It’s Emmanuel Carrère who stopped me from writing this article. Right at the moment when I’d planned to knuckle down and sort through the disparate ideas that had occurred to me during the four years I’d spent translating his works, Farrar, Straus and Giroux—which had already published eight of his books in English—sent me the first typeset proofs of The Kingdom, and a month after that the second, asking me each time to read the whole thing over in a fresh light, in preparation for the book’s publication.
Of course the editor didn’t specify just what this fresh light should consist of, but even if I didn’t make many changes, merely correcting typos here and there (no, no, not “robe” but “rope”; no, no, not “green and red” but “green and black”; and please delete the comma before “afterward” on page 99), I reread knowing that I was going to write this article, and managed to discern two points of attack, one stylistic and one methodological, which I’d like to share here with the reader.
Describing his own style, Carrère tells of his effort to blend everything that goes through his head into the same “homogeneous, smooth, richly superimposed material.” His concern is to “always connect one sentence with the next, always look for a smooth transition.” What more can you say? Nothing, if not that day by day, week by week, and month by month, as I navigated toward my own English version, the voyage was never without stylistic surprises—even for an Anglophone reader like myself whose rites of passage had taken him nonetheless from Rabelais to Proust to Céline. Again and again I encountered a case of usage so particular that I wound up naming it the “carrèrism.”
What’s that? First of all, a word I’d like to introduce into the French language here and now. Secondly, a phenomenon I encountered so regularly in Carrère’s writing that, even before I’d recognized its exact traits, I was led to call it just that. “Careful: carrèrism!” I’d say. The Anglo-Saxon world is no stranger to this kind of noun taken from a name. So after the bowdlerism (“expurgation,” named after Thomas Bowdler) and the spoonerism (“reversal of consonants,” named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner), now is the hour of the carrèrism, which I would like to define as follows:
Carrèrism: correct, narrow, and, all things considered, ultraprecise usage of a word better known in a wider sense. Seemingly unexpected and even incongruous at first sight, it is characterized by its implacable exactitude.
It was translating Limonov that I met it for the first time, but, like those individuals who live in a neighborhood into which you’ve just moved, and whose paths you have to cross several times to figure out that in fact they’re neighbors, it was only when I started translating The Kingdom that I finally recognized it for what it was, and drew up a preliminary list. Here are some examples:
“In her last years my godmother slipped into (a versé dans) apocalyptic flights of fancy that left me more than saddened.” (Verser means “to pour.” Here verser dans means “to fall into, to give oneself over to.”) “I remind myself of a wrinkled tablecloth covered with crumbs and more or less appealing leftovers (reliefs), which all of a sudden is shaken out and flaps joyously in the wind.” (Reliefs usually means “contours.” Here it means “scraps, leftovers.”) “Long, groggy spans (plages) punctuated by masturbation.” (As most readers will know, plage most often means “beach.” Here it means “a stretch of time.”) “For reasons I analyzed (agitées) at length and for the most part vainly during analysis, I don’t want our families to be present at the ceremony.” (Agiter normally means “to shake.” English Canadians will know it from their bilingual packaging, where bien agiter invariably translates to “shake well.” Here it means “to discuss, to deal with.”) “Because he’s been a courtier to (pratiqué) three Caesars, and when Nero, the last of the three, was named emperor, he even pushed brownnosing to the point of renaming a city in his little kingdom after him.” (As in English, pratiquer usually means “to practice or do an activity.” Here it means “to meet, to get to know.”)
Carrèrism: correct, narrow, and, all things considered, ultraprecise usage of a word better known in a wider sense.
The discerning reader will perhaps say we’re dealing with a formal usage, no more than that. So be it. But as I now see carrèrisms practically everywhere I look in Carrère’s writing, I’d answer that it’s not just their nature—which many readers will find surprising—but also the regularity with which Carrère uses them that puts him on the cutting edge of the literal sense.
Which gets me to my second idea. Does such precision on the part of the author not also demand an equal precision on the part of the translator? And what does that imply for the translator’s work? Well, I’d say that, aside, of course, from a necessary minimum of complicity between author and translator, a truly successful translation demands clairvoyance.
I’ve often considered the text I’m translating like someone who’s brilliant but timid, and whom I’d like to introduce into a more or less illustrious circle, during an evening soirée, for example. Far from remaining in its shadow, the translator must take the forefront and be the ears, the eyes, the sixth sense of the text, sensing the right moment to put it in a favorable light and allowing it, finally, to shine. Because the real paradox of translation resides in the fact that, precisely because by definition the translator always lags a little behind, to be on the ball he must be one step ahead of the game. Real translation, therefore, is anticipative.
Let me cite as an example a case drawn from my work with Emmanuel Carrère. In Limonov, Carrère gives an important role to Natasha Medvedeva, the protagonist’s third wife. One can easily understand how surprised I was when I discovered that her striking photo adorns the cover of the Cars’ first album, and that, as a result, she was already known to many Americans (and Canadians) my age. I said that to Emmanuel, imploring him—no, suggesting to him—to include a word about this in the text of the English version. He agreed, and as things happened it was one of a number of times when we reworked the text to make it more amenable to an American readership.
On that basis I was ready to go even further with the translation of The Kingdom, and in the end it was only for the sake of brevity that I decided not to suggest that we add, in the passage dedicated to Medjugorje, a village in the former Yugoslavia where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a small group of children, a word on the remarkable scene in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, where the Saint Virgin also appears to two children not far from Rome. Okay, I didn’t, but nevertheless—and this is precisely what I’m driving at—it’s very much with that digression in mind that I approached Carrère’s text.
Certainly, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there’s no real dividing line between the author and the translator. But the secret, it seems to me, of a successful translation is that you have to go beyond an adequate rendering of the text, and, to come back to Emmanuel Carrère, to become as carrèrist as you can.
This article was originally written in French for the forthcoming Cahier de L’Herne dedicated to Emmanuel Carrère, and is published courtesy of and © the Éditions de L’Herne.
Emmanuel Carrère, born in Paris in 1957, is a writer, scriptwriter, and film producer. He is the award-winning, internationally renowned author of Limonov, The Mustache, Class Trip, The Adversary (a New York Times Notable Book), My Life as a Russian Novel, and Lives Other Than My Own, which was awarded the Globe de Cristal for Best Novel in 2010. For Limonov, Carrère received the Prix Renaudot and the Prix des Prix in 2011 and the Europese Literatuurprijs in 2013.
John Lambert has translated Limonov and The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère, as well as several works by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. His translation of Limonov was named among the best books of the year in 2014 by The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly.
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