Literary Hub

This Year’s Man Booker International Winner Has a Favorite For Next Year…

despentes

Olga Tokarczuk and I just won the 2018 Man Booker International, which is this year’s largest and most important prize for world literature since the 2018 Nobel Prize was called off due to a scandal. Needless to say, we’re thrilled. But one of the best things about the whole Man Booker adventure has been getting to know the other translators and writers. And I know exactly who is going to win next year.

On my way to London, I devoured Frank Wynne’s witty, moving, pitch-perfect translation of Virginie Despentes’s incredible Vernon Subutex 1, from MacLehose Press (coming out in the US from FSG next fall). Despentes is a filmmaker and noted feminist critic with numerous other novels under her belt, including Apocalypse Baby, Bye Bye Blondie, King Kong Theory and Pretty Things (coming soon), all published by the Feminist Press and translated by Siân Reynolds, Stéphanie Benson and Emma Ramadan, respectively.

I’ve been getting a lot of good news lately. Among the best of it is the fact that Frank Wynne’s translation of the next volume of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex trilogy is done and will be out in July. I can’t believe I get to read another one! Let alone two more. Emma Ramadan’s translation of Pretty Things is coming out in August, too.

It’s going to be a great summer. Gearing up to that, I’ve briefly interviewed all four of Despentes’s English translators. Although I posed the same questions to all of them, their responses could not have been more different. The one thing they all shared was an abiding love of Despentes’s glorious prose and unassailable courage.

Frank Wynne, who was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Vernon Subutex 1, is an Irish-born translator of French and Spanish and journalist who has lived all over the world and written and translated for many publications. Among his other translations from French into English is Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, which won translator and author the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002.

*

Jennifer Croft: Why did you translate Virginie Despentes?

Frank Wynne: I would probably have gnawed off my right arm for the opportunity (I can type with my left!), but I didn’t have to. The moment I was offered the trilogy, I dropped everything else I was doing. Despentes is one of the most fascinating, brilliant and—to use that wonderful American word—ornery writers to emerge in France in the last 20 years. I found her essays in King Kong Theory angry and dazzling, moving and inspiring, and in a world that has become mealy-mouthed and euphemistic, it was refreshing to come upon a voice that makes no attempt to sugarcoat the ugly, painful chaos that is living. The novel Baise-moi (and Despentes’s subsequent film) was like a slap in the face, brutal and visceral, yet profoundly human—as though Kathy Acker had rewritten Thelma and Louise. This was no meek fantasy of empowerment. It was hardly surprising when I read Vernon Subutex to find those same qualities in this baggy picaresque novel that seems like the bastard lovechild of Zola, Lisa Alther and the young Martin Amis.

Moreover, I recognized the characters in the novel, I grew up with the same music, the same cultural references, have watched friends and acquaintances drift as Vernon’s friends do, into bitterness, disappointment, xenophobia and misanthropy. I was in awe of Despentes’s ability to make even the least attractive characters utterly human, where, say, Jonathan Franzen, would probably have depicted them with barely disguised contempt. This was a sprawling fiction that somehow encapsulated the maxim of the (Black) Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.”

JC: If you had to choose one essential quality you were determined to preserve and transmit in your translation, what would it be?

FW: The voices. Virginie’s characters leap off the page. The dialogue—and the narrative voice that follows the characters like a steadicam in a movie—crackles and flares in bursts of anger, wit, melancholy, bitterness. It was like trying to catch lightning in a jam jar. Preserving the narrative shifts between the grave, compassionate voice of Xavier’s mother, the bigoted splutterings of Loïc, the machinegun hipster slang of Kiko—this above all was what I was determined to preserve.

JC: What did you change?

FW: Inevitably, the slang. While French and English have rich veins of slang, they are very different in their construction and their connotations. English has no equivalent of verlan, the syllable transposing slang of the banlieue (well, English has pig-Latin, but no one older than 11 would use it), which is richly inventive, and can fold in on itself endlessly (so Arabe becomes beur, becomes rebu and T’es viestso = t’es soviet = t’es russe = t’es sûr?).  As a result, I had to be as imaginative and as creative as possible in reworking the slang. I am grateful to Anne Tyler, from whose novel A Spool of Blue Thread I stole the epithet shitwank.

JC: What was the hardest part about the editing process for this book?

FW: Every publisher has a house style, a system of rules that copy-editors and proofreaders are supposed to adhere to when preparing a manuscript for publication. No contractions or slang terms outside dialogue (can’t, shouldn’t, cop, arsehole). And all expect consistent punctuation. Virginie’s writing obeys none of these rules—nor is there any reason why it should. When I submitted the translation, I included a covering note explaining that “while individual chapters are written in the third person, they echo the thoughts and language… this means that the narrative—though third person—is loose, vernacular and very, very slangy. It cannot and should not be adapted to house style—it is not omniscient narration. Despentes’s punctuation is eccentric but clearly considered and deliberate—lists, including those of subordinate clauses—often appear with no commas. These should not be reinserted—any confusion that exists in English is duplicating the same in French. Virginie also uses embedded dialogue—usually passing from reported to direct speech without a sentence break or inverted commas. Again, this is intentional.”

My publisher, Christopher MacLehose, is an exceptionally sensitive and thoughtful editor, and his line-edit of the translation was helpful and insightful. Nonetheless, later copy-editors and proofreaders attempted to impose order on the controlled chaos; commas crept back in, the occasional “Fed” became a “police officer.” This was to be expected, since proof-readers in particular are often freelance, and are expected to impose house styles and query any egregious, jarring deviations.  Even so, both copy-editor and proofreader warmed to the swirling onrush of words and were quickly persuaded to preserve the idiosyncrasies of Virginie’s style.

Siân Reynolds, translator of Virginie Despentes’s Apocalypse Baby and Bye Bye Blondie, also translates works of history and crime novels and is professor emeritus of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland, though she is originally from Cardiff and was elected Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2013.

*

JC: Why did you translate Virginie Despentes?

Siân Reynolds: The practical answer is that I was asked by Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, a UK publisher, to translate Apocalypse Baby. I believe I was on a list of translators Virginie had. The reason I agreed was because I’d read King Kong Theory, which is a wonderful if infuriating text on feminism. Virginie said she was speaking for all the laissées pour compte (I’m quoting from memory). Resonates very strongly in the #MeToo age.

Apocalypse Baby was then picked up and published in the States by Feminist Press, who asked me to translate Bye Bye Blondie. They are rather different books from two periods in her life.

Apocalypse Baby is a fizzer, and I loved translating it for the energy that came off it, despite the narrator being supposed to be a bit of a wimp. It was satirical of the French literary scene too, in ways foreshadowing her later trilogy I guess.

Yet It didn’t do at all well in the UK, I hardly saw any reviews of it—no idea why. It’s an engaging road-trip-cum thriller with a subtext about sexuality

Bye Bye Blondie is earlier, rather touching and autobiographical—I enjoyed translating it for different reasons, e.g. the 1980s punk scene, for which I had to refresh my memory. The Feminist Press seemed more energetic at promoting it, so it got quite a bit of attention online. Despite all the anger in it, it is a kind of cri de coeur, and part of it is about starting to write.

JC: If you had to choose one essential quality you were determined to preserve and transmit in your translation, what would it be?

SR: Edge and energy. Never let it get bland.

JC: What did you change?

SR: Both books were difficult in their own ways, but I don’t think I changed anything beyond the normal process of translation: getting the tone is what matters.

JC: What was the hardest part about the editing process for this book?

SR: This is a bit nuts and bolts, but having translated both books, as I pointed out to Feminist Press at the time, I write in British English. They had Americanized Apocalypse Baby without telling me until I got a finished copy. While spellings may not matter overmuch, changing the syntax and vocabulary (“gotten” etc) makes a huge difference to the rhythm of the sentence, and since I had the time for Bye Bye Blondie, I negotiated with them and managed to keep changes to a minimum. But it infuriated me—we don’t change US syntax when we publish American books as far as I know!

The production and jacket of the US edition were very striking, I have to say, and they were very courteous to deal with.

Stéphanie Benson was born in London but has lived in France for nearly 40 years. She writes crime fiction in French and has also worked on theater pieces, radio dramas, poetry and journalism.

*

JC: Why did you translate Virginie Despentes?

Stéphanie Benson: In fact, I’d already translated for Virginie one or two versions of the screenplay of Bye Bye Blondie. At the time, Virginie was rather unsatisfied with the translation of King Kong Théorie, and asked the British publisher to let me have a look (or the French publisher, I can’t actually remember the details). Anyway, I looked, and I thought Virginie was right. There were a couple of real mistakes, the original translator had obviously not understood the French text, but more than this, the whole style and feeling seemed somehow wrong. So I proposed a new version working from the first translation. But when the British translator received my version, she thought it was too far from her own work and no longer wished to be recognized as the translator, which is why I signed the translation even though I was working from another person’s first draft.

