Translation Notes · 02/28/2014

The Conductor and Other Tales

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Edward Gauvin writes about translating The Conductor and Other Tales by Jean Ferry (Wakefield Press).


Jean Ferry and Raymond Roussel: What a Tangled Web We Weave When at First We Begin to Esteem

In 1934, Jean Ferry published the first fragments of what would, despite a celebrated career in screenwriting and a cult career in prose, become his most enduring literary achievement: the explication of Raymond Roussel. These appeared in the second issue (#34) of Stéphane Cordier’s publication Documents — a special issue entitled Intervention surréaliste — alongside the Belgian Surrealist manifesto, Roger Callois’ condemnation of the burning of the Reichstag, poems by Tristan Tzara and Paul Éluard, and essays by René Crevel and André Breton. By 1948 Ferry was, as Jean-Paul Clébert put it in his Dictionnaire du surréalisme, “deploying his first geomental maps of the Roussellian universe.”

It was not until 1953 that Jean Lévy formally published the first of three exegeses of Roussel, which were to become landmarks in the field, and make him the premier expert in Roussel of his day. Une Étude sur Raymond Roussel [A Study of Raymond Roussel] arrived prefaced by André Breton’s essay “Fronton-Virage” from publisher Éric Losfeld; Une Autre étude sur Raymond Roussel [Another Study of Raymond Roussel] followed from the Collège de ’Pataphysique in 1964, with a reprint in Bizarre magazine, which Losfeld had created but passed on to Jean-Jacques Pauvert. Three years later, Pauvert published Ferry’s L’Afrique des Impressions [The Africa of Impressions], a detailed analysis that takes Roussel’s text as instructions for reconstructing, in the form of maps, diagrams, and schedules, the events from Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910).

How to sum up Raymond Roussel (1877-1933)? Poet, novelist, playwright, musician, chess expert, homosexual, eccentric, drug addict, dandy, Proust’s neighbor, and probably a suicide — there was simply no one like him. Foucault devoted a book to him, while for Marcel Duchamp he “pointed the way”; Breton called him “the greatest mesmerizer of modern times,” Cocteau “genius in its pure state,” and Proust himself “a formidable poetic apparatus.” Every major French literary and artistic movement of the 20th century cites him as an influence — Dada, ’Pataphysics, Surrealism, Oulipo, the Nouveau Roman — yet he stood apart them from all. He also developed a cult following in the US, inspiring such poets of the New York School and the Beats as John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. He believed, in his own words, that his fame would “outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon,” and yet for most of his life was forced to resort to self-publishing.

Certainly Roussel’s novels are sui generis. In his posthumous How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Roussel details a complex compositional process of formal constraints based on homonymic puns, which Foucault termed “an indefinitely accelerated phonetic scenography”:

Taking the word palmier I decided to consider it in two senses: as a pastry and as a tree. Consideration it as a pastry, I searched for another word, itself having two meanings which could be linked to it by the preposition à; thus I obtained (and it was, I repeat, a long and arduous task) palmier (a kind of pastry) à restauration (restaurant which serves pastries; the other part gave me palmier (palm tree) à restauration (restoration of a dynasty). Which yielded the palm tree in Trophies Square commemorating the restoration of the Talou dynasty.

Ferry was the first to suspect some arcane mechanism behind Roussel’s work, noting that

by practically always using words with at least two meanings, Roussel’s vocabulary was irresistibly reminiscent not of the Symbolist poets’ search for rare terms, but of passionate ‘lovers of crossword puzzles.’

In Jean Ferry’s only book of short fiction, The Conductor and Other Tales, readers will find “Raymond Roussel in Heaven,” really more a sketch than a short story, and an occasion for Ferry to indulge all manner of Rousselian legerdemain in homage to his literary hero. In the first line, Raymond Roussel has died and gone to paradise, where he is met by two of his favorite writers, Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion. There, Roussel’s writing process is no longer arduous to him, and the great man has but to follow “with delirious intoxicating ease the flow of his thoughts, which proceed quite naturally from pensées (thoughts) à merveilles (wonders) to pensées (pansies) à merveilles (a kind of beignet with crinkly edges).”

This, at least, was my initial translation of the line. Taking a cue from the Trevor Winkfield-edited volume of Roussel marginalia, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, I left the double-meaning words in French (it is to be noted that Ferry spells out the double meanings as Roussel never did). But unless specifically justified, leaving things in the original language has always seemed to me a species of the translatorial buck-passing the late William Weaver warned against: “The worst mistake a translator can commit is to reassure himself by saying, ‘that’s what it says in the original.’” When one is paid by the word, one should not shirk. So eventually, the line became, “which proceeded quite naturally from notions (ideas) of nonpareils (peerless things) to notions (knickknacks) of nonpareils (flat, round, bite-sized pieces of chocolate covered with pellets of colored sugar). The use of merveille for a crinkly beignet is, after all, quite specialized indeed, and somewhat dated.

The punning composite of pensée-merveille is of Ferry’s own invention, but elsewhere in the tale, the phrase “rêve usé d’un prétendant refusé” is drawn directly from Roussel:

Ist. Demoiselle (young girl) à prétendant [suitor]; 2nd. demoiselle (pavior’s beetle) à reître en dents [soldier of fortune in teeth]…
I know that I also added to prétendant all those words which could be related to reître; I remember only the first: prétendant refusé [spurned suitor], which I made into rêve usé (blurred dream); hence the solider of fortune’s dream.

