April 19, 2013
English-language readers might have at long last become acquainted with one of the most-lauded voices in French literature last year when Knopf published Marie NDiaye’s book Three Strong Women to very strong reviews (“NDiaye is a hypnotic storyteller with an unflinching understanding of the rock-bottom reality of most people’s lives,” said The New York Times). The fact that she was also just shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (alongside such giants as Marilynne Robinson and Lydia Davis) probably also brought her a few more well-deserved readers.
Three Strong Women is a difficult-to-classify book, which takes the form of three thematically linked long stories (or possibly novellas), shows NDiaye’s rare ability to take time-worn forms and make them her own. That capacity is further on display in All My Friends, which will be published by Two Lines Press in on May 21 of this year. Instead of three tales this volume includes five, all of which sit somewhere between novella and story, or story and parable. What remains the same are NDiaye’s labyrinthine sentences, her strange but all-too-human characters, and her plotlines that hold up to (or maybe require) multiple reads.
In order to delve into what makes NDiaye’s work so special, I interviewed the translator of All My Friends, Jordan Stump. No stranger to innovative writing, Stump has discovered and translated some of contemporary French’s most astonishing, innovative authors, including Eric Chevillard, John-Philippe Toussaint, and Marie Redonnet. Here we talk about how NDiaye’s prose is constructed, what motivates her characters, and how to preserve the unique feel of her prose when bringing it in to another language.
When did NDiaye first become lodged in your mind as a writer whose work you wanted to translate? Can you talk a little bit about how you became acquainted with her work and the features of her writing that stood out to you as something you would find interesting to work with?
I discovered her work in the early 90s; I’d become an enthusiastic fan of the writers that the Editions de Minuit was beginning to publish in those days (Jean Echenoz, Eric Chevillard, Marie Redonnet, etc), and so tried to read everything that came out of that publishing house. The first book by NDiaye that I read was her novel En famille, and I was struck by its difference from the other Minuit books. The other Minuit writers are all brilliant and complicated, but you sort of know what to do with their books, how to read them, how to feel about them. Not so with NDiaye. Her strange, seemingly aimless stories, uncomfortably straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, at once vague and detailed, thoroughly grounded in a very familiar world but at the same time tinged with something dreamlike, left me slightly perplexed and disoriented. That’s the first thing that struck me: her resistance (to definition, to easy understanding). And then of course her language: poetic but never highflown, precise but teasingly nebulous. I’ve been wanting to translate her for a long time (struck by the odd beauty of her books, I wanted to create that same beauty myself—that’s how I pick all my books), but never had the chance, for practical reasons (because the translation rights had already been bought, because I had other projects that got in the way). A few years ago I tried to translate her novel Mon coeur à l’étroit, but I found my translation so feeble and unconvincing that I abandoned it. And then, a few years later, I tried again with her Autoportrait en vert, and this time I told myself I wasn’t going to give up. As I did that translation, going through revision after revision, I gradually came to feel that I was finding a voice by which to translate hers. Autoportrait hasn’t yet found a publisher (it’s a very short book, not the sort of thing most publishers want), but doing it taught me how to translate her. Which is not to say that translating Tous mes amis wasn’t a struggle. She is most emphatically not an easy writer to translate.
You’ve worked with some of the most innovative French-language authors to appear in English in recent years, among the Eric Chevillard, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Marie Redonnet. How does NDiaye’s prose compare to theirs, either as a reader or as a translator?
