Describe your latest book.
Gébé’s Letter to Survivors
A mailman in a hazmat suit bikes across the postapocalyptic wastes, reading letters down ventilation shafts to families trapped in fallout shelters. Stories of the good old days, they seem at first meant to taunt and torment with memories of a world no more. But as they go on, a shadow creeps over them: Can it be that in those golden times, catastrophe was already at work? And if so, how to envision a world where it will never happen again?
Gébé, or Georges Blondeaux (1929-2004), was a fixture of the French press from 1960 onward, best known as a cartoonist, but also author, lyricist, screenwriter, and dramatist, a maker of short films and photo-novels, beloved editor and nurturer of new talent. What to call him? A bastard cousin of Jules Feiffer
and Terry Southern
, less left-leaning than genially anarchist, or a feral M. Hulot, fanciful with a humanist twist. From 1970-85, he was editor in chief at Charlie Hebdo
This pioneering graphic novel was created in 1981, and has never before been available in English. I first came across it in its 2002 reprint from L’Association, the original publisher of Marjane Satrapi
. I’ve wanted to bring this book into English for over a decade; that’s how long it took to find the right publisher. As proof: Words Without Borders first featured an excerpt in 2010, shortly after I first started shopping the book in part around to magazines and in whole to publishers. I’m proud that NYRC gave me the chance to pen a preface putting the book in context and providing more info on the author’s life and times, as this is the author’s first full-length work in English.
What was your favorite book as a child?
It would behoove me to name a book I only later realized was foreign, in a moment that opened my eyes to the importance of translation, but it was probably Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising
. Perhaps my failure to do so speaks less to translation, which surely is pervasive and invisible, and more to our publishing industry, which for years turned its face from the rest of the world, something only now starting to change. Or is this a happy story of how a child raised in relative cultural isolationism nevertheless found his way to international waters: A triumph of or despite our perfunctory foreign language schooling requirements?
When did you know you were a writer?
Few people I know set out to be translators, but many have stumbled, not unhappily, into the profession. Translating, unlike writing, does not seem to be as identity-defining a calling, for reasons likely due to longstanding cultural neglect. Rather, translating is regarded as a pastime, or auxiliary activity: something some can do, but nothing one must do or is born to (the way writing has been spoken of in hushed tones ever since the Romantics). Another way of putting it: a writer is, a translator does — or so we have been taught to think. One can go for long stretches without writing a single word, and still think of oneself as a writer — many do, with much drink — but exactly when I had translated enough to be considered a translator and only a translator, I cannot say. If translation is to be a mere activity, it is one that more people, especially those who think of themselves as writers, would benefit from trying, if only because it requires a minimum proficiency in another language before even beginning.
What does your writing workspace look like?
If Hemingway’s Paris is a moveable feast, my workspace is a perennial picnic: cold chicken, crumpled napkins. Comics are an irrevocably physical medium, but PDFs allow for greater mobility. Places I have translated or revised Gébé include Belleville’s gallery and comics shop Le Monte-en-l’air, a fixture of the French indie scene; a discounted and blissfully quiet first-class seat on a Paris-Bordeaux TGV; a Tucson Best Western by the Titan Missile Museum; a Florence, OR, vacation rental on the tsunami evac route. Places I would have liked to have translated Letter to Survivors
, for thematic attunement: a converted missile silo; Bruce Campbell’s Boeing 727 airplane home in Hillsboro; a village green, with bandstand.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Translating has made me more attentive to conventions in English: bluntly put, the bounds of what will sound “right." Because blame for whatever doesn’t sound right, even if done on purpose, is always heaped upon the translator, never the author. But such early militancy on my part — surely a preemptive defense mechanism — gave way to an awareness of just what a contingent confection the language that passes for locally acceptable is, how porous and elastic. The old saw has it that translations date faster than originals. (In fact, originals date: we just tack on appendixes.) A pet thought experiment of mine is translating into the projected English of 10 years from now.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Readers don’t usually think of translators as the ones they’re communing with; in fact, the thought of any such mediating presence may still, sadly, be rebarbative. That the reasons for this attitude are historically obvious doesn’t mean they couldn’t use adjusting going forward. Translators hover somewhere between readers and writer; when I call translation “the most participatory form of recommendation
,” when I say that more people should try it out, I am thinking of translation almost as a kind of fan fiction, whose available tools are not plot and character, but rather tone, pace, and wording.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m fond of saying translations should be rethought of not with respect to some definitive abstraction like “fidelity,” but rather as “covers” and given the same leeway for artistic (re)interpretation — which will creep in inevitably anyway, as long as humans are making language, so why not own it? I truly believe that the conversation of literature benefits from the simultaneous rather than successive existence of a multiplicity of takes. But impostor syndrome insidiously whispers that this more-than-one-way-to-skin-a-cat ethos is just an elaborate bid to cover my own ass.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
A book that’s lived with me since 2015 is Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog
. It hit home for obvious reasons — immigrant reflections, a Chinese artist character — not the least of which was a son torn between duty, pity, love, and self-loathing while caring for his grasping, aging mother. But what moved me most was Michelle de Kretser’s prose, a marvel of careful noticing. I liked that the book was gripping from sentence to sentence, not event to event — the present-day story is a wisp — and despite its cumulative intricacy, I could set it down and pick it up with no feeling of loss. Her whole suspense lay in turn of phrase: how the next meticulous observation might skewer me to the moment. In that way, it felt like life, or even my own fitful writing process, which can get hung up on describing a glimpsed tree before my attention is kidnapped by day job, errands, leisure, or just the atmosphere of frazzle in which so much of life is lived. I’ve since moved on to other works by the author — Questions of Travel
, The Life to Come
— each differently dazzling, but alas, I’ve always been a sucker for first impressions.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Jorge Luis Borges
claimed he “always imagined Paradise would be a kind of library.” The IMEC, or Institute for Contemporary Publishing Archives in the Abbey d'Ardenne outside Caen is as close as it gets on earth. Its miles of shelving, elegantly set into the arches of a Gothic nave, rival the Strand’s in New York. Visitors have the use of hostel-like rooms, and at mealtime, salads come from the small garden within the monastery walls. Outside, the rainy Norman plain fades into gloom and drizzle, a perfect incitement to study.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
The working translator’s life is a constant series of moltings and reinventions. It has made me an expert on sharks, Chernobyl, typography, the Ramones, Magritte, child soldiers, Josephine Baker, Gauguin, Antonello da Messina, the Krumen people, Marcel Rajman, Luisa Casati, and countless other subjects, each for about two weeks to a month. It’s a great devourer of working memory.
Working in comics as I do, I’ve long wanted to learn lettering: typographical design seems a close cousin to translation both in its pervasiveness and invisibility, and its emphasis on form over content. In truth, seeing artist François Vigneault’s pitch-perfect take on Gébé’s hand-lettering was an eerie experience that made my translation more real to me than it had previously been.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I have sometimes considered compiling, as a private joke, a Translator’s Guide to Author’s Accommodations
, rating the comfort and quality of writerly hospitality, but that seems like prying a gift horse’s jaws open for a cleaning.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Literary translators live in fear because, as David Mitchell
so cleverly put it: “As a writer I can be bad, but I can't be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right.” Until the quality of translation can be evaluated with respect to something other than the original, this is a concise summary of events. What you did on purpose, what you didn’t know about, what you missed on a bad day: the dings keep coming. I, who came by my French through the back door, the bedroom, and the smoke break, but no canon, not even an anti-canon, am acutely aware of the gaps in my miseducation, always suspect that I’ve missed something, and do my best to avoid having to translate pre-20th-century works.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Our daughter is 18 months old, and my wife and I often come up with memoir titles for her, such as: I WAKE UP SCREAMING
. I leave the choice of title up to my unlikely biographer, but offer up this epitaph: “He had his days.”
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
“His books conveyed a suffering he hadn’t felt for a long time, but he knew people who read books were people who couldn’t stand reality, who suffered and sought in books people like themselves, instead of people who, with their happiness, would be an insult to them, and that was why, unlike other foolhardy authors who flaunted their good fortune and dazzling vacations in books that no longer sold, he, Boris, showed off only his wounds, his doubts, his questioning, his bitterness, and carefully hid from his still-numerous readers the thousand and one joys and pleasures his life held, notably that of nestling, in a large Parisian apartment, among his books and favorite paintings, up against the heiress to the Chaufour steelworks, who had, once upon a time, shown him what kindness and luxury were.” Patrick Besson, The Unbridled Orgy
(trans. yours truly)
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
Life fell short, a hurled feather.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Grammar is transitory, and though I stickle out of professional duty, my heart isn’t in it. So many rules are arbitrary; the best are for clarity’s sake. What fascinates me more is analyzing, even possibly mimicking, the innovative ways people break grammar while still making themselves understood.
In No Order, the Top Five Books I Haven’t Yet Read but Recently Got Excited About and Have High Hopes For (You’ll Have to Tell Me How They Are)
by Emmanuel Jouanne
Water and Dreams
by Gaston Bachelard
by Giorgio de Chirico
by Frédéric Pajak (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith)
by David Shetzline
÷ ÷ ÷
has translated more than 300 graphic novels, including Blutch’s Peplum
(NYR Comics). His work has won the John Dryden Translation prize and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and has been nominated for the French-American Foundation and Oxford-Weidenfeld translation prizes. He is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders
and has written on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review
. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Tin House, World Literature Today
, and Subtropics
. Most recently, he translated Gébé's Letter to Survivors