Monday, June 28, 2010

A Translator's Journey

A doctor tells a man he’s dead, so he goes home to inform his family and arrange his own funeral. A taxi driver has the best night of his life on a street off all the city maps, but what awaits when, years later, he finally finds his way back? A father tries to ease his obsessive grief over his wife’s death by taking several photos of his daughter every hour of her life. A poet in a mid-life crisis stumbles into a museum devoted to his past, present, and… future? Returned from abroad and weary of war, a king tries to reconstruct a pavilion remembered from his distant childhood. An antiques dealer meets a scout who can furnish any item a client might desire. A fortunetelling parrot frightens a glove merchant contemplating suicide in one of the automated firing-squad booths conveniently installed around his city. To please his new girlfriend, a translator must give up the humming mummy he keeps in a double bass case. A musician returns to his hometown to discover his childhood sweetheart has committed suicide… but then again, the river Tartarus doesn’t just run through everyone’s hometown.

Earlier this month, Small Beer Press debuted French fabulist Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud in English with A Life on Paper, a collection of short stories spanning the author’s career from his beginnings in the mid-‘70s to his most recent collection in 2005. Handpicked from among the hundred-odd he’s written, these stories—-eerie, wondrous, monstrous, mocking, and genteel—-showcase the variety of subjects, influences, and structures unified by the author’s subtle, graceful style and his principal concerns: nostalgia, the intersections of dream and reality, the ironies of fate, and the painful knowledge of mortality.

How do you tell someone about something you’ve lived with for years in near silence? Where do you start? For so long, it feels like I’ve been the only reader for these stories—-and in a way, I have: there were people I could speak to about them in French, but whom could I talk to about them in English? Whom could I talk about their English versions to? Not editors who’d rejected them, often not even the overworked editors who’d accepted them for publication in literary magazines. After a day of translation at my desk, I’d emerge from work both exhausted and elated, as from immersion in a sea of stories. Now that these stories are finally out, able to be shared with an Anglophone audience, holding this handsome hardcover up to my ear is like standing in a landlocked state and hearing an echo of that distant ocean’s roar. But it's you readers out there--swimmers all--I want to hear from. I want to hear whether the water's warm or cold, clear or murky, calm or roiling. Send me postcards with a few lines about waves lapping at your feet, or radio warnings of riptides, photos of brightly-hued fish in quick schools. What do you want to know about Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud? What can I pass on about him, or from you?

I first came across Châteaureynaud’s work in 2005, in the Zulma reprint of his 1989 collection Le Jardin dans l’île. There are books you pick up that it turns out have been waiting for you, or you for them. Some are there as Virgil was for Dante, to take you by the hand and guide you through a dark wood. There are certain prose styles, of an instantly suggestive music, that sound to me like half a duet. They are waiting for their partner in another tongue to complement them with harmony and complete the performance. No doubt this is a translator’s fancy: coming after German, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Slovenian, Hungarian, and Croatian, English has certainly kept Châteaureynaud waiting.

What first drew me to Châteaureynaud was his use of the fantastic as an investigation of regret, a theme dear to my backward-glancing heart. But really, the Castelreynaldian fantastic does through indirection, unsettling symbol, or calm account of the impossible the very thing literature is meant to: lend voice to solitary experience or singular witness. How many of us, back from a foreign land, then face the difficulty of describing our time there? How often, over the breakfast table or even a lover’s pillow, have we found it hard to articulate a particularly compelling dream? How do we negotiate our return from the unrepeatable and unprovable; how do we import, intact, what only we have seen back into a social world—-a world of consensual meanings—-and make it matter to others? These concerns are central to the fantastic as a genre, which, as Tzvetan Todorov put it, forces the reader’s hesitation between natural (psychological) and supernatural (marvelous) explanations for the events described.

Here I am, then: back from a foreign land. Someone told me marvelous stories there. Impossible things happen in them, things that cannot be explained except by telling you each tale in its entirety. So I will do just that. I will pass these stories on intact, just as I learned them, but in the language you and I speak to one another.


Widely known in his native France, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud has been honored over a career of more than 30 years with the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Goncourt de la nouvelle, and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire at Utopiales. His stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Harvard Review, The Southern Review, Words Without Borders, AGNI Online, Epiphany, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Postscripts, Eleven Eleven, Sentence, Joyland, and The Café Irreal. His work has been compared to that of Kafka, Borges, Calvino, Cortazar, Isak Dinesen, and Steven Millhauser.

A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the Centre National du Livre, Ledig House, the Banff Centre, and the American Literary Translators Association. His work has also appeared in World Literature Today, Subtropics, Absinthe, Two Lines, and Tin House. The winner of the 2010 John Dryden Translation Prize, in the coming year he will be a Fulbright scholar in Brussels, studying Belgian fantastical fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment