Classics revisited – and Austen at 200

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been celebrating vicariously with BBC Radio 4, including a delightful report from the Austen house this morning, delivered from the very spot on which Jane received her first copy from the publisher.  She read it aloud to a lucky listener that same day, making no mention of herself as the author. I haven’t  re-read the novel itself for at least two decades,  but know I would find a great deal more in it now than I did back then. As when looking afresh at any work of art one hasn’t experienced for years…

The 2002 Matisse/Picasso exhibition at the Galeries du Grand Palais in Paris opened with the two painters’ self-portraits hung side-by-side, both of which I had last seen (in print only) almost two decades earlier, as a history of art student. Faces I had registered then simply as ‘two famous men’ sprang to life now. Picasso (or I ) had effected a kind of reverse Dorian Gray shift: he was younger than me this time around, forceful, sensual, stocky, muscular, determined, burning with inspiration. Matisse was no longer just a well-known artist painting a famous picture of himself with green flesh tones instead of pink: he looked cautious, wary, reserved, questioning the choices he was making on the canvas. On the brink of middle age, he was still a far cry from the twinkly, iconic persona of his last years. The paintings hadn’t changed but I had, and there was so much more to see in them now.

  

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in my teens, I loved the superficial fun of Lizzie and her father’s ongoing private joke, their arch derision of the lesser-brained members of the Bennet family. I felt the Bennet girls’ acute pain in love and loss, too, of course. But the subtlety and depth of the book’s characters were mostly lost. The same fictional folk are revisited in the Guardian this weekend (‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 200 : looking afresh at a classic’). Messrs Bennet and Darcy undergo perceptive analysis and character assassination courtesy of John Mullan and Sebastian Faulks, Mrs Bennet gets a more understanding hearing from Bharat Tandon, and Lydia enjoys a dazzling rehabilitation thanks to Paula Byrne. I look forward to reading it all again, with what the French so charmingly call l’avantage de l’âge…

Another Austen bicentennial piece on Radio 4  – coupled with the reference to newly-published books arriving in the post – put me in mind of a couple of my recent translations. Bear with…

Sue Limb’s delightful audio letter from Mr Bennet imagined the ever-jaded Mr B. writing to Lizzie from Bath, where he and his dear lady wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Mrs B’s excited squeals announce her return from a shopping trip, on which she has bought ‘a Jane Austen fridge magnet, a Jane Austen T-shirt, a Jane Austen Thermos mug, a Jane Austen enamelled keyring, and a Jane Austen zipped hoodie…’.

This was bound to strike a chord with someone who spent most of last summer and autumn  translating two big books on Monet’s garden in Giverny (an exhibition catalogue for the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul), and Marie-Antoinette’s garden at the Trianon (Flammarion, 2013).

Who among us has not bought or at least seen a Monet waterlilies teatowel, mouse-mat, mug or croaking frog garden alarm in a museum gift shop at some point in the last decade or so? Not to mention a Marie-Antoinette guest soap assortment, teacup-and-saucer, or kitten-heeled satin slipper Christmas tree  decoration? Revisiting these two icons, and their equally iconic gardens – rescuing them from the gift shop and chocolate box lid, helping us to see them afresh – is what both books and their English translations are all about.

Giverny is perhaps easier for us to reinstate as a bold, avant-garde Gesamtwerk, than Marie-Antoinette’s Trianon playground. But Elisabeth Feydeau’s book (devised with Versailles head gardener and consultant editor Alain Baraton) succeeds in the undertaking, I think. Marie-Antoinette was, like Mrs Bennet, trying to do her best with the means at her disposal. In the context of Versailles, the Trianon was a genuine attempt at unaffected naturalism, an immersive environment that drew on painting, architecture, garden design, colour, fragrance and movement, counterbalancing the infinite tedium and massive scale of the static allées next door. Visitors to the Trianon could climb hills, float in boats, enjoy trysts in shady grottos, escape unseen down hidden flights of steps. The Temple of Love, on an artificial hillock overlooking a lake, was planted all around, we are told, with fragrant, white-blossoming shrubs whose petals and scent swirled and filled the air, like a snowstorm in a glass globe. White was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite colour, and she may even have understood (subconsciously or otherwise?) how white can function in bright sunlight against a vivid green background to generate retinal suggestions of contrasting colour, at the corners of our vision – provided we are prepared to look beyond the evidence of our eyes and experience colour and form as direct, abstract sensations, rather than the constituent parts of familiar motifs.

Marie-Antoinette’s social conscience was expressed at the Trianon too. Her hamlet with its kitchen gardens seems to have been intended, in part, to encourage the French poor to grow their own food in the face of famine – especially potatoes, which she saw as a solution to the acute problem. Which is why the Queen donned a potato-flower coiffure when the botanist and potato advocate Parmentier was received at Versailles. ‘Let them eat potatoes’ has a more practical ring, n’est-ce pas?

