To Translate Is to Write

To Translate Is to Write

by Paul Fournel

translated from the French by Chris Clarke

My service record as a translated author being lamentable, and having translated very little myself, it was only natural that I would be invited to teach translation.

One day my book arrived, only it was written in English. I was still getting started in the business, and an American publisher, George Braziller, had come up with the idea of having someone translate Les petites filles respirent le même air que nous, my first collection of short stories. It was a true pleasure to encounter Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do. I dove right in, and, for the first time, I got the impression of being able to read my own text without my eyes flying across it, without reading my torments instead of my stories, without reading my mistakes, without correcting myself on every line. Everything in this English text seemed impeccable to me, in its correct place, and, for the first time, I didn’t feel any guilt at all.

American readers chose not to read that book, and I respected their decision. English readers followed suit, and I accepted it once more. The press didn’t throw themselves at it, but there was some here and there, modest and far off. A British article threw me into a hitherto unknown form of bother: it criticized my translator, Lee Fahnestock, for having stuck too closely to the French. She was quite peeved, and I was perplexed. I decided that the next time, I would write in a French that was closer to English to protect her from any further blowback. 

A few years later, I was translated into Korean, and I immediately felt overcome by the serenity of the Far East. I was sent a handsome and dense block of incomprehensible prose, a world that was entirely impenetrable with my name written on the front, as if a monumental publishing error, or at least some kind of identity theft. True nirvana.

I was also translated into Javanese, which logically ought to have sent me off into the same subconscious ecstasy, but it turned out that the little book that was translated, Superchat et les karatéchats [Supercat and the Karatecats], was intended for children, and children are given pictures to look at. Those that were provided for my young Javanese readers threw a few wrinkles into my inner peace. The images were ugly, which isn’t really all that important when you get right down to it, but the stories they were illustrating seemed to be considerably different from those I had written: this boy-cat had become a girl-cat, that necklace had been transformed into a turban, and so on and so forth, you get the picture. I chalked this all up to my deep lack of knowledge about the realities of Javanese felines and counted it as a strike against this unscrupulous illustrator who had strayed, traditore, from the text in front of his eyes.

Some time later came the release, in Mexico, of Un homme regarde une femme, a love story. A Mexican journalist took advantage of the fact that he happened to be in Paris to ask me a few questions. I knew about as much Spanish as he did French, which is to say none. We agreed on an approach to minimize the damage: he would ask me questions in Spanish and I would reply in French. And so, he asked me questions that, at least as far as I knew, were clear and pertinent, and I furnished him with responses that seemed to suit him just fine. Our conversation was chugging along smoothly until the moment the English pastor turned up. 

I’m never entirely certain about what I write, I’m always asking myself whether I’ve really done what I should have done, if I haven’t said precisely the opposite of what I wanted to say, if that little stretch of yellow wall was in fact yellow in my imagination, if the adjective “thick” was truly the correct one to describe the particular type of sadness I feel on some Friday mornings. The sole certainty I have in my work, the only patch of stable earth that I’ve managed to conquer in my fifty years of writing, is that there is no English pastor in Un homme regarde une femme.

As such, the English pastor who had just materialized, stepping out from behind a question the journalist had asked, was an intruder. And this was a sizable intrusion, if you consider the terrible messes that English pastors have been responsible for in literature. Apparently, an English pastor had found his way into my book, and the little sneak could only have done it with the complicity of the translator, who had left the door ajar for him.

I pointed out to the journalist that I didn’t want an English pastor to come between us, and he seemed quite irritated by this. He wanted that pastor to remain right where he was, because this character had led him to peg me as a bit of a misogynist, which he wanted me to answer for. He accused me of being evasive and stabbed at me with his stare like a matador. The death blow was his to mete out, I was done for, his pen planted between my shoulder blades. And he laughed about it, the traitor! He left, his chest puffed up, at least six inches taller. He thanked me for that delicious moment and disappeared with a click of his heels.

As I awaited the impending publication of his murderous article, I dove back into my manuscript, into my correspondence with the translator, and I spent a sleepless night. The next morning, at the bottom of a cup of coffee, I discovered that this English pastor was in fact a fuzzy, long-haired sheepdog, the kind one might find out in the countryside in Sussex. This had been, at its root, the fastidious translation into Mexican Spanish of the word “bob-tail,” the British shepherding dog [in Spanish, the Antiguo Pastor inglés] that I had imprudently made use of to indicate that my heroine had bangs that hung down in front of her eyes. If I had used a Pomeranian or a poodle, I would have made it in one piece through my interview–upon which rested any hope of international fame. Oof, just in the nick of time, the pastor bangs again.

You will have understood by now that I do not belong to that breed of literary aristocrats who are able to say “my translator” in thirty-three languages. I’ve palmed a few of my literary babies off on a random assortment of them. As a result, I’m not one of those polytrauma victims of translation. In no country am I half of one of those magnificent, private couples who tear each other apart out of the public eye, or those who fumble their way through periods of ardent passion. I got to see firsthand the roller coaster of Italo Calvino’s translators, I lived through the measured and constant contact between Harry Mathews and Georges Perec, I’m currently experiencing that of Eduardo Berti and Jean-Marie Saint-Lu…But I remain open to all sorts of new adventures.

I have had a number of translators, both male and female and seemingly selected at random, who have most likely left behind them, in the pages of world literature, the occasional English pastor.

