Translation is… bunraku?

Sometimes my commercial and literary translations converge in interesting and unexpected ways. Take a recent project describing a production of bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) opening this very night at Paris’s Festival d’Automne:

http://en.fondationdentreprisehermes.org/Know-how-and-creativity/Performing-arts/Hiroshi-Sugimoto-at-the-Festival-d-Automne

Bunraku puppetry really has to be seen to be believed: dressed all in black, the puppeteers are in plain sight throughout, bringing the marionettes vividly to life but remaining impassive, visible and invisible all at once.

bunraku

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV938f46Wpg

I was immediately reminded of the opening of a novel by one of my favourite French writers, the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop. Sérénissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’; Verticales 2001, Poche 2002) is an outrageous, Greenaway-esque poisonfest set in 18th-century Venice (my translation won a French Voices award in 2011 and is currently seeking a US publisher). Before beginning her tale, Wittkop introduces her role as narrator:

‘Concealed  beneath  a  hood  and  clad  all  in  black,  the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, smile or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom burst like wineskins. I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator. If, contrary to the laws of bunraku, my figures eat or drink, it is only the better  to foil conjecture. We shall not always know if the dishes are harmless. Sometimes we shall think, quite wrongly, that they may be otherwise; unless, on the contrary, we are trusting when we should be on our guard. And just as in bunraku, the morning’s crime is explained only at nightfall after the turn of dramatic episodes enacted in a series of occult, labyrinthine moves, so the action will unfold in two tempos, passing from 1766 to 1797, as I see fit. One of these tempos is extremely slow because it extends over a great many years, the other is, on the contrary, very fast, moving briskly from one date to the next, rather like a long- jumper leaping over broad chasms in a single bound, then trotting before leaping again, and in this way traversing vast deserts. […] There is a progression, nonetheless, in the rising crescendo to catastrophe, the gradual fraying of the rope destined to break. In the double register of the story, scenes will overlap not like a palimpsest, but like transparent slides, clearly legible, pretending to fit. The figures wear the costumes of their time, their city, the most Asian in all Europe. In place of a magenta kimono emblazoned with a butterfly, we shall agree to an ink-dark tabarro and a chalk-white bauta, bending over a hump-backed bridge. In this metropolis of masquerades, whispered denunciations and informants, Alvise Lanzi’s successive widowings become mysteriously  intertwined. Seek  not, and you shall surely find. Syllogistic endings being fundamentally devoid of interest, however, our chief diversion will be their beginnings, and their ornamental  setting. A  fine setting indeed. Venice purple and gold, with her shot taffeta skies, her leaden skies, a shriek of death in her shadows, the horror of one  who  discovers  a  lethal  incandescence  in  his  own  gut.’

Wittkop compares the bunraku puppet-master to the narrator of fiction, but his kinship to the ideal of the literary translator is clear, too, I hope – ‘endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his [or her] implacable interference.’ We remain present throughout, ‘masked, as convention dictates, […] our own spectator’, plying an age-old craft to bring stories and characters vividly to life, matching the musical ’score’ of the original text as closely as we can.

  • The Festival d’Automne is the last stop on Hiroshi Sugimoto’s European tour of his contemporary bunraku production, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki: at the Théâtre de la Ville de Paris from October 10 – 19 2013.

Dog Days

It’s hot. La canicule here in France – officially defined as a temperature of 20°C or more by night and 33°C or more by day, for a period of three or more days. Wikipedia confirms and clarifies my vague notion of the word’s etymology: from the Latin canicula or ‘little dog’, another name for the Dog Star Sirius which rises and sets with the Sun (in the northern hemisphere) between July 24 and August 24. The Dog Days. What better time, then, to enjoy the canine-themed summer edition of World Literature Today. ‘Four legged fictions’ includes prose and poetry from  Esther Rusquets, Mark Tredennick, Jacques Roubaud, and Jean Rolin (in my translation).

http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2013/july

And if you enjoy Rolin’s canine take on the charitable initiatives and economy of a run-down neighbourhood of Mexico City, you might like this, from the same book,  Un chien mort après lui (‘A Dead Dog After Him’) – an anthology of the author’s encounters with stray dogs and their attendant human communities around the world:

