Interviewed by Carrie Guss and Sabrina Jaszi
If we were doing this interview in person, we’d ask you to perform your life’s history in interpretive dance. Since we don’t have that luxury, do you think you could tell it to us in five sentences or less?
I was born in a crossfire hurricane. I lived a few weeks while she loved me. I heard a fly buzz when I died. If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born…
You’ve been recognized primarily for your work as a translator. Do you write your own fiction as well? How does writing a translation differ from other kinds of writing that you’ve done?
I do write my own fiction, often with a fantastical bent. I’m currently in the PhD fiction program at USC.
A translation is a reading. The source material is usually finished. In this sense the translator and reader, or the critic, share a teleological view: from the overlook the ending provides, we try to trace a path backward. The source material is the story of how we got here. Meaning is what we construct to explain why here, instead of anywhere else at all. And the translation, a map of the translator’s comprehension, reinforces that perceived meaning. The story can no longer be changed, a character diverted from his or her choices. This is not true of writing. While writing, anything is possible. The finickiness translation requires can be death to first-drafting original fiction.
Translators worry nuance because of all the tools at a fiction writer’s disposal, the only ones remaining to a translator I might qualify as formal or poetic, pertaining largely to language sound and surface. The translator can effect a number of small changes that, taken together, denature or flatten, highlight or elicit the feel of the original.
How is a translation born? Are you frequently approached to translate or are you more often the pursuer?
Anything published in a literary journal is something I chose to translate. For several years, I made my living as a freelance translator, mostly of creative but nonliterary projects, and so the focus on short fiction (aside from a personal fondness for the form) was born of necessity: I could wedge stories in between pay work and send them out to periodicals.
Generally where literary projects are concerned I am the proposer, and not the pursued. I think this is partly due to my areas of predilection—fantastical fiction falls outside the prevailing definitions of Francophone literature—and partly because there’s just so much quality work out there, from writers dead and alive: surely enough for everyone to discover their own niche.
I have only successfully initiated two full-length book projects as a translator. I find this mostly thankless, paperwork and endless email pitches—the translator as agent is another discussion entirely—but it is probably an important experience in today’s publishing climate. And often it’s the only way certain books see the light of day—though it’s also a great deal of time that I can’t help feeling would be better spent actually writing or translating.
I am always flattered to be approached, especially—though not exclusively—with an offer of payment.
How do you decide what to translate?
A variety of reasons: because it wins me over. Because I want to figure out how it works. Because it’s difficult, and I want to see if I can do it. Because, whether through familiarity or foreignness, it seems a potentially valuable addition to some discourse of fiction I recognize here stateside, a discussion that might be enriched were the story in question to join it and be heard or included. Because there’s someone specific I want to share it with. Because it’s short, and I need the practice. Because I want to be the first. Because, when reading for the first time, I can already hear it, whispering to me in English, ever so seditiously but not to be denied.
I knew before heading to Belgium on my Fulbright that I wanted to work on Willems. He was an Antwerp native, a major figure of the final generation of Flemish Francophone fabulists: Flemings whose education and primarily irrealist literary output occurred in French. After WWII, the problematic relationship of the French language to more than half the country of Belgium became a more public issue than ever before, placing Flemish Francophones in a problematic relationship to their fellow Flemings.
Most of Willems’s literary output is plays, but I’d read Kim Connell’s translation of his short story “The Cathedral of Mist” in The Belgian School of the Bizarre, the anthology of fantastical stories Connell put together through Fairleigh Dickinson University Press years after his own Fulbright. “Mist,” the titular tale of one of Willems’s own collections, is one of his most famous stories, and a standout of the Connell anthology.
You received a prominent award for translating fantasy fiction, and the Paul Willems story you translated for Subtropics blurs reality and fantasy. Is there a stigma against fantasy fiction, and if so is it international?
The journey of fantasy is the journey into the self against a backdrop of alterity, but is that landscape doomed merely to allegorize the inner voyage? Is there ever a landscape blank enough to be the simple canvas of the self, and if not, what might its indigenous inhabitants have to say about that? Fantasy has become self-aware in that this narrative, in which the hero is at best tourist and at worst colonizer, and many of the traditional sources of its imagery have been unmasked as politically suspect. In this sense the problem of fantasy is the problem of comparative literature: How can we reconcile the mystery another land exerts on us without Othering, simplifying, demeaning—in short, misrepresenting that land? What does it tell us, and how does it feel, to have one of the first things we learn about Hector be his distinction between “locals” and “natives”?
How has your experience translating comics differed from your experience translating traditional literary fiction?
To be fair, most comics are easier. When they are not, they are difficult in many of the same ways literary fiction is: characters must be individuated by voice, puns and wordplay must be reinvented, language that takes poetic liberties with conventional phrasing must be approached laterally, not literally. Difficulties vary from genre to genre (indie vs. SF stories) rather than medium to medium (comics vs. prose). Comics love concision. English is typically shorter than French, so fitting words into speech balloons, while a unique formal concern, is not usually a challenge, though occasionally with slang it can be.
Do national senses of humor exist? In what contexts have you encountered them most memorably?
There is an old joke that goes:
Q: How does someone from Brussels say “No”?
What are the best words in other languages that don’t have an English equivalent?
Well, more than you could ever love are less than a Google away. But of parallel interest are words of identical meaning but unequal lingual weight—for instance, words that evoke beauty in one language but whose counterparts do not, or words prettier to the foreigner’s ear than a native’s. Luciole, with its delicate Latinate implications of light, is immediately magical, though the Germanic “firefly” has its uses and accommodations. Pamplemousse, I am told, regularly features among the favorite words of American students of French, and perhaps the act of so casually lavishing suppleness on “grapefruit” contributes to the notion (of limited use, like all generalizations), that French is an amorous tongue. Finally, a (possibly obvious) ramification of not having a word in English is not being able to replicate the concision with which it is used in other expressions. What, for instance, are we to make of Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude? “Lulz are the best lolz”?
Do you read as a reader in a different way than you read as a translator? Is there an On/Off switch?
Yes, faster. Because I have flicked the switch to Off.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s story “Final Residence,” translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, appears in Subtropics 14. Gauvin’s translation of Jean Ferry’s “Bourgenew & Co.” appears in Subtropics 16.