A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the second Guest Article of France Week, we are pleased to welcome Kit Maude, Sales and Editorial Coordinator at Marion Boyars Publishers, who reflects on the publication of Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui, their first bi-lingual (French and English) novel in many years.
In the Review section of the Guardian last Saturday Adam Thirlwell wrote about Les Misérables:
And the most obvious transformation Victor Hugo effects in the novel’s form is the sheer gargantuan size. This megalomania was a conscious choice on Hugo’s part. To describe his work in progress he jotted down a list of hyperbolic adjectives: “Astounding, extraordinary, surprising, superhuman, supernatural, unheard of, savage, colossal, monstrous, deformed, disturbed, electrifying, lugubrious, funereal, hideous, terrifying, shadowy, mysterious, fantastic, nocturnal, crepuscular …
No he didn’t. He jotted down twenty one French words that Thirlwell, or the source he was using, has translated. The paragraph needs an asterisk, or a set of parentheses with a ‘my translation/x’s translation’ adjacent or inside.
Having unwittingly fallen into a livelihood which to a great extent depends on the success of literary translation, such lapses have always rankled, but since working on Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui, they apparently annoy me enough to begin essays complaining about them. It’s actually particularly unfair to pick on Thirlwell; his last book was a four hundred odd page miscellany on the importance of literary translation.
Banquet of Lies is a novel originally written by the Algerian writer Amin Zaoui in French, which we had translated into English by the acclaimed translator Frank Wynne and then published in a bi-lingual edition in May of this year. This was an unusual thing to do. You won’t find many bi-lingual books, unless you count dictionaries, in your local bookshop. There’ll be some poetry perhaps, but no novels. Why would we do this? English readers want to read in English don’t they? It’s already been published in French hasn’t it? Well, yes and yes, but it’s never been published in translation.
We had been looking to do this for a while. We (Marion Boyars Publishers) have been trying, along with others, to raise the profile of literature in translation in various different ways. To actually publish not just a translated book but the translation itself seemed to be a logical extension of this policy. We did have precedent: Marion Boyars has published Paris by Julian Green (freshly reprinted - one of the best books on Paris to be found; it describes the great city as it was, and perhaps, if you care to follow me, as it might one day be again) very successfully over a number of years in a bilingual edition, so we knew that the idea could work.
Part of the problem was finding the right book: obviously it needed to be fairly short, a three hundred page novel printed twice comes to six hundred pages which will look a little off-putting in a bookshop. It also needed to be something that would be interesting to translate – a straightforward text (He moved over to the table. He picked up the glass. He drank. Slowly) wouldn’t really make for much cross-textual discussion. Banquet of Lies, a hundred and fifty page, gloriously playful book that’s both a meditation on the painful beginnings of independent Algeria and a slightly psychotic celebration of the allure of older women, fit this criteria.
We also needed a brilliant, and brave, translator. Frank Wynne (interviewed, along with three of our other translators, in our most recent catalogue) is both these things. Having won the IMPAC international prize with Atomised by Michel Houllebecq, he’s one of the most respected translators around. Frank took one look at the text and decided that it wasn’t going to stand a literal translation. So ‘game on’ as they say in The West Wing and elsewhere.
Frank was a joy to work with, even if he did keep running off to different countries (he lived in at least three separate ones in Europe and the near east during the course of the translation). The text, when it arrived, was certainly not literal. Interesting choices had been made, colloquialisms translated, dialect explained. All the juicy issues that get people exercised about translations, both good and bad, are there. Which is exactly what we wanted.
And then it was my turn. Now, I should say from the outset that my French is not good. I always argued with my French teachers rather more than I learned from them (French and Art teachers, looking back, always seemed to upset me at school. I wonder what sort of complex of which that’s indicative?) This, in my opinion, is no bad thing. (Although I would like to know more French.) If the editor of a translated text knows both languages well then there is the danger that there will be too much discussion about the translation, often to the detriment of the English version. In an ideal world, a bilingual reader would read the text after delivery from the translator and before the linguistically deprived editor gets their hands on it. Fortunately for us, Catheryn Kilgarriff, our M.D. (interviewed elsewhere on this website), does speak French and was able to do this for us. So, armed with her notes I set about making the translation into a book. After some very minimal tweaking (Frank’s very good at what he does – I was quite surprised when I told him so to hear that it’s rare for editors to compliment translators) , a lengthy, slightly frantic phone call to Paris and the serendipitous appearance of a much delayed annotated manuscript, it was time to start dealing with the French text.
There was, of course, no editing to be done but it did still have to be typeset. Not so long ago, this meant physically laying out each letter on every page. I’m glad that that’s not true today, it would take ages. No wonder books used to be a lot shorter. Also, I probably would have had to have ordered a whole set of accents from the blacksmith.
The accents were my biggest worry in any case: would the document that we had kindly been provided by Fayard, the French publisher, translate properly? Or would it, for no very good reason at all, end up gibberish: accentless or spaceless or with great gaping holes where text should be? I’m aware that in ranting on like this I’m doing what makes the eyes of the friends that I have left glaze over, but there’s no more frustrating phenomenon, and it happens in one way or another with every single book, than that of computers refusing to talk to each other properly. Had this not worked, it would probably have been faster for us to typeset it manually. Fortunately, it did.
Which meant that I was able to begin learning: for a start the French do not apparently use capitals like we do.
Délices d’une chair dormante
The Delights of Sleeping Flesh
Not to mention the fact that ‘Chapitre Premier’ sounds much better than ‘First Chapter’. So we didn’t say ‘First Chapter’.
And the French sometimes take a little longer to say something:
Plus tard, des années plus tard,
than we do:
Later, years later,
… and sometimes a little less:
Je pensais à Rosa.
I was thinking of Rosa.
Another thing the French apparently do is give excessive spatial respect to punctuation:
bizarre : je
None of which might seem like much. Except when you’re trying to make the texts mirror each other on opposing pages. If they didn’t, it would be maddening for anyone wishing to make the comparison we’d want them to make. So began the editorial equivalent of getting a sleeping bag back into its case. But in this scenario it would be more like a cross-channel sleeping bag exchange with different sized bags, cases and strange tassels that no-one knows what to do with. Both texts were pushed, pulled, cajoled, squeezed, stretched, sized, unsized, resized and persuaded. The idea of having to do that manually gives me nightmares.
Finally, after much grumbling, the French and the English agreed to sit opposite each other, give or take three or four lines. So, after a bunch of proof reads, it went off to the printer. Job done.
Well, not really. After the book came back, with a fine cover and a quote from Yasmina Khadra, we sent it out to our reps – the people who have to persuade the bookshops to stock our books. Cue a phone call a couple of days later: ‘Kit, excuse my ignorance but the pages on the left hand side: is that French?’.
Apparently, in all my excitement about our bold new project I’d forgotten to tell some rather important people about it.
Oh well, c’est la vie…
Rosy talked to Catheryn Kilgarriff, Managing Director of Marion Boyars, at the end of last year. You can find the interview here.
To read our other France Week guest post by Jane Aitken of Gallic Books, talking about the issues surrounding marketing French literature in the UK, click here.
You can read another very entertaining piece by Kit on Ready Steady Book here …