Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Notes — French Noir, Questions of Translation and Existence

My brother once made the suggestion that I pick one of my books, have it translated into another language, find another translator, who is unaware of its source, to translate it back. Of course, I would risk the possibility that the final translation back into English would be better than the original — an unnecessarily humbling notion.  Even so, I think this is a remarkable idea.

I could test it with one of the books already translated into another language. Concrete Pillow (Il Cuscino Di Pietra) exists in Italian, for example.  My desktop translator says the title means The Pillow of Stone.  Close Enough.  Another book of mine was translated into German.  Eclipse of the Heart became Die Tequila Falle, or The Tequila Case, which scares me a little. Though parts of it took place in Mexico, I’m not sure tequila was even mentioned.  How was the rest of the book translated? The tasty beverage certainly had nothing to do with the plot. Given the limited and sad stereotypical nature of the translation, it could have been worse — maybe The Burrito Caper or The Sinister Siesta. It makes me wonder how the rest of the book was rendered.

However, the important thing is that if you find a really fine book, originally written in a language not your own, surely the translator deserves considerably more credit than he or she usually gets.  Such is the case with Reticence by acclaimed Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint and translated by Vancouver native John Lambert, who now lives in Berlin.  I have no idea what it might be like to read the book in French. But it was a pure delight in English.  I don’t use the word “delight” lightly.  The beauty of the book is not exactly what it says as much as how it says it, whatever it actually is.

What Reticence does, among other things, is illustrate that a translator does not just substitute words from one language into another.  Anyone who has tried to use an on-line translation understands how sentences are regularly and often hilariously butchered. 

Here is an example taken from the book jacket of the German translation of my own book translated back to English: “Ronald Tierney could be gay son of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, the doyens of the voltage the pair had been. Tierney draws the reader into its spell, cultivates voltage up, up to the last its notion, and he saves not with joke and mockery.” I’m sure the publisher meant all of this as an enticement from the publisher to buy the book.  No doubt it sounded better in German.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint
But in Reticence we not only have translation of words, a deep sensitivity for the intent of the word, but also for the creation of mood. Here, these abilities are critical. The translator of this book had still another challenge, that of subtext, an essential nuance that if missed, would miss the reason for the book’s existence.  I could have said that in French, I suppose. They have a perfectly good phrase for that.

What should I tell you about the book?  I’m not sure I should say anything.  Bare bones description: A man, accompanied by a child, arrives in a village to meet a man.  We quickly understand that the man may or may not be there and that our narrator/protagonist may or may not be stalked by the man who may or may not be there. It seems that there has been a murder or maybe not?  Could be that the murder is about to happen. Could the victim be the possible stalker or the narrator? And the murderer?  Same possibility. Then we have the rain and the gray Mercedes. And phone booths, not to mention a lighthouse?

There is lots of darkness.  There is much foreboding.  There are endless noirish descriptions and tons of suspense.

“The moon was almost full in the sky, veiled in part by long wisps of black cloud that slid across its halo like lacerated strips of cloth….I could see the port in front of me now,  lit by the long beam of light from the lighthouse on Sasuelo Island that appeared fleetingly in the night and swept over the jetty for an instant before disappearing immediately beyond the horizon.  I advanced silently along the dock with my hands dug deep in my pockets and looked at the dead cat floating in the darkness a couple of yards from the jetty.”

If the translator were some sort of journeyman wordsmith, we would get nothing from the book.  All that can be gotten is gotten (suddenly I sound German) from the very specific choice of words and the imagery they produce. The very fact that the story goes nowhere is somewhere. And that is, perhaps, saying more than I should.

The Paris Review called Reticence, “Dreamy and funny and haunted in a way all his own.”  I would think that lovers of noir will either be insulted or be highly amused by it.

Either way, the translator deserves considerable praise.

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