Over the years, I’ve decided that, from a translator’s point of view, there are two kinds of writers: some have a very tough and sturdy style that can be messed around with a great deal and still sound like itself, and others have a very delicate, precarious style that is very easily deformed in translation. Chevillard is perhaps the best example of that first type: you can turn his sentences around, break them up into shorter sentences, replace one bit of wordplay with another, range far afield for your word choices, and as long as you’re attentive and imaginative the result will still sound like Chevillard. NDiaye is a writer of the second type. As I said, her language is sort of balanced between poetic and prosaic, and if you go just a little bit too far in either direction it loses all its character. The vagueness of her narrative (by which I mean that she often refuses to give us the context that would make her meaning entirely perceptible) is also hard to reproduce. The translator’s impulse is always to find some way to explain anything that isn’t abundantly clear in the text, and that reflex has to be reined in, even as one has to find a way to make the text clear enough, and to make it clear that it isn’t supposed to be entirely clear. No translation is ever easy, but so much of NDiaye’s writing is a matter of careful, unlikely balance that the text can easily be ruined even by a translator with the best of intentions.
I really get a sense of that challenge you’re talking about, even only having read the English translation. NDiaye is very good at undermining your confidence in her narrators, yet not making you completely lose faith in them. The prose moves from third-person to first, often within a single sentence, and what you get from the omniscient narrator might contradict what’s in the character’s head. Or sometimes there are two different characters parsing out the same event. The resulting tension is very interesting. I feel it more as a negotiation between two different possible realities than a case of one character simply being illusioned. You mentioned that this kind of writing is easier to deform in translation than someone like Chevillard—why would you say that is?
I think you hit the nail on the head with that idea of a negotiation between two possible realities. NDiaye’s writing tends to very carefully straddle a line between two meanings or two experiences. Here’s an example from the first story in All My Friends: the narrator walks into a post office, and “at that very moment some sort of mirror mysteriously hanging in the very atmosphere of that cramped post office reflects a new image of [him]”: it sort of sounds like there’s simply a mirror on the post-office wall, but it also sounds like a mirror has magically appeared in the air, visible to the narrator alone, and the translator has to make sure that both of those readings are present in the translation, and not come down either on the side of the everyday or of the supernatural. Compare this to someone like Chevillard, whose writing draws heavily on puns and paradoxes. There, too, you’ve got to convey two ideas at once, but you want to be sure that the reader sees and understands both. With NDiaye you want the reader not to be entirely sure what he or she has seen. That’s much harder, in my experience.
Let’s talk a little concretely about these stories. The first one, “All My Friends,” is about a school teacher whose maid, a young woman named Severine, was his student roughly a decade ago. This man continues to try and insinuate himself into various kinds of relationships with Severine —even hiring her as his maid is a sort of very obtuse way of doing that. He needs something from her, and it’s not altogether clear to me that Severine is completely aware of it, but nevertheless she flatly denies him any sort of entry. It struck me that on one level this is what these stories are about: being unable to give something to someone, the question of how to form a relationship with someone who refuses it. What do you think is motivating this man?
Right. We don’t know quite what he wants from her, and we don’t know if she realizes he wants it. A lot of NDiaye’s writing is about a feeling of senseless, inexplicable exclusion on the part of one’s family, one’s colleagues, etc. The narrator of “All My Friends” feels that exclusion intensely: abandoned by his wife, despised by his house, guilty of some vague crime against his wife and children… He prides himself on his popularity as a teacher, and yet this former student of his seems not even to remember him, and even when she was his student she seemed determined to learn nothing from him. In the first pages of the story, his desire for her recognition has distinctly sexual overtones, but gradually (I think) it becomes clear that that’s not really what it is. He wants her to acknowlege him, he wants her to obey him (to leave her husband and take up anew with her boyfriend from high-school days). And maybe it’s not really about her at all, or at least not exclusively. He wants time to stop, he wants change never to have come into his life, he wants a kind of hold over the world that he most definitely does not have now, if he ever did. Or more simply, he wants, and he can’t have.