Santiago de Chile

My room at the Hotel Foresta is just half-a-dozen blocks from the Moneda Palace and facing it, Constitution Square. And a few months before, this square was the theater of an unusual news story, the hero of which was a dog. Not only that, but a dog bearing the name El Rucio, or Red-face, which was also the nickname attributed by his men to France’s Napoleonic Maréchal Ney. As a long-time fan of the latter, the fact that he and the dog are virtual homonyms inspired an interest in its misadventures that I may not otherwise have felt, or not to same degree at any rate. In the articles about him in the Chilean press, El Rucio, and others of his kind implicated in the same news story, were described with a variety of nouns testifying to the rich canine vocabulary of the Spanish language: can, perro, perro vago or perro callejero, quadropedo, or quiltro – the latter a specifically Chilean term with affectionate overtones, borrowed from the language of the Mapuche Indians. These are the circumstances in which the animal achieved his notoriety.

On the eve of Michelle Bachelet’s investiture as president of the republic, thirty or so dogs living around the lawns and shrubberies of Constitution Square were rounded up by the police and liquidated by various means. The disappeared – all without trace – included La Shakira, Al Maton, and Isabelito (aka Pituto), to the great displeasure of some of the locals, mostly executive types because this is essentially a business neighborhood, who, ministering to the dogs’ various needs, saw themselves as their guardians and protectors. (Some, like Fernando Rolleri and Carolina Guerrero, who we will meet again later, had even organised themselves into a not-for-profit association of canine benefactors, referred to in the press by the initials OPRA). Of all the stray dogs on Constitution Square, only El Rucio had reappeared after the round-up. Described as a “mix of German Shepherd and Golden Retriever,” he also happened to be the most popular member of the pack, thanks to his gentle, playful nature (it said in the newspaper) and his seniority: eight years beneath the windows of the Moneda Palace so that he had, it was noted, seen off three heads of state in succession.

The press was united in its account of all of the above. As was the online community of bloggers and social networkers. Accounts diverged subsequently, however, on two points of equal importance: who had ordered the massacre, and under what circumstances had El Rucio managed to escape? On the first point, a head of department at the Ministry of Public Health – one Doctor José Antonio Segura – was willing to accept responsibility for the deed, noting that his colleagues had only resorted to such extreme measures after trying in vain to persuade the locals – including, no doubt, the benefactors of the OPRA – to adopt the dogs targeted for eradication. (Which deed was necessary, said José Antonio, due to the threat posed by the “dominant” dogs who, disturbed by the intrusion of such a large number of people into their territory, were likely to attack members of the public during the presidential inauguration). Doctor Segura’s words failed to satisfy the online community, nonetheless. Perros.wordpress.com, in particular, claimed to have spent “no less than two weeks” tracing the animals, attributing ultimate responsibility to a man by the name of Ilbaca – or Llabaca – the “director of the Santiago Sanitation Authority”, against whom the blogger called for criminal charges under a law forbidding the killing of dogs “except in the case of epidemics or a threat to public health” (the square’s dogs could not be carrying rabies, the blogger continued, “because there are no rabid bats in the center of Santiago”). Perros.wordpress.com ended by stressing that this massacre of innocent creatures augured ill for the “new Socialist government”, arousing legitimate suspicions of a hidden political agenda behind his or her words (especially given that Michelle Bachelet’s government was not Socialist as such, but a coalition).

Confusion reigned, too, over the circumstances of El Rucio’s escape. According to Fernando Rolleri, president of the OPRA (the aforementioned association of dog lovers) the police officers assigned to round up the dogs had kept him to one side on their own initiative because he had become, in their eyes, something of a mascot (su regalón). A woman named Ana María Jara – a banking executive – confirmed that she had seen El Rucio taken away with the others, and agreed with Rolleri’s supposition. But Carolina Guerrero, also described in the July 6, 2006 edition of Las Ultimas Noticias as “president of the OPRA” (making at least two in this august office) and otherwise as “an attractive female executive” and “El Rucio’s best friend,” discounted this theory, confirming for her part that the now-legendary dog had escaped the round-up by chance, and that on the same day, in unspecified circumstances, he had been the victim of an attack that had almost taken out one of his eyes, and seriously wounded one of his legs. Or rather one of his “little paws”, in the words of another newspaper, so that the doggy, reinstated now in his usual spot on Constitution Square, was refusing to “shake hands” as he had always done before. This was confirmed by a photograph showing him lying down, head cocked to one side, with the Moneda Palace in the background. Inevitably, visitors coming upon the palace from the intersection of Agustinas and Morandé are reminded of the pictures of Allende sporting a military helmet, or of tanks firing and Hawker Hunters flying overhead – fitting pointers to the triviality of my own perspective on the scene.

