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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 1 comment
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
The Other Balzacby Jordan Stump
An author I was translating once told me, "I greatly admire translators: such humility, devoting so much time and labor to someone else's work!" I'm not quite sure how I answered, but I know what I was thinking: "What do you mean, someone else's? It's my work! Your book, but my work!" An unlovely reaction, I'll concede, but not entirely ignoble: to my mind, a good translator has to think of the book in progress as his or hers, and to write it just as if he or she were the author. But there's more: a good translator also has to feel happiest when no one notices all the labor that's gone into the finished work. I might wrestle with a sentence for ages, reworking, despairing, trying again, and in the end I'm delighted when no one sees what I've gone through when people say not "What a fine sentence by Jordan Stump!" but very simply "Here's a sentence by Balzac." I'm happiest when I can say that myself when I can read a sentence I've written and not hear my own voice at all.
But of course I don't translate solely for the purpose of being invisible (if that was all I wanted, I'm sure I could find an easier way). Some of my reasons for translating are essentially selfish, or at least aimed only at my own pleasure: if I decide to translate a book, it's because I find I can't put it down even after I've finished reading it, or because I like it so much that I want to write it myself; or because having read it and reread it I find myself wanting to really read it, with the intensity and the obsessive attention that translation allows or requires; or because I want to say something about the book, and find in translation a particularly fine way of doing so. But there's another reason too not better than those, but different which is directed outward, toward you: if I translate a book, it's also because I've seen something you haven't, something that I really want you to see, something that has excited me enough that I want to run out into the street and shout, "Hey, read this!"
This is why I've been translating more or less non-stop for the past eleven years. The contemporary French novel is my first love; I love it for its strangeness, its unpredictability, the way it continually eludes the reader's easy expectations, but lightly, accessibly, with humor, with cunning, with remarkable intelligence. I find endless fascination and joy in writers like Marie Redonnet or Eric Chevillard or Christian Oster (among many others), and it's my fondest wish that at least a few readers might find the same in my translations of their works. But I'm no less delighted by all that's strange and unpredictable in the French novel of the past; thus, when Modern Library asked if I might be interested in translating a Balzac novel, I couldn't say yes fast enough. There are of course plenty of monuments to chose from in Balzac's oeuvre. The book I chose is not one of them. It's a novel you may well never have heard of, a rarely-visited but, I think, entirely glorious little corner of Balzac's Human Comedy: L'envers de l'histoire contemporaine, which Modern Library has now published as The Wrong Side of Paris.
There are many reasons why I want you to read The Wrong Side of Paris, of which I will mention only one here: this is a wonderfully and unforgettably odd book. Oddly conceived, oddly constructed, oddly told and, not least, entirely at odds with what you may think you know about Balzac. I'm not sure that many American readers understand what an undefinable writer Balzac is. He is a realist, yes, and a cynic; at the same time, though, he's a visionary, and above all a deeply committed believer in many things: in magnetism, for instance, and in mesmerism, but more than anything else in the Church and in the Monarchy. This might well make us a little uncomfortable good lord, who believes in such things anymore? Not me. But that doesn't mean that I don't find the way he expresses these beliefs genuinely enthralling. The Wrong Side of Paris sets out to be a novel about the power of Faith (of Catholic Faith, that is, and of it alone) to heal the sorrows of the poor; that's what it wants to be, and what it is to a certain extent, but Balzac being Balzac the real experience of the novel is far, far richer than this easy little characterization makes out. What fascinates the author of this novel is not really the triumph of Faith but the diversity and the mystery of physical and philosophical suffering, the unearthly beauty of illness and wretchedness, the sad poetry of life in the muddy backwaters of Paris, and of progress, and of history. This is what fascinates me as well along with Balzac's glorious voice, his attentive and omnipresent eye, his intense (and, in spite of it all, contagious) belief in the possibility of transcending the sordid smallness that we can all so easily sink into. That's why I want you to read this book. Do so, and (I hope) you won't find me in its pages. And then I'll be happy.