JC: If you had to choose one essential quality you were determined to preserve and transmit in your translation, what would it be?

SB: The one essential quality for me is the total sincerity and distancing of the original. Virginie has an extraordinary ability to look at herself from the outside, and I think it was really important to preserve this.

JC: What did you change?

SB: Very little. The translation has a French ring to it, I find, as it is really as close as possible to the original French. This is partly due to Virginie, who reviewed a couple of my suggestions to bring them closer to the French.

JC: What was the hardest part about the editing process for this book?

SB: There wasn’t really anything hard about it. I love the book and am very proud to have been part of the process that brought it to English-speaking readers.

Emma Ramadan is the co-owner of Riffraff, a bookstore and bar in Providence, Rhode Island. Her translations from French include Sphinx and Not One Day by Anne Garétta (published by Deep Vellum) and The Shutters by Ahmed Bouanani, which was awarded a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant.

*

JC: Why did you translate Virginie Despentes?

Emma Ramadan: I became obsessed with Virginie Despentes’s work when I read King Kong Theory a few years ago. She writes about women and gender and the world in a way that’s engrossing, accessible, non-academic, not at all pretentious. Her books are thrilling, engrossing, they’re pure fun, and they drive home these points about society extremely effectively. A lot of writing with cultural commentary can feel overly intellectual or dry, and Despentes has shown that it doesn’t have to be that way. Pretty Things is a total delight to read, and criticisms of consumerism, advertising, beauty standards, gender norms, sex, etc., are all sinking into you as you turn the pages. You hardly notice until it hits you all at once.

JC: If you had to choose one essential quality you were determined to preserve and transmit in your translation, what would it be?

ER: When I started translating Pretty Things, what I refer to as the grit of Despentes’s writing was my number one priority. In Pretty Things, and in many of her novels, the main characters are young, broke, drunk or high, miserable. They swear, they’re aggressive, they’re honest. There’s a lot of dialogue and slang populates her pages. I wanted that grit, that realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be someone struggling to make sense of the world and to find a way into happiness, to be alive in English as well.

JC: What did you change?

ER: Something that changed in English was the prevalence of slang. Despentes’s characters use slang in almost every sentence, and I realized in translating this book that it feels a lot more natural in French than in English. There seems to be a French slang word for just about everything, especially now with the popularity of verlan, or the inversion of the syllables of a word, for example ouf rather than fou, or crazy. Just about any word in French can be adapted for verlan, even the for “you,” toi, or you, becomes oit, for which no English word other than “you” really seemed appropriate in my translation. In English, not every word has a slang equivalent. And even where there is one, the use of slang jumps out at you in a way that can be jarring. While it feels natural for Despentes to use the phrase “les chiottes” for the bathroom in Pretty Things, which sets a certain atmosphere for the book, it didn’t feel right in English to say “the shitter,” and so I used the less vulgar phrase “the can.”

JC: What was the hardest part about the editing process for this book?

ER: I would estimate that the English text uses maybe half as much slang as the French, so during the editing process I put extra effort into making sure that all the dialogue felt as natural and as realistic as possible for the characters I was crafting in English. I had imagined that, as a twenty-something woman with similar struggles to the main character(s) of Pretty Things, creating this dialogue in a compelling way that felt real would be relatively easy. But during the editing process I realized how difficult it actually is to write dialogue that is both true to a given character and also doesn’t make readers cringe. Thankfully the wonderful Lauren Hook at Feminist Press was as committed to getting it right as I was, and spent time with me over the phone reading the dialogue aloud to make sure it felt as right as possible to our ears.

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub2 min read
John Waters on Working for Mary Oliver in Her Bookstore
In this week’s episode of A Phone Call From Paul, Paul Holdengraber and John Waters discuss his new memoir, Mr. Know-It-All (or as he describes, a “self-help book for lunatics,” what he’s reading this summer, and his experience working for Mary Olive
Literary Hub7 min read
On the Human Spaceflight Program That Made Apollo Possible
The Walk, and a Sky Gone Berserk We try and plan for the unknowns. It’s the unknown unknowns that you have concerns about. –Bob Gilruth If there had been a space equivalent of Car and Driver magazine, its editors would have voted Gemini the Spacecra
Literary Hub6 min read
Richard Russo: On the Moral Power of Regret
Back in the late 1970s, not long after I started teaching, I began having this dream where I’m heading off to a class and at the end of an impossibly long corridor I see a group of students exiting a classroom. Somehow, I know they’re mine. A note on