This, also detailed in How I Wrote Certain of My Books, refers to the second chapter of Locus Solus, where the subject of a mosaic of human teeth being made by a floating, solar-powered pavior’s beetle (or rammer, a paving tool) is the Scandinavian warrior Aag, who at one point in his saga falls to dreaming in a cave, and later fails to either kidnap or marry a princess. Both “blurred dream” and “spurned suitor” make cameos in Ferry’s story, and I kept them as faithful to pre-existing translations of Roussel.

The French for failure, “échec” — what Roussel considered his life to be — is sometimes punned with “échecs,” or chess, a game Roussel adored. Three months after learning to play, he devised a method for checkmate with bishop and knight. The latter’s positions he described as a “cedilla,” thus replacing the previous Delétang method “with its system of triangles.” In November 1932, Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower devoted an article to Roussel’s method in L’Échiquier [Chessboard]. In Chapter IV of Locus Solus we find a Calaisien (native of Calais) à cédille, no doubt derived from cavalier (knight) à cédille. Ferry’s story, in turn, features a white knight soon to take up the stance of a cedilla.

The Oulipo may have long revered Raymond Roussel, but it took chess to put them in touch. In 1933, almost three decades before cofounding the Oulipo, François Le Lionnais — at the time, a chemical engineer, mathematician, Dada poet, future Regent of the Collège de ’Pataphysique, and editor-in-chief of the chess journal Les Cahiers de l’Échiquier — asked Tartakower to write an article on Roussel. The resulting piece likened the concision of Roussel’s checkmate method to that of Roussel’s prose, and identified him (mistakenly) as “the precursor and head of the Surrealist school.” André Breton, whom this would surely have enraged, confessed in a 1948 letter to Ferry about Roussel that “Without you, I would probably still not see anything in him.” Curiously, the only mentions that Andrew Hugill, in his ’Pataphysics: A Useless Guide, accords Ferry are in relation to Roussel, and yet of course it is to his work on Roussel that Ferry owes his membership in the Collège and his eventual promotion to Satrap. Yet there he made a home for himself. When Ferry died on 26 phalle 101 (by the ’Pataphysical calendar), no less than Raymond Queneau believed the death knell had rung for the Collège, an organization that had been largely overshadowed by its offshoots — most notably the Oulipo, which he had helped to found.

If Roussel was obscure in his lifetime and, despite broad posthumous influence, remains a cult favorite, perhaps Ferry’s compact sketch cannot help being even more obscure, stuffed to the gills as it is with Roussel references. Of all the difficulties on display, perhaps the hardest is the simplest: the word gloire. At once glory, splendor, fame, and dazzling, eternal success, gloire was also a word freighted with very personal meaning for Roussel, tied to a crisis he had after writing his first novel at nineteen. He has described it both in How I Wrote Certain of My Books and case studies by his physician Pierre Janet:

“For several months I was filled with an extraordinary intense sensation of universal glory.”
“As the poet said, you feel a burning sensation at your brow. I felt once that there was a star at my brow and I shall never forget it.”
“This glory was a fact, something ascertained, a sensation, I had glory.”
“What I wrote was wreathed in radiance; I drew the curtains, for fear that the smallest fissure would have let the luminous rays that came from my pen escape; I wanted to raise the curtains all at once and light up the world… But although I took every precaution, rays of light shot forth from me and pierced the walls, I bore the sun inside me and I could not hold back this dazzling brilliance.”
“Each line was repeated thousands of times and I wrote with thousands of flaming pen points.”
“I lived more at that moment than at any in my whole existence.”

Ferry has said there was no danger in his explicating Roussel, because Roussel “gives the bastards no purchase. The ball of water that floats, untouchable, over the kingdom of the birds — c’est lui.” And après lui came not the deluge, but “all of modern literature.”

“The only kind of success I have ever really experienced,” lamented Raymond Roussel, “derived from … my numerous impersonations of actors and ordinary folk.” Roussel claimed to have spent seven years “perfecting each impersonation, frequenting theaters night after night … to study the facial expressions, voice intonations, and gestures of individual actors.” Which is to say, Raymond Roussel was, in his own lifetime, best received when least himself.

A certain estrangement also hovers over Ferry’s life. Ferry spent much of his screenwriting career not on original work, but adaptations. It is tempting to draw parallels here between the author overshadowed by his hero, and the adaptor overshadowed by original material. Adaptors, like translators, are supposed to stay in the shadows, their hands at best glimpsed as they thrust the work of others into the light. But today we know better. Adaptation, like translation, is the birthing of a new work in a new medium, its originality mirroring or rivaling that of the original. It is certain that Ferry’s work in a large part made Roussel what he is today, bringing the neglected eccentric’s work to a wider circle of readers, influential writers and critics poised not only to resurrect Roussel’s reputation in France but to make it known it abroad.

“Raymond Roussel in Heaven” is a heartfelt (but, being Ferry) inimitably tongue-in-cheek homage, where Ferry animates his master’s ascension to the pantheon. When last we see Roussel, he is impersonating God — who else? — before an audience of appreciative angels. If Ferry has followed his master into obscurity, perhaps it is time he too was brought to the light.


Jean Ferry (1906–1974) made his living as a screenwriter for such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel and Louis Malle, cowriting such classics as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Quai des orfèvres and script-doctoring Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis. He was the first serious scholar and exegete of the work of Raymond Roussel (on whom he published three books) and a member of the Collège de ’Pataphysique.

Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation Prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the Lannan Foundation, the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, the Villa Gilet, the Banff Centre, Ledig House, and ALTA. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Conjunctions, and The Coffin Factory. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.