As for our canine hero, I encountered him shortly afterwards – unmistakable with his long reddish-blond coat and blue wall eyes. In the north-east corner of Constitution Square, beside a bed of red sage bushes, El Rucio lay in the shadow cast by a statue of General José Miguel Carrera, and almost across the booted, laced-up feet of a man in khaki uniform, sporting a flat-topped cap, immediately identifiable as one of the police guards who had probably saved his life. A great many other uniforms stood motionless, at ease or on guard, around the edges or down the middle of the gardens extending in front of the Moneda Palace. As for the dogs, they were once again present in large numbers (nature having taken its course), and among them I noticed a very pretty little bitch, her head divided into two differently-colored zones along a meridian from the top of her skull to the tip of her muzzle. Lying stretched out across a path lined with trees, and continually stepped over by passers-by, she feigned sleep with such determined obstinacy that she might have been mistaken for dead, were it not for the rise and fall of her ribcage, and the occasional pricking of an ear. At the end of this first visit, I returned to the Hotel Foresta along Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. On the corner of O’Higgins and Ahumada, a dog lay curled on the sidewalk, as if in his very own virtual basket (perhaps his mind’s eye had conjured its wicker sides and the stuffing in the cushions), forming a tight circle, nose to tail, the latter luxuriantly fluffy with a hint of red, making him looking exactly like a fox in children’s story book. At the end of Santa Lucia I reached the banks of the Mapocho river at the Loreto bridge. The brown waters rolled by with a muffled roar, pricked all over with neat, fixed ripples between the almost sheer sides of its concrete embankments. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes were just visible in the haze, and for a moment the scene was a vivid reminder of the banks of the Miljacka as it flows through Sarajevo, so that it seemed to me – relentless good cheer being difficult to maintain, along with our defences against dark thoughts like these – that the two rivers, at least one of which had borne quantities of corpses downstream, shared the same malevolent, funereal quality.  And it so happened when I returned to Constitution Square that evening, shortly after sunset, while the business district disgorged its daytime population of office workers, that I was attacked with no apparent motive by the entire, assembled pack of dogs – a good thirty of them – including the little two-tone bitch, living up to her descriptor, I felt, but with the notable exception of El Rucio. I owe my salvation to nothing more than a sudden change of heart on the part of the pack which, having spotted an even more detestable or apparently more edible figure on the sidewalk on Teatinos, left off attacking me and threw themselves upon him with even greater fury, so that the unfortunate man was forced to fight them off like the hapless prey he was, signalling his distress with much waving of arms and loud cries, attracting no more assistance on my part than he himself had demonstrated just a few moments before, with myself in the role of the helpless victim.

English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2013

French edition: Editions P.O.L., 2009.      

Photograph of Santiago de Chile (and perhaps El Rucio himself) by Basti: http://takeyourbackpackandgo.com/chile/santiago-de-chile-the-city-of-dogs

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… (2): International Translation Day

Coincidentally, the francosphere (see ‘Events, events… 1’) was the subject of my first conversation,  over coffee and signing-in, at International Translation Day, held a few weeks ago at London’s King’s Place. Clive Boutle of Francis Boutle Publishers champions a list including a fearless collection of ‘lesser used languages of Europe,’ such as Breton, Channel Islands Norman, and (forthcoming) France’s ancient langue d’Oc (Occitan). This more than set the tone for a fascinating day that extended well beyond the scheduled nine hours or so of debate and discussion on all aspects of literary translation.