One of my favorite stories in this book, and one that really combines these two aspects of NDiaye’s writing that we’ve discussed in the past two questions, is the last one, “Revelation.” It’s the shortest one in the book, just 5 pages in our edition, but it’s incredibly rich. It’s the one that reminds me the most of Kafka. In it, a mother is taking her young son on a bus trip; she’s going to drop him off somewhere, and never see him again. You get the definite sense that she’s abandoning him. Throughout this story NDiaye gives us hints that the son is somehow afflicted, but it’s all very ambiguous: “he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid,” thinks the mother at one point. Interestingly, the other passengers seem to view this son quite differently from the mother: “And why did the simple act of turning their gaze toward that son’s beatific, distant face seem to illuminate them with such happiness?” I really feel that sense of exclusion you’re talking about here —both the son and mother seem to be excluded from each other, even though their love for one another is clear. I don’t know whom to feel worse for, the mother or the son. Do you feel like this sense of exclusion that NDiaye evokes so much in this book is a contemporary sensation—possibly springing from globalization and/or the increase in technological mediation—or something with longer roots?
Yes, that’s a wonderful story, and a wrenching way to end the book. After all these stories about alienation and separation, about the intense need to be acknowledged by others and also to control others, we finally reach this sort of happy ending: here, at last, is a person (the mother) who has found a way to accept another person’s existence, to feel a genuine fondness for him—but only by getting rid of him. Only by missing him can she love him; having him around is unbearable. A very cruel happy ending, entirely in keeping with NDiaye’s unflinching observation of the sadder and harder side of human nature. There is indeed something very modern in her characters’ sense of exclusion—“The Boys” and “The Death of Claude François” allude explicitly to the role of the interent and popular culture, respectively, in the creation of aspirational identities that torment us with their unattainability—but I’d say that their anguish is most definitely of a far more primordial sort. Earlier on, you mentioned the idea of an inability to give something to someone, and the frustrated longing to get something from someone, which I think is exactly right. I would think that that paradoxical pair of impossibilities is endemic in human consciousness. As soon as the idea “I am” exists, the problem of the other arises. That person “is” too, and with that what hope is there for reconciliation or mutual acceptance?
Another thing you touch on in your previous answer is that these stories all have interesting lacunae. For instance, in “The Boys,” a story about a young boy named Rene who dreams of selling himself to some shadowy people, just as his older brother did. In this story you never quite find out what Rene wants to sell himself into. Of course one would imagine it’s something terrible like child prostitution, but NDiaye never makes it clear. In a way, these lacunae are the most important things about the story—they hold so much of the characters’ fascination and hopes—but in another way it’s not really important that you don’t find out exactly what they are. The stories function just fine, or are arguably improved, but withholding. Did you find it challenging to maintain these spaces in the translation?
Yes, because in a sense you have to go against your readerly reflexes. As a reader, you spot those lacunae and you fill them in (you come up with your own explanation for what “being bought” signifies for René, or for what exactly has happened or is happening to Brulard in “Brulard’s Day”). Readers do that spontaneously, coming up with a provisional explanation for anything that the story leaves unspoken. I have my own idea of what awaits René, and of what has happened to Brulard, and that’s simply because I’m doing my job as a reader; the vitally important thing as a translator is not to let your own understanding of the story taint, however discreetly, your rendering of it. (And one can easily commit that misdeed, by one’s word choices, by the tone one adopts…) For me, translation is a process of continual rethinking. You have to revise your translation again and again, without looking at the original, so that it will work as a text to be read in English; but at the same time, you’ve got to be continually going back to the original, making sure that in all your revisions you’re not drifting away from the text, making it too vague or too clear, too limpid or too crabbed, and so on. Many of the challenges of translation, I think, can be gotten around by that process of continual rethinking and revision. It takes a lot of work and concentration. That’s why I only choose to translate books that, like this one, thoroughly fascinate or trouble me. I can’t imagine doing all that work for a book that doesn’t give me anything back. And, in my experience at least, NDiaye’s writing always repays that kind of careful attention.
