As a typical monolingual American, I am in awe of book translators. Their task is so monumental—to bring meaning from one entire linguistic context to another—and they accomplish it with so little fanfare or attention. When the book is unusually strange or challenging, presumably the work of translating it is equally so. And when the book plays on the profession and actions of a translator, is it even possible to make the leap from one native tongue to another?
Those of us who’ve read Emma Ramadan’s remarkable translation of Revenge of the Translator know that the answer is yes, if you hire the right person. The book, a French novel by longtime translator Brice Matthieussent, is one of the most metatextual books ever printed. It concerns a novel by a French writer, N.d.T., being translated by an American, David Grey, and the task of his translation is the content of a novel, Translator’s Revenge, being translated by Trad, who narrates Revenge of the Translator, which is the book printed by Deep Vellum that you can hold in your hand. Chew that around a while, and lift your hands in praise to Emma’s task.
I had to find out what Emma had to say about Revenge of the Translator. I had to find out how she came to do it, and how she felt about the final product, and what she thought about translation in general.
What’s your opinion of Revenge of the Translator? If it’s politic to say?
I adore this book. I think it’s a wonderful and insightful commentary on the way translation is viewed, contained within a super fun, compulsively readable literary (literally) thriller. A translator staying at his author’s apartment only to find it’s been booby-trapped? The translator of a novel entering that novel and sleeping with the protagonist’s love interest, and then hitting the delete key on the sadistic author wreaking havoc on her life?! That’s good stuff.
How did you come to translate this book? Did Deep Vellum approach you, or did you read the book & approach them?
I first heard about Vengeance du traducteur when I was doing my Masters in Cultural Translation at the American University of Paris. Because I became particularly interested in the relationship between author and translator, one of my professors recommended I read it, so I went out and found it and knew I had to translate it. I told Will Evans of Deep Vellum about it and he was on board right away.
Did you work with Brice Matthieussent on the translation at all?
I met with him right as I was about to start translating, to talk about the book generally and to ask him what to do about the ending, which mentions the American translator of the book by name—and that name isn’t my own in the original, obviously, because it was a fabrication for the French book. [Emma’s name and her finger on the translator’s doorbell in Paris appear in the English translation of the book. –Ed.] I was a bit intimidated since his English is so good and I imagine he had ideas about what he wanted to sound like in English, how he would have translated certain parts. But actually he was quite hands-off. He answered my questions when I had them, and read over the book just before it was published and pointed out the few places where I had mixed up someone’s name or something similar. But he didn’t intervene on word choices or tone or voice or anything stylistic, which was both surprising and not—because he is a translator himself, I imagine he treated me the way he prefers to be treated by authors when he is in my place, translating. And I appreciated that very much.
How much English was in the book in the French version? I’m specifically thinking about the phrases the footnotes joked about being “in French in English in the original.”
Oh man, there were a few places towards the beginning where things were in English. And I had to sort out how to address those passages. Translating this book into English specifically was a different beast than if I had been translating it into any other language, because of the play with English and the idea that the book is a French translation of a (nonexistent) English original. My thinking was, as long as the reader understands that basic premise, the layering of languages that gets lost in my English translation is not as important.
Does “N.d.T.” have an obvious meaning in French? Or is it equally mysterious what those letters stand for?
N.d.T. stands for Note du traducteur or Translator’s Note. It’s more obvious to a French reader what this means than to an English reader, but it wouldn’t have made sense for me to translate it into the English T.N. because we’re talking about the title of a French book by Abel Prote which is being translated into English by David Grey. So many layers!
How much linguistic play was sacrificed in the translation process?
There wasn’t so much linguistic play on the word level—a small jeux de mots here and there, maybe, but it was more the overall structure of the novel within a novel, translation within a translation, characters encountering characters, that made the novel difficult to translate. And particularly into English. I felt I was toeing the line of comprehensibility by bringing this fake-French-translation of a fake-English-original into English, and I hope I managed to keep the plot from going entirely off the rails.
