France

Interview for France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion

France is such a wonderful collection of French literary writing. How exactly is it “a traveler’s companion”?

Like a good traveling companion, it takes you to places you don’t expect. For many Americans, France means Paris. But there’s a lot more to the country than its capital, glittering though it may be. The nice thing about a literary anthology is that readers can not only visit different parts of France, but they can do it at different time periods. Jean Failler’s story, “The Ladle,” features a little Breton priest in the eighteenth century. To find out how women in Normandy lived in the early twentieth century, try Annie Ernaux’s “A Frozen Woman.” For Provence in 1942, you have François Maspero’s atmospheric “When the Italians Came.” And Annie Saumont meditates on two thousand years of history in “It Was Yesterday,” as she links the French Resistance with Julius Cesar’s Gallic wars.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s the brainchild of Whereabouts Press publisher David Peattie, who long wanted to add France to the list of countries he has published books on. He originally hired University of California, Berkeley French lecturer Anna Livia to edit the book, but she unexpectedly died. David knew of my work as a translator and editor, so he asked me to take over the project. I threw myself heart and soul into the project, and it’s been terrific fun.

How did you begin translating?

For that, I have to thank a famous French sailor named Bernard Moitessier, whom I met in Tahiti in 1972. Despite my misgivings, Moitessier convinced me that I would do fine at two projects he suggested: translate his book The Long Way, and sail solo from Tahiti to Hawaii. Both were memorable stages in my life. Since then I’ve translated some two dozen books, mostly novels and young adult books. Translation hasn’t made me rich, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. And I won the 1996 Lewis Galantière Award from the American Translators Association for my translation of Moitessier’s autobiography, Tamata and the Alliance.

Did you have a childhood in the language?

I grew up in New York City, and for some reason my parents sent me to the Lyçée Français there. But I really didn’t learn to speak well until I went to boarding school in Switzerland, where most of the kids were French. Today I speak well enough to fool the French, though not for very long. Eventually they’ll ask me, “Are your parents Swiss, by any chance?”

How did you go about finding the pieces for France?

In a few cases, I went for classic authors, so I included Colette’s “The Grape Harvest” and Georges Simenon’s “Two Bodies in a Barge.” But I also wanted to introduce readers to authors who are well known in France but not overseas, like Luc Lang, Andrée Chedid, and Marcel Aymé. I also turned to writers I had already translated, like Christian Lehmann and Jean Failler. And finally I got many recommendations from my friends in France. Two outstanding examples are “Junior,” a very funny tale by bestseller Anna Gavalda, and “A Lively Little Tune,” a story with a startling ending by Didier Daeninckx. And I always tried to look beyond Paris.

Why not just focus on Paris?

Because so many parts of France have so much to offer. From Strasbourg to Pau, from Lille to Marseille, the country is a crazy quilt of accents and landscapes, and I had a hard time limiting the stories to the twenty-one that finally made the cut. At the same time, Paris is so lively I couldn’t really neglect it. I just hope that the Paris stories also take readers to unexpected places. Cyrille Fleischman, who wrote “Vanity,” reminds me of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and you wouldn’t want to meet Samuel Benchetrit’s gangster music-lovers in a dark alley. Actually, you shouldn’t walk too close behind the squirting pooches in Luc Lang’s “Dog Mind” at any time of day.

Do you think readers approach translations differently from other kinds of writing?

I certainly hope not! My ambition as a translator is this: you should be able to read anything I’ve translated as if it had been originally written in English. You should be blissfully aware that it has another existence in another language. I translated half the stories in this book and edited the rest, and I think they meet that standard. Because the secret to being a good translator is not necessarily knowing a foreign language, but being an excellent writer on your own.

Of course this raises a funny dilemma, because most translators hunger after a certain amount of recognition. How do you resolve the conflict between the wish to work invisibly and a desire to be famous? As the old saying has it, there is nothing sweeter than doing a good action by stealth and being discovered by accident. In this particular book, I have it both ways, since I’m the primary translator but also the editor. So I can stand at the front door and welcome you into my world, while making sure you know exactly who I am!

Why isn’t more French writing being translated?

I think it’s partly because of the tremendous consolidation of U. S. publishers in the last thirty years. Small, high-quality houses like David R. Godine have to compete with multinational mega-companies that pay celebrity authors million-dollar advances. And translation is expensive, since you have to pay both the author and the translator.

Since my focus is French, I’m also bothered by the whiff of anti-French prejudice I occasionally see. It’s bad enough that American producers buy up French movies and remake them with American actors. We seem to have forgotten that France has been our friend for centuries. At the Battle of Yorktown, the French helped us win our revolution twice: A fleet under Admiral de Grasse kept the British away from the coast, and there were more French soldiers in the field that day than American ones.

What you think should be done about this?

People should continue traveling, if only in their imaginations. Has the weak dollar put Europe out of reach? Head down to the library, and you can roam far and wide for practically nothing. Whereabouts Press, which publishes this Traveler’s Literary Companion series, has erased physical boundaries. Want to visit Italy, Australia, Japan, Spain, or France? The books in this series can take your mind there while you wait for your body—and your wallet—to catch up.

Posted on 21 September 2010


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