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Edward Gauvin on Being Translated

By Edward Gauvin

Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud recently did me the honor not only of translating one of my short stories, but of finding that translation a French home. My first published translation, and Châteaureynaud’s English debut, was eight years ago here in these very pages; to date I have translated twenty-nine of his short stories (twenty-three in the 2010 Small Beer collection A Life on Paper). His translation of my story appeared last month in the one hundredth issue of Brèves, one of a few French venues to run short fiction, and among the valiant holdouts wholly devoted to the form, a labor of love from editorial couple Daniel and Martine Delort. Although it is true that arts funding is generally more generous in Europe, the American short story scene, bemoan though it may its embattled state, positively thrives when compared to the French. As one of French short fiction’s leading lights, Châteaureynaud had been a longtime contributor to Brèves, and the Delorts were tickled to welcome him into its pages as a translator for the first time. The favor is not without precedent; especially in Europe, where translation is less a subliterary activity than one of many hats a writer can wear, import can become exchange, the most notable contemporary French example being Brian Evenson and Claro.

Châteaureynaud has shown interest in my writing ever since finding out I wrote. This stems from not only his natural benevolence but his habit as that rarity in France, a creative writing teacher; he has for decades taught summer workshops for the Prix du jeune écrivain. I have never known him to be less than encouraging to anyone when it comes to any literary activity. Early in our correspondence, he had read a handful of my stories; taken with one, “A Portrait in the Attic” (recently published in The Coachella Review), he had offered to translate it. I seemed to see, through the lens of this compliment, why the story would attract him. Its young male protagonist was hapless and ignorant, it flirted with the fantastic and ended on a wistful note—all elements that had drawn me to Châteaureynaud’s own fiction. The question, of course, was one of time.

By early 2012, I had written a new story, “My Father’s Hand.” Fathers—missing, flyby, irresponsible—are an abiding theme in Châteaureynaud, whose 2007 opus The Other Shore unfolds something like the plot of Mamma Mia! in a city on the banks of the river Styx. “The search for fathers, for origins,” he has said, “is the search for self.” My story was about fathers, sons, and rage. It also had the virtue of being short (six pages). A few rounds of e-mails ensued, Châteaureynaud dusting off the college English that had allowed him in his formative years to enjoy Wells and Stevenson in the original. Christine Bini, the leading Châteaureynaud scholar and a blogger for Le nouvel observateur (“A Readeress At Work”), contributed editorial expertise. “I righted these and left,” I had written in a scene where the narrator replaces candles he knocked over. Impossible to replicate this wordplay in French, wrote Châteaureynaud with surprising anguish. I had to laugh, for from an infelicity of phrasing had arisen an illusory challenge.

The result that satisfied us both bears the usual hallmarks of translation: clauses freed to be their own sentences, metric measurements replacing standard, changes in word choice where one language offers greater exactitude or comes more swiftly to the point (especially obvious with verbs). In an earlier draft, “microdot” had been replaced with “jeweler’s mark,” a shift in cultural reference that delighted me, but Châteaureynaud later changed it (perhaps because he himself had used it in descriptions?).  I approved, in a list of items, trading the plate of an electrical outlet for a soapdish simply because it sounded better. Relocated alliterations, negotiations with references . . . people who adapt works from one medium to another are regularly allowed liberties based on acknowledged differences between media formats, constraints both technological and cultural. Why shouldn’t translators have the same leeway? Perhaps lexical and syntactical rules can be seen as format constraints to be negotiated in adapting from the medium of one language to another (especially when the broadcast reach of English today so far outstrips that of most other languages).

The theme of Brèves #100 is reading, and referring to Châteaureynaud’s translation in their preface as a tribute to all the translators their pages have hosted, les éditeurs Delort remind us that “There are no great writers who are not also great readers.” If translation is the closest reading, then your own work translated is like that draft you’ve set aside till you can see it with fresh eyes: it feels like someone else wrote it. Renewal and estrangement ensue, which is the perfect starting point for revision. Châteaureynaud has said he sees himself in my translations of him; what do I see in his of me? Has an original kinship of theme and content extended to style? Is “La main de mon père” more a Châteaureynaud story? Châteaureynaud’s own prose has evolved greatly over his career. He’s admitted as much. His early work now feels “overwritten” to him; he was “an insecure young writer trying to prove himself.” Certainly his recent work tends to more straightforward narration. (I have a private theory that those who start out poets, trying to name the world—Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Byrne—later turn into storytellers, ruefully recording it. C’mon, which has a clearer narrative line: “The Sound of Silence” or “Still Crazy After All These Years”?) Despite Châteaureynaud’s mastery of the rhythms of French prose, I am astonished by how many details I bothered to specify, when the underlying story is rather simple. These details all seemed vital, darlings I couldn’t kill in English, but defamiliarized by a foreign language, they can feel like clutter. Which is not to say we should tend toward that “absolutely translatable” style Tim Parks worries will become internationally embraced for its ease.

Though lacking American-style university backing, the French short fiction market is steadily improving, largely through the rise of small and independent presses. Translators interested in the French short story scene are encouraged to check out Brèves, now in its thirty-eighth year of publication. In addition to short fiction, issues feature reviews and interviews and are often themed by author, genre or movement, and even country. Romania, Oceania, Norway, Mexico: Brèves has long been international in scope. Back issues, once difficult to obtain outside France, are slowly being digitized. “My Father’s Hand” has just been published in the Kenyon Review. Châteaureynaud’s latest stories are forthcoming in Exotic Gothic V, edited by Danel Olson, and an as-yet untitled Penguin anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer.

Published Mar 8, 2013   Copyright 2013 Edward Gauvin

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