We have a duty, then, to keep working hard to rescue classic texts, classic paintings, iconic gardens, any and every aspect of The Culture, from the relentless petrification and superficialisation that come with great familiarity and huge popularity.

In that ongoing effort, translation has its role to play.

Did I see a Sid Vicious Union Jack tea-cosy on sale in London in the hazy, crazy summer of 2012? I think perhaps I did…

  • Monet’s Garden: Masterpieces from the Musée Marmottan Monet, exhibition catalogue, Musée Marmottan Monet/Sakip Sabanci Museum, 2012. Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Charles Penwarden.

Events, events…(1) A new journal for the Francosphere

To Paris a couple of weeks ago – and my latest alma mater, the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) – for the launch of Francosphères, a new journal with a mission “to define and question the presence of French language and culture across frontiers and borders, as defined by the Franco postcolonial presence, contact with French culture, and the ‘France of the mind’.”

Faculty, staff, post-grads and distinguished visiting academics gathered beneath the glittering chandeliers in a first-floor salon at ULIP’s Paris HQ (shared with the British Council) on Rue de Constantine in the 7th arrondissement, overlooking what is probably the epicentre of the France of most people’s minds – the golden dome over Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides, and the Eiffel Tower gleaming and twinkling in the gathering dusk. Images from the pages of the journal were displayed  on a wall-mounted screen: photographs of graffiti tags from the Paris banlieue formed a slideshow next to a huge, gilt-edged overmantel mirror reflecting the aforementioned chandeliers ad infinitum (when francospheres collide?).

ULIP’s Dean, Professor Andrew Hussey OBE, delivered a passionate, personal address staking the journal’s claim to new terrain in the august field of French Studies, while guest speakers and contributors expanded on the significance of the term “francosphere” as an alternative to existing coinages like “French and Francophone Studies” or “France and the French-speaking world”, with their inevitable, unacceptable whiff of hierarchy, and the risk of donnish quibbles (in the latter case) over the logical (mis)implication that France is not, then, a French-speaking country…

As a jobbing commercial and literary translator, tearing myself away from looming deadlines to attend events like this can be (a little) like retreating shell-shocked from the trenches of the Great War to an evening at the Cabaret Voltaire. Except that the francosphere has been a noticeable presence in my commercial work, too, just recently. Commissions have included translating a new critical study and anthology extracts from the work of Martinique writer Patrick Chamoiseau (whose novel Texaco features in issue 1 of Francosphères, coincidentally enough). Chamoiseau’s novels, pamphlets, memoirs – even a brand-new bandé dessinée album – assert a distinctive French Caribbean Creole identity, full of literary echoes that seem calculated to circumvent mainland French culture altogether and establish connections with “universal” writers like Hemingway, Calvino or Defoe. Professor Hussey’s definition of the non-geographical francosphere, extending “across frontiers and borders,” also struck chords: one of my favourite French authors, Gabrielle Wittkop, spent almost all her adult life in exile in Germany, where she has a large following in translation. Her works are largely set outside France, in India, the Far East, Rome, and Venice (notably Sérènissime Assassinat, a Venetian murder mystery, currently seeking a US publisher in my translation thanks to a French Voices award). My latest fiction translation is a dark, atmospheric crime novel set in the Finnmark wilderness of north Norway, but written by a Frenchman: Olivier Truc has been Le Monde’s Copenhagen correspondent since the mid-90s and is, as it turns out, an accomplished new voice in crime fiction, currently seeking an English publisher at Frankfurt.

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One of my favourite French children’s books is Georges Lebanc (L’école des loisirs, 2001), by author and illustrator Claude Ponti.  The story includes a wonderful evocation of the geographical scope of the francosphere, and of the power of shared language and culture (through cross-fertilisation and translation) to forge unexpected connections.

Two children, Ysaline and Nanik, share the same Teddy Bear (Nounours Zoreille – “Teddy Big-Ears”), but they don’t know it because they live thousands of kilometres apart, in Bastia on the “French” Mediterranean island of Corsica, and Ikaluit, in north-eastern Canada. When they grow up, each sets out on a world tour, driven “by a mysterious force they are powerless to resist.” Ysaline takes a wonderful, culturally and linguistically-crossed route from Bastia to the north-west coast of Africa, and on to Saint-Pierre et Miquelon off the coast of north-east Canada, followed by “Ile de Quatreure, Terre de Feu, Ile Sandwich du sud, Terre Adélie, Antananarivo, Ile de Kiribati […] Ile Féroé” and finally Paris where, sitting on the book’s eponymous hero George “the Park” Bench, she meets Nanik, who has travelled around the world the other way, via Belo Horizonte, Easter Island, St Helena, Abidjan, Kalgoorlie and Abu Dhabi.

“And the great mystery of their lives,” says Ponti, “is that they had loved one another forever, without knowing it.”

