Translation Notes · 10/03/2013

The Fata Morgana Books

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Charlotte Mandell writes about translating The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell (Two Lines Press).

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I think I received the first Fata Morgana book in the mail, sent by Jonathan Littell, in the summer of 2007. This was Etudes, and I remember being surprised by how short it was (after the 1000-page Kindly Ones). Then came Récit sur rien in 2009, followed soon after by En pièces in 2010. In each case I did no more than leaf quickly through the book, trying not to read too much — because of one of my few Rules of Translation: Never read the book before I translate it. I read as I translate, so that the translation becomes more of a creative process: I’m creating the book in English as I’m reading it, learning it the way a reader would discover it. The way a writer writes it, one word at a time. When I’m done, of course, I go over my translation and revise again and again until I’m happy with the final draft. If I read a book beforehand, it would feel dead to me — and it would feel untranslatable. I like not knowing what comes next, both as a reader and as a translator.

So I was very happy when CJ Evans at Two Lines expressed interest in publishing the books. CJ heard about me through Scott Esposito (who knew of me through my translation of Zone, and was instrumental in connecting me to Zone’s eventual publisher, Chad Post at Open Letter, for which I’m very grateful), and they both had the brilliant idea of going straight to the source and asking translators what translations needed to be published; I recommended Mathias Énard’s then recently-published book about Michelangelo, Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants, and Jonathan Littell’s Récit sur rien, which I had just translated because I couldn’t wait any more to read it.

I liked the dreaminess in Littell, and the questionability of the nameless narrator — it reminded me a little of Camus’ L’étranger in its objective style, but also of Maurice Blanchot’s récits, the straightforward but at the same time dreamy quality of the narrative. Récit sur rien also reminded me of the medieval song that Max Aue reads in The Kindly Ones, the “Vers de dreyt nien,” Poem About Nothing At All, by the great Guillaume de Poitou, first of the troubadours.

After CJ Evans’ go-ahead, then, I set to work in earnest and translated the rest of the books, starting with Études, which are early pieces that Jonathan wrote before he wrote The Kindly Ones. My method was (and is) to translate everything first, then send it to Jonathan, who would read it and make some suggestions and corrections, and then we would have a dialogue about word choice, if I disagreed with any of his changes. This method works well for me, since when I first translate a book I need to work alone — it has to be just the book and me, with no author involved.

In the case of the Fata Morgana books, I seem to recall the changes as being for the most part quite minor — matters of punctuation and sentence structure, mostly. There’s a story in Etudes, called “Fait Accompli,” which has a lot of commas — it’s a series of run-on sentences, basically — and Jonathan wanted to use more commas and fewer periods. Here are our two versions, mine first:

Talking, then, a conversation in short, like many others. But whoever says ‘conversation’ says ‘scene,’ it’s a convention of the genre. So the conversation takes place in a park, by the side of a grey pond, in the racket of cars and trams going by them, between two rows of trees including chestnuts, recognizable from their eggplant-shaped leaves and especially from the chestnuts strewing the ground. It’s fall and the already yellow leaves on the trees including chestnut trees are falling and strewing the ground and floating on the grey water of the pool and often raised in heaps by the cars and trams passing right next to them, and their sad footsteps tread on the yellow and brown leaves and a few rare chestnuts and many husks, the green ones freshly fallen and the brown ones yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s, shaken from the chestnut branches by filthy kids who have gathered the chestnuts for their slingshots, hence their rarity, but they left the husks, hence their ubiquity. No that won’t work. Let’s say rather a subway station, by for instance the Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow subway, chosen at random, with all along its vaulted ceiling its pretty oval mosaics, planes, aircraft, parachutists, young Soviet athletic types bursting with health and joy, all the way to the end of the long hall with at the end the bust of the poet, the filthy bust, the filthy poet. They are walking, she with her ashamed and suffering eyes fixed on the concrete of the platform, he with his face raised to the mosaics, the fragments of colors stuck between the arches, this imaginary innocence. No that won’t work either. In fact they’re sitting down since thinking about it has tired them too much to walk.

Jonathan’s version:

Talking, then, a conversation in short, like many others. Yet a conversation means a scene, no escaping convention. The conversation thus takes place in a small park, by the side of a grey pond, in the clatter of buses and trolleys passing close by, between two rows of trees among which are chestnut trees, recognizable by their eggplant-shaped leaves and especially by the chestnuts strewing the ground. It’s fall and the yellowing leaves on the trees including on the chestnut trees are falling and strewing the ground and floating on the grey water of the pond and are sent whirling by the buses and the trolleys passing close by, and as for them their sad footsteps tread on the yellow and brown leaves and a few rare chestnuts and many husks, the green ones freshly fallen and the brown ones yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s, shaken from the chestnut branches by filthy brats who collect the chestnuts for their slingshots, hence rare, but leave the husks, hence many. No that won’t do. Let’s say then instead a subway station, for instance, at random, the Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow subway, with all along its vaulted ceiling its pretty oval mosaics, planes, blimps, parachutists, young athletes bursting with Soviet health and joy, all the way down the long hall with at the very end the bust of the poet, the foul bust, the foul poet. They are walking, she with her ashamed and suffering eyes fixed on the concrete of the platform, he with his face raised to the mosaics, the fragments of colors planted between the arches, all this imaginary innocence. No that won’t do either. In fact they are sitting since thinking about this has tired them too much to walk.

I like the changes Jonathan made here — I tend to be over-literal as a translator and to adhere too closely to the text; Jonathan makes the translation more colloquial, a little less stiff. Over the years I’ve worked with Jonathan, he has taught me to be a little freer with my translations, to adhere more to the spirit of the text — something I’m very grateful for. It’s rare that a translator can work closely on a text with its author, since most authors aren’t as fluent in the ‘into’ language as Jonathan is. I feel ours is a true collaboration, one that helps me grow as a translator, and for that I’m very grateful.

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Jonathan Littell received the Prix Goncourt for his 2006 novel The Kindly Ones, called by Time magazine “unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer.” A former worker for Action Against Hunger in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, he is the author of several works in French.

Charlotte Mandell is the translator of numerous award-winning works of innovative French literature, among them The Kindly Ones, Zone by Mathias Enard, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard, and works by Proust, Blanchot, and Jacques Rancière. She lives in New York City.