Apart from the sprinkling of English in the French, which is just more English in the translation, I don’t think much was lost. Any place he had a play on words, I came up with my own. For example, on page 35, there’s a play with anonymous and autonomous, the translator letting poke through his worrisome ideas about his role. In the French, this is a play on souterrain (underground) and souverain (sovereign). So I think there are always ways to make linguistic play work in translation.
The one place that was quite difficult to retain in the translation was all the plays on the typical N.d.T. acronym at the beginning of the novel. Matthieussent uses this acronym as a form of linguistic game in the first section of the book, to enhance the idea of what you’re reading as translator’s notes that get increasingly more fanciful. Since so many French letters have a rhyming sound, Matthieussent played around with this structure quite a bit. With every note he changes the letters, some of which rhyme with N.d.T. in French, some of which don’t, some of which mean nothing at all. I remember asking Matthieussent about a few of them, sure I was missing something, that they must refer to something on the preceding page, but no, they were just little phrases he had come up with. And so I came up with my own phrases in turn. Because I wanted to keep the letters the same in English as in French, or keep the same ideas behind the phrases, sometimes these ended up looking different in my translation than in the original. It was a challenge, absolutely.
Your phrases like this—“Tender Navigator,” “Trickster’s Net,” “Transatlantic Nubility,”—were delightful. I loved how contemporary and absurd they sometimes were—they helped me to understand early on that this book would subvert my expectations. One of the book’s consistent metaphors is the secret passage, which plays on dual meanings of “passage” – what is the phrase in the French?
The French phrase here is “passage secret” — so “secret passage” in English seemed screamingly obvious, and retains that same dual meaning.
The book makes a connection between the act of translation and the act of sex. What do you think about this analogy?
I think Matthieussent is playing on the clichéd idea of translation as erotic, this idea of words passing from one person to another as a sensual practice. Throughout the book Matthieussent seems to be poking fun at just about every popular translation metaphor. The book is an ode to translation in its unraveling, exploiting, and exploding of all existing tropes about translations and their translators.
Are translations real? Are they better-than-nothing simulations? Or are they futile?
When I translate, I try to give the English reader the same feeling when they read the translation as the French reader had when reading the original. Almost – if the author had written this book in English, what would it sound like and look like and feel like? It won’t ever be a literal translation because languages work differently, things that sound good in French won’t necessarily sound good in English. Slang that sounds gritty and raw in French might sound corny or cringe-worthy in English. An elaborate metaphor might stand up better in French than it does in English. So it’s about trying to make the English feel like the French feels, carrying over the same spirit. It’s my opinion that a good translation will convey that same feeling of the original. If a character is vibrant and touching in the original, they should be in translation. If the sentences are short and choppy and glide the reader right along in the original, they shouldn’t be long-winded in translation. If the vocabulary of the original is low in register, it would do a disservice to the book to use a high register in translation.
Sometimes a particular language will lend itself even better to an author’s voice or style than the original language did, or a play on words or punchline will land better in English than it did in French. That’s a gain. When I think of the idea of loss in translation, I think mostly of the cultural context. Maybe the author of the book I’m translating is making cultural or literary references that an American audience wouldn’t necessarily get. Or maybe certain plays on words or jokes only work if the reader has a certain background knowledge. Maybe their writing style is informed by other authors in their country’s canon. There isn’t always a good solution to this gap in translation. But if the original spirit and feeling of the text is maintained throughout the translation, then, in my mind, the mere existence of this book in a new language for a new audience is in itself a proliferation, a gain.
Translations are just as real as their originals. The idea of a translation being “better than nothing” negates and undermines the incredible amount of work and love translators pour into their projects. Just think of all the world literature we wouldn’t have access to without the work of so many, who toil away with very little recognition. If a translation is allowing us access to a valuable work that would otherwise remain out of reach, how could that ever be futile? Are translations underappreciated? Often. Underpaid? Usually. Futile? Absolutely not.