“Is That a (Michael) Fish in Your Ear?” The fun and Games of translating cultural references…

Watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Games at home here in France prompted thoughts of my next translation – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain’s touching, thoughtful, entertaining, feel-good tour of French society in the mid-1980s, published this year by Flammarion to popular and critical acclaim, and coming soon in English from Gallic Books.

How so, I hear you cry?

Well, both ceremonies were big on nostalgia, like Laurain’s novel, and all are awash with loaded references – in Laurain’s case, everything from Minitel soft porn to household-name presenters of France’s day-time TV news, an insidious anti-Mitterrand shibboleth that did the rounds of Paris society back in the day, and a clutch of echt-Eighties products and pop tubes. In which context, it is a truth universally acknowledged that every loaded reference in an Olympic ceremony, novel or other cultural manifestation must be in want of an appropriate, thoughtful and entertaining explanation. Back, then, to the opening night of London 2012, viewed chez nous during a lively BBQ with French friends and neighbours. Some things needed no introduction, bien sûr

Haha! Monsieur Bean!! Excellent! L’humour British… La classe!!”

James Bond, the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter, and David Beckham thundering down the Thames in a speedboat, were all received with delight and understanding. And the tribute to the NHS was easily dealt with (“Ah… Ze Nashurneul ‘Ealt Seurvees, N.H.S., d’accord…”). Great Ormond Street Hospital, less so: why were we being treated to a huge cartoon of a child in tears? “Well,” I weighed in, “It’s the symbol for the charity that helps fund Great Ormond Street, which is a big children’s hospital in London… it spells GOSH, you see, er, like ‘Tiens!’, ‘Dis-donc!’.”  Blank incomprehension. (But the French were not alone in this – a doctor friend has since pointed out that Great Ormond Street was actually part of the “children’s literature” section of the show, because Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie donated his royalties to the the hospital. Who knew? Not me…).

Onto the iconic clip – so familiar to any Briton of a certain age and then some – showing Michael Fish presenting the weather forecast on that fateful evening in 1987.

“Aha! Ze famous Breeteesh wezzer!” chortled our French  friends and neighbours.

“Well not quite…” I launched into an account of how Michael Fish had reassured the nation that a telephone warning from a woman in France, about an impending hurricane, was quite mistaken, just before half the trees in southern England were felled overnight. But the ceremony had continued on its wondrous, bonkers way, and none of our assembled company were any the wiser.

I watched the closing ceremony home alone – just as well, perhaps, what with Only Fools and Horses, and Stomp’s (intentional?) choreographed nod to the People’s Clean-Up after last year’s London riots. Put that in an Olympic ceremony and try and explain it to the French…

My point being that in translation, as in TV broadcast commentaries for the benefit of non-native viewers, any attempted explanation of country-specific references should be unobtrusive and sufficient. Enough to deliver an appreciation of  the reference and its significance, while not interfering with the enjoyment of the words on the page, or the ceremony on the screen. A lesson I hope I can apply…

The President’s Hat will be a co-translation, appropriately enough for a novel that unfolds through the eyes and reported thought of four different characters. Working with Gallic’s in-house translation team, we’re taking a “voice” each. Mine is Daniel Mercier, the hero of the opening and closing episodes, a down-trodden salaryman whose life is transformed by the “Mitterrand touch.” When Gallic tweeted news of the book recently, twitterers pondered a possible sequel: “Sarkozy’s Platform Shoes?” One reference that needs no explanation, across the Channel or around the world…

I hope we succeed in bringing the mood, the icons and the essential spirit of the Mitterrand years back to life – as Antoine Laurain has so triumphantly in French – for English-speaking readers. And especially, perhaps, for the Children of Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag. Moving from London to Paris at the dawn of the Nineties, I was enthralled to catch the tail end of the Mitterrand presidency. They were doing things very differently in France back then.

And they are again today.

PS: References aren’t only country-specific, of course. Folk unfamiliar with the world of translation may not have picked up my title reference to David Bellos’s recent book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? all about the challenges and delights of our craft. And anyone – of any nationality, profession or age – who has never read, listened to, or watched Douglas Adams’s Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its many states (as a radio series, book, TV show and film) won’t have spotted Bellos’s reference to the Babel fish, that enormously useful alien creature which, when popped into the user’s ear, allows him or her to understand all the languages in the known universe. But not necessarily their associated cultural references…

 

So many litfests, so little time…

Appearing now at St-Malo’s Etonnants Voyageurs festival – three writers I have recently translated, am currently translating, and/or hope to translate more: traveller, psychogeographer and grand reporteur Jean Rolin, Creole celebrant Patrick Chamoiseau and Franco-Maghrebin short story master Hubert Haddad.

Plus an interesting line-up of events around literature in translation at this year’s Hay Festival Wales.

Oysters and the ocean breeze in St Malo? Champagne on the grass at Hay? For the moment, office-stool (if not armchair) travel will have to do – I’m hard at work on an anthology of previously untranslated extracts from Patrick Chamoiseau’s fabulous Caribbean corpus…

Bons baisers!