It's not very often in life that you read something that resonates so deeply as to alter your way of perceiving the world — a rather grandiose statement to start off a humble blog, but it's hard to get people's attention these days, and to keep it.
Two tiny paperbacks I picked up in France had titles like an invitation: Une Petite robe de fête (A Little Party Dress), and L'Inespérée (I Never Dared Hope for You) by Christian Bobin. Two of those slim, discreet white volumes printed on poor quality paper that yellows within the year. But their size meant they could fit in my handbag, and one morning on a slow commute from Marin County into San Francisco I pulled one out and began to read, and the texts that had refused, stubbornly, to resonate a few years earlier when I bought the books now seemed to open up, like a good wine left to come to room temperature. In France, when I bought them, I had just finished reading Corelli's Mandolin; these little French texts were no match, at the time, for the noisy gaiety of that fat and entertaining volume. But now, on the bus, I looked around and I was no longer a simple passenger on her way to a dull day job: my life had an odd new glimmer to it, full of possibility and tenderness, and the knowledge of a hopeful elsewhere.
How do you honor a book that you love? You can reread it, leave it in a place of prominence on the bookshelf, tell everyone you know to read it, blog about it, start a book club to have others read it. Except that these books were written in French, and I was living in California, and Francophone friends were few and far between. In France, Bobin needs no introduction; some of his books have sold over 100,000 copies. He has a loyal, almost cult following, which he seems to find almost embarrassing; he lives in reclusion on a farm in Burgundy.
Then again, I reasoned, I'm a translator, I could translate these books, and offer to share the work with a wider world.
I thought about it for a long time.I feared too much would not make the transition — the music of the language, for a start; the quietness; the gentle empathy toward the reader. I had originally thought these were short stories, and my very expectations had been part of the barrier during my initial efforts to read the text: they're not short stories, they're poems in prose, or essays in poetry, evocations of everyday life, minor incidents. The banality of existence raised to a level of awe and compassion all the more striking in such slim, unassuming volumes. Could a jaded Anglo-Saxon reader even begin to grasp the special world of Christian Bobin in a language other than French?
So I translated one short piece, a few pages, and read it to colleagues at a translators' conference, and asked for feedback. Does it "work" in English? Do you experience the way a certain combination of words invites you into a contemplation of life that refracts your vision, gives you pause, sends you on the rest of your day — the rest of your life — with an enhanced sense of its beauty? Poignancy, sadness, small moments of epiphany — or mere flat words on a page, clichés, all savor lost?
My colleagues were eager, supportive: go for it, they said. I went home, translated a few more pieces, dropped a grant application in the mail box on the corner of Grant and Bush and forgot about it. Seven months later to my utter astonishment I was awarded a grant: a consecration, a sign, America is ready to read Christian Bobin, in my translation.
Finding a publisher was harder than doing the translation. Authors who do not fit a perceived profile of what is marketable, edgy, sexy, have a hard — impossible — time, especially in translation. Christian Bobin is not Roberto Bolaño. He writes of children having tea parties, corpses smiling, sad couples shackled to one another, Dr. Zhivago composing his poetry in the frost at Varykino. He writes of a Bosnian Muslim offering his Serb assassins a cup of coffee, traditional hospitality. He writes about the tree outside his window. He writes about the things that make us human, and that should stop us in our everyday bustle and frenzy and gadget-driven alienation to examine a rose. Unfashionable, essential reminders of the brevity and, perhaps, the meaning of life. Forgive me — more grandiose phrases on my part to describe what is, basically, understatement of the most eloquent kind.
Here is a short sample, out of context to be sure, but typical of the way Bobin draws the reader's focus:
She writes the way she dreams. Dreams of a life whose absence makes it all the more genuine, burning into clarity. The child does not enter into that life, nor does the husband, nor does she herself. It is a life she does not have, and yet it is her only life. She writes in order to have it. She writes for her daily bread, the one which is never given. The bread of silence, the loaf of light. The wheat of ink.
Two companion volumes have been published by Autumn Hill Books: A Little Party Dress and I Never Dared Hope for You. (Bobin writes of love, too, in a way that makes you think he has invented a new way of naming that inexplicable phenomenon.) He has also written a short lyrical "biography" of Emily Dickinson called The Lady in White, an excerpt of which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Two Lines journal of literary translation: Volume 16: Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed (a title Bobin would appreciate).
I would translate all of Bobin for free, for the sheer joy of the deep reading that comes through translation. And his work is too good to remain unknown to an American audience. His little texts are more relevant than ever; I can only hope I have done them justice.
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Alison Anderson is also the translator of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and works by Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio, among many other books. She lives in Switzerland.
Books mentioned in this post
Alison Anderson is the author of A Little Party Dress: Lyric Essays