Distinguished publisher Christopher Maclehose presented an up-beat State of the (Translation) Nation during the first plenary session, outlining more awareness-raising initiatives, funding programmes, residential workshops and mentoring schemes than most of us have world enough and time to even think about registering for. Many are quite recent developments, and as Christopher rightly pointed out, all are the fruit of the work of tireless activists like the session’s Chair, Daniel Hahn  of the British Centre for Literary Translation.  Christopher concluded bravely (addressing a sea of eager translators, remember) with a publisher’s wishlist of areas insufficiently covered by literary translation as we know it – notably literary travel. Music to my ears… Maclehose Press is, hopefully, drowning in submissions (including mine) even now. In fact, a number of UK/US publishers are looking at one of my favourite travel (or ‘anti-travel’) writers, French psychogeographer Jean Rolin, currently (Dalkey Archive Press published The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, my translation of his account of a journey from Antwerp to the Congo, in 2011). Fingers crossed… I’d love to translate more of Rolin’s work, and he would, I think, find an enthusiastic readership in English (readers of travel writing, and Congo aficionados, certainly picked up on Explosion – it has featured on Amazon’s list of ‘Congo’ best-sellers, alongside Tim Butcher, Redmon O’Hanlon et al., since publication). Discovering ourselves and the rest of the world through other cultures’ eyes goes to the heart of what literary translation and curious reading are all about.

Comments by bookseller Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles, during the morning session, were so interesting, to the point, and downright encouraging that I couldn’t help wishing more mainstream publishers were present to hear him. Readers love literature in translation, he said. Tables of translated literature frequently out-sell other categories, he said. Foyles is keen to promote more, he said. Prompted by a question from the floor, he agreed to look into providing tables of translated literature cheek-by-jowl with the original texts. With this music ringing in our ears, we sallied forth to break-out sessions on getting started in translation, funding, reader engagement, and languages and translation in schools.

Over lunch, I  ‘huddled’ with Sophie Lewis, editor-at-large for UK indie publisher And Other Stories, and fellow members of the Emerging Translators Network (Roland Glasser, Tom Russell and Lesley Lawn), to plan two reading groups aimed at unearthing new French titles for translation and publication.  Groups members will read and discuss a shortlist of three or four recent French novels or short story collections, with meet-ups planned in London (contact Roland Glasser) and Paris (contact me) in January and March. A great chance to get involved with one of the UK’s most innovative and exciting new publishing houses (the people who brought us Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home, and much else.) Interested readers of French are all welcome.

My choice for the afternoon break-outs was an absorbing session on the changing face of book promotion in the social media age, with Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker and Rosa Anderson of Fiction Uncovered, fuelling a lively discussion on the best ways to involve authors and their translators, and innovative ways around the occasional language barrier (in the case of the former). This provided plenty of food for thought:  plans to promote Antoine Laurain’s novel  The President’s Hat, which I co-translated recently with Gallic Books, include an online interview with the author, hopefully in the New Year.

The highlight of the afternoon was a talk by Dominic Dromgoole of the Globe Theatre, and ‘Globe to Globe’ director Tom Bird, about the revelation that was this summer’s festival of Shakespeare in translation, and their concomitant discovery of so many other countries’ often astonishingly intense relationship with our national bard. Hugely interesting, and disarmingly presented in ice-cool, off-the-cuff style. Three fabulous performances of Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy – in English, Spanish and an (I think) un-identified African language – didn’t altogether corroborate the old adage that its opening lines always retain the same cadence, rhythms and stresses when translated. Rather, what struck me most was how effectively Hamlet’s discursive, argumentative questioning seemed to morph into other ‘national characters’ (and other sexes – the Spanish Hamlet was a woman), while his essential personality appeared quite different in all three. The English performance was one of the most perceptive I’ve seen – Hamlet emerged as terrified and sleep-deprived, paralysed by traumatic stress, clinging to reason against the odds. Quite different from his (equally plausible) cantankerous, feisty Spanish incarnation,  or his African alter-ego, determined to externalise and confront his dilemma by talking it over with himself out loud: a thoroughly sane man in an insane, out-of-control situation.

The day ended with the presentation of this year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, to  Chinese-English translator Philip Hand, for his translation of Han Dong’s entertaining short story The Wig – sadly we weren’t treated to a reading (the story is online at the Granta Web site), but we were treated to more than generous drinks and nibbles, and a chance to carry the day’s conversations on into the evening, out through the doors of King’s Place, and into the nearest pub…

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.

*

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!