I very much agree with that. When I was preparing for this interview, I simply began reading these stories again straight through, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience. The sentences are so strange that they feel as fresh as the first time you read them, and you can begin to savor new things about them. For instance, this sentence, from the beginning of “The Death of Claude Francois”: “And the woman who looked like Marlene Vador, and who was Marlene Vador, since she’d said so, added, teasing and vaguely put out.” That simple notion of Marlene Vador confirming her own identity, which NDiaye elongates over two clauses, drives home just how strange it is that her friend Zaka has seen her again after all these years. We’ve all done this: “yes, that must be so-and-so because he’s said so, but it’s hard to believe.” I also like how the sentence moves from outside to inside Marlene Vador. We begin it looking at her and we and end it inside her head, and that middle clause, “since she said so” is where we pivot from one to the other. I can only image the work of translating these sorts of sentences. Do you feel that there’s something about the French language that lends itself to these kinds of sentences?
Yes, absolutely. French looks much more kindly on wandering, complex sentences than English does, and NDiaye takes full advantage of that every opportunity. The difficulty of the translator, of course, is that this aspect of the author’s style has to be preserved, while at the same time not being too off-putting for an American reader. The answer to that, as with so much of translation, is endless revision and rethinking. Sometimes the differences between languages can’t be overcome. In the first story, for instance, the French reader learns very early on (in the sixth paragraph) that the narrator is a man, thanks to the presence of two adjectives in their masculine form; in the translation, the gender of the narrator isn’t made explicit until he sees himself in the mirror in the post office. Does that make any difference? That’s the kind of question translators have to be asking themselves at every moment, and generally the answer is extremely unclear.
Related to the previous question, do you have ways of knowing when you should stop trying to polish a translation? I’m guessing there would be points where you might be sanding down purposely rough edges or making things a little too much your own if you revise past a certain point . . .
That’s a real danger. That’s why one of the very last steps when I’m doing a translation is to have my wife read the translation to me while I follow along in French. For one thing, that allows me to find missing sentences (a surprisingly common occurrence in translation) or unlovely repetitions; it also gives me another reader, who hasn’t read the original, and who can tell me if a sentence sounds vague or off or ambiguous; but perhaps most importantly, it forces me to confront all the spots where I might have taken liberties with the text, and to ask myself once again if I can justify doing so. If I were given the chance, I imagine I could go on polishing a translation more or less forever (having a deadline is a real help), but I begin to think that a translation is close to done when I can read it and hear a consistent, intense voice that is not my own. Doing lots and lots of revisions builds up the text layer by layer; get enough of those layers and you have a piece of writing that you would never have been able to do at one go, that sounds like it comes from somewhere other than you: that’s when it’s done.
In conclusion, I’d like to go back to your reading of “Revelation,” which I find very interesting. This idea that it’s a happy ending because this is how the mother is permitted to love her son. It brings to mind one of the things Publishers Weekly said in their review of the book, that NDiaye “prefers a kind of lacerating sincerity.” Often in love that’s what is required, though it is very difficult to reach that point, as the mother no doubt knows. It strikes me that each of these stories revolves around the difficulty of letting go, whether of the object of love, affection, or obsession. In my reading of the book, that’s what makes these stories feel so relevant to me, even though the situations are ones I’m not likely to be in. What do you see as NDiaye’s focal point here?
I think “the difficulty of letting go” says it very nicely. From another point of view, each of these stories depicts an episode of panic (with, again, “Revelation” as the calm if more than a little pointed resolution); the characters are all desperate, in one way or another, and sink deeper and deeper into that desperation within each story and from one story to the next (an image that comes up toward the end of “Brulard’s Day,” when she has to hold on to the arms of her chair so she won’t be sucked into the avocado-green sink she’s seeing in a sort of vision, is to my mind one of the most frightening depictions of panic I’ve ever read, in part because of the sheer banality of that avocado-green sink). I don’t know that she’s trying to say anything about panic, but it’s clear that it’s another thread that runs through these stories.
JORDAN STUMP is a two-time nominee for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He has translated books by many leading innovative French-language authors. They include Nobel laureate Claude Simon, as well as Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Eric Chevillard, Jean Ricardou.