photo via Jody Gladding
Pierre Michon’s The Eleven is the story of a French painter who never existed: Corentin, “the Tiepolo of the Terror,” so called because of his most famous work, a group portrait of the 11 members of the French Revolution’s Committee of Public Safety. This short novel is essentially a monologue in which the narrator, addressing a gentleman viewing this painting in the Louvre, delivers a fairly opinionated account of Corentin’s life and work. The Eleven is co-translated by Jody Gladding (pictured above) and Elizabeth Deshays, and so one of my first questions for them was what drew them to translate an author like Michon as a team, let alone as an individual project…
Elizabeth: How did we come to Michon? Well, I suppose that it would be more accurate to say that he came to us. Jody, you had been commissioned to translate Vies Minuscules after the original translator abdicated. You had started to look at the text and asked me for help, hoping that my many years in France would enable me to throw some light onto the first of these Small Lives. I can still remember the passage, and my bewilderment, the feeling of not knowing how to begin. Of course, we recognised and understood the words, the sentences, but from there to what he was trying to say… And who was this writer anyway? (To my shame, I had not then read any of his works). My instinctive reaction was one of rejection.
Yesterday, I reread that passage. I was astonished. What had seemed so inaccessible at that first reading? The text was immediately clear to me, I knew what every image, every metaphor was referring to.
The explanation, of course, is that, three Michon translations on, we now know the man. For Michon, though he in no conventional way could be described as writing autobiography, nevertheless always writes about himself; the obsessions, traumatisms and aspirations which make him what he is are always, at the deepest level, the real matter of his work, though it may, more superficially, take on the guise of something resembling biography (Rimbaud le Fils), legend (Contes d’Hiver) or historical novel (Les Onze).
Jody: What I remember about first translating Michon is realizing immediately that I was in over my head. Elizabeth and I met weekly for conversational French then, and I remember wondering how to say that in French, to be in over one’s head, out of one’s depth. And yes, embarking on The Eleven, after translating Small Lives, felt very much like familiar territory. The same obsessions, the absent father, the artist’s singular role and power, the smothering love of women, all inform this work, which takes the form of a vast historical tableau.
The joys of cotranslating Les Onze with Elizabeth far far outweighed the difficulties. We were fortunate to both be in Elizabeth’s village for the whole time we were working on this project—I had a grant to spend several months translating in France. I’d begin with a rough translation, Elizabeth would review it, and we’d meet to edit those pages together. Elizabeth also did whatever research was necessary on historical or literary references in the text. For me, this was a great review of French history, especially the French Revolution.
It was also a great lesson in the differences between British and American English. Elizabeth has lived in France for forty years, but she grew up in England. We kept being surprised by the very different ways we used the simplest words, like “quite,” or “steps” and “stairs.”
Elizabeth: Yes, we were working for an American publisher, so if attempts to get around the linguistic differences failed, the American alternative won, but I still have to swallow hard and pretend not to see the word ‘gotten’ in our text, so inappropriate and casual does it sound to an English ear, although being perfectly correct in American! But these little tussles were pleasantly enriching and never impeded our working together. On the contrary, we pulled together, supporting each other in the veritable struggle which translating Michon, sometimes, often, turned out to be, a struggle to wrest the meaning from Michon’s language, to wrest this meaning into our own. The process sounds almost physical—certainly it required intense concentration, a sort of tuning in of our sensibility. Gradually we found that, having mastered one apparently insurmountable peak, we did not have to descend so far again before attempting the next. We were gaining access to Michon’s world and could begin tentatively to transmit it to others.
Michon’s writing can be complex to the point of obscurity because what he wants to express is infinitely subtle. One dilemma translators face when working on a ‘difficult’ text is the temptation to make adjustments to render it more accessible. This may seem scandalously pretentious with regard to an author of Michon’s calibre and obviously must be done with extreme respect and sensitivity, and I hope that on the rare occasions when we did give in to the temptation, our betrayal was no greater than that of any translator: ‘traduttore, traditore‘.
Jody: In The Eleven, the young painter Corentin, watching laborers in a canal, exclaims disdainfully, “They’re not making anything: they’re working.” It’s a distinction the artist, the creator, insists upon. Sometimes translating this book, I think we really identified with those laborers. Other times, when the music of Michon’s prose, the elegant architecture of his sentences carried over as though effortlessly into English, we experienced the elation of the maker.
Elizabeth: Yes, discovering the chink in the wall which let in the light and informed a whole inner landscape, untangling the page-long sentence into its hierarchy of clauses to reveal a awe-inspiring degree of nuance, then attempting to render this exceptional writing accessible to English-speaking readers was a veritable adventure. Jody and I were already close friends before we began, but, three Michon books on, our friendship has been infinitely enriched by sharing this adventure.
4 March 2013 | in translation |