My service record as a translated author being lamentable, and having translated very little myself, it was only natural that I would be invited to teach translation.

It was in the aftermath of a joke, or almost, that I found myself needing to consider the question of translation in pedagogical terms. When I was in publishing, a friend of mine, professor at the École des Langues Orientales, complained that I hardly ever called on her students for translations of literary texts. I pointed out to her that her students may have been masterful when it came to Finno-Ugrian or Chuvash, but it would be more propitious for them to learn how to translate their French into French–because it was in those two languages, French and French, that I was in the habit of publishing books!

Later, when my employment in publishing came to an end through no choice of my own, she promptly entrusted me with a translation course to teach: from French to French. 

You can easily imagine that the fertile methods of torture I devise with my friends in the Oulipo afford me the materials for us to have something to tinker with during each course. The students first give me a strange look, somewhat incredulous, but I am always careful to be well groomed and to express myself in a serious, professorial manner, which allows me to make them reach for the stars and leads them to execute verbal gymnastics they didn’t even know they were capable of landing.

Envision for a moment the timid and blushing young girl who, during an evening microtranslation exercise, one of those tragic evenings where one is only permitted to touch a single letter of the source text in order to translate it, proposed to transform André Breton’s “Je vous souhaite d’être follement aimée” [I want you to be madly loved] into a bloodthirsty “Je vous souhaite d’être follement limée” [I want you to be screwed raw]. With this, in my estimation, she joined the still-modest pantheon of microtranslators, alongside the great Georges Perec, who microtranslated the opening line of Proust’s La Recherche [“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure” [or, in Lydia Davis’s translation, “For a long time, I went to bed early”] into “Longtemps je me suis douché de bonne heure” [“For a long time, I showered early”], “Longtemps je me suis mouché de bonne heure” [“For a long time, I blew my nose early”], and, of course, “Longtemps je me suis touché de bonne heure” [“For a long time, I touched myself early”].

Then there was the evening when we had to translate the beginning of L’Étranger into French without using any “e”s. The author promptly became the frightful Al Camus and the narrator received “a fatal fax: ‘Mom’s kaput’”…The same opening to La Recherche, in “e”less French, ended up being “Durant un grand laps on m’alita tôt” [“On many an occasion I would nod off by twilight”], and without an “a,” “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure” [“For the longest time I went to bed by six”], of which you might note that the microtranslation is much easier from French to French than to English in this last case.

On the most jubilant nights, we translated Prévert into Mallarmé, Balzac into Zola, and Racine into Flaubert, all of which is a stroke of artistic genius, especially in contrast to the organized universe of the old school anthologies edited by Lagarde and Michard (much in use in the ‘50s and ‘60s).

« The sole certainty I have in my work, the only patch of stable earth that I’ve managed to conquer in my fifty years of writing, is that there is no English pastor in Un homme regarde une femme. »

I don’t know about you, but having made it this far, I feel the need for a moment of versified rest. All this prose is making me drowsy. And so, I offer you this S-14 translation (a question of replacing each noun in the text with the one that comes fourteen before it in the dictionary) of a poem that you might even recognize, in hopes of allowing you the time for a bathroom break or even a little nap.


On my schnitzel’s nosography
On my desecration and on the treasury
On the sample on the snog
I write your naiad

On all the paddies read
On all the blank paddies
Stole blockbuster panties ascidian
I write your naiad

On the patents awakening
On the riverboats unwinding
On the crowded pituitaries
I write your naiad

On the lamebrain that is bright
On the lamebrain that goes dark
On my united hot tubs
I write your naiad

On the frost cut in two
On the minutiae of my chalice
On my beaver’s hollow sheet
I write your naiad

On my fond greedy doctrine
On his pricked dysprosium his paucity
As clumsy as throwrugs
I write your naiad

On all fleabites yielded
On the forebears of frets
On each hambone that extends
I write your naiad

And by the poverty of wool
My lie returns to me
I am born again to know you
And to name you

On the off chance that verse annoys you, here, translated in the same manner, is Euclid’s postulate, which might click a little better for you. Allow me to remind you of the source text: “If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that are less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles.”

Here is the translation that results from an S+5 that makes use of a Spanish-English dictionary published by Oxford in 1998:

“If a linen seismograph intersects two straight linens forming two interior Anglicans on the same sidecar that are less than two right Anglicans, then the two linens, if extended indefinitely, meet on that sidecar on which the Anglicans sum to less than two right Anglicans.”

Once these sorts of exercises become texts, once they grow up to become works of literature, they offer new problems to the literary translator.

How can one translate the Oulipo? How can one translate the Mexican writer Oscar de la Borbolla into French? How can one translate Oskar Pastior, the German? Must one translate what the text says, or the constraint that underpins it? 

Ideally both, but if that is impossible, both approaches have been adopted. In translating Georges Perec’s La Disparition, most translators have translated the story that the book relates. Others, such as Eugen Helmle or Gilbert Adair, translated “the novel without the letter e,” effectuating in this situation a fairly radical recreation and leaving the story itself in the background…

The most serene outlook, in this tricky case, would have been that of a translator from Central Europe who came to Paris to meet with other translators of Perec, and who, I have been assured, had translated La Disparition without it ever dawning on her that it was missing the letter e!

In recent translations of certain of my books, