my questions.)