First up, many thanks to Marisa Silver for an outstanding week at the helm of TEV. Thanks for classing up the joint.
I've got some more worthy guest content to share with you all this week, so next up is an "addendum" to a conversation between Jean-Philippe Toussaint's translators conducted here last year by Jim Ruland. Jim recently heard from John Lambert, who wrote to him as follows:
Jean-Philippe Toussaint was in Berlin for the month of March. As I've translated three of his books (Monsieur, Reticence and Self-Portrait Abroad), we saw each other a few times and went at one point to a closely fought but ultimately scoreless soccer match between Berlin's Herta BSC and Borussia Dortmund. Toussaint had sent me the link to your great discussion with American translators published on The Elegant Variation, and suggested I might want to write an addendum from my point of view. However it was only when Berlin scored a goal that was incorrectly judged offside that it occurred to me what I could say.
After reading through the above comments I must say I'm delighted there's now such a lively interest in translating Jean-Philippe Toussaint among American translators. By way of an addendum I can add that having translated Monsieur, Reticence and Self-Portrait Abroad, the best way I know into Toussaint's work, his mindset and his world, is through soccer.
Herewith, John Lambert on Translating Toussaint, with special thanks to Jim Ruland for passing it on:
Given, one might think what I mean is that, bearing in mind the numerous references to soccer that pepper Toussaint's works, from the earliest mention of a Glasgow Rangers-Inter Milan Cup Winners' Cup match in The Bathroom to the purple and white (the Anderlecht colours) floral arrangement in Self Portrait Abroad to the recent mini-novel Zidane's Melancholy (published in English in Best European Fiction, 2010), the aspect of soccer is a handy way into Toussaint's world. But that's not what I mean. Rather the idea has been dawning on me for some time that in general the position of the translator is deeply akin to that of the striker on a soccer pitch: that translators are the centre forwards of the literary world. They are the ones who delve deepest into enemy territory. And just as they are the ones who score the goals by securing an advantageous position on the field, they are also the most susceptible to being called offside.
However far from being non-ambiguous, being offside in soccer can mean one of two things. Either it can stop the game in mid-play and undo all the work that's been done to date, or it can work to a player's advantage and allow him to put the ball home, depending solely on his relation to the goings on around him.
Simply put, if a player actively influences the play when offside he's what's known as actively offside and could just as well pick up the ball and hurl it into the net. But if being offside was the last thing on his mind, if it came about unintentionally and if he had no sway on the play, if it was the result of an unforeseeable combination of circumstances he had little or no part in, he's what's called passively offside, caught unwittingly in the most advantageous of positions from which, when a new playing situation arises, he can net the ball with impunity. Paradoxically, then, in a soccer match active offside stops the game and so is the less active, while passive offside is really the more active of the two.
Back to Toussaint.
Few and far between are the writers whose very flow of prose has such a way of getting under your skin as Toussaint's does. Rather than merely reflecting what you see or how people behave, it endows readers with the startling wherewithal to perceive reality, create it and encounter it in the same breath, in the same sentence. I often feel it has the same effect upon me as a museum full of artworks, in that at one point I inevitably start considering the people and objects around me from the artist's point of view so that, even if the women don't suddenly seem as naked as Modigliani's nudes, at least the fruit in the cafeteria seems to flirt briefly with immortality.
Hence the real art of translating Toussaint is not so much getting the right words in the right place (don't get me wrong, this is a terrific start), as getting myself in the right frame of mind, so that regardless of what I happen to be translating it comes out in Toussaintese. Perhaps the best example of such an attitude is given by Borges in his Pierre Ménard, author of the Quixote. Borges gets his protagonist on the same wavelength with Cervantes by putting the two on a strange par: while Cervantes was endowed with an astounding literary gift, Pierre Ménard had on his side his erudition and his love for Cervantes, together with the fact that having read Don Quixote long ago he can't remember it now. In this way the two reach an astonishing level of parallel creativity and ultimately write the same book.
And that's more or less how I translate Toussaint: if not by forgetting entirely about what's on the page in order to recreate it all the better in my language, then at least by putting it momentarily from my mind so as to recapture the static, electric flow as it could sound to a native English speaker – both surprising and ordinary, funny and disarmingly familiar.
Translating Toussaint is consequently the locus of a curious reversal in my life, whereby the active moments of translation are far less productive than the passive ones. I really make headway when I give myself up to a Toussaintesque flow of traffic or of time, of the waters of the Spree River in Berlin or the cascade of words that flows over me in the shower, on my bike or in my car when picking up my daughter after school. As a consequence the real moments of translating Toussaint move from the active to the passive realm, from behind my desk to behind the meat counter, at a parent-teacher meeting or at the dentist's, from a moment spent hunting for a word on the Internet to one where I'm at a loss, if not for words altogether then at least for an adequate way of expressing them.
Certainly, while active translation may not blow the whistle on the work I'm translating, it is nevertheless less effective than a passive stance, which I'm convinced – like in football – allows you to set up a sentence and slam it home when the time comes, conditions are right and a new situation allows. Translating Toussaint is best done in a Toussaint state of mind by defying the world and its arbiters from the luxurious, fragile, infinitely productive standpoint of one passively offside.
Make sure to stop back this week when we run an exclusive excerpt from Elegy For April, the new Benjamin Black novel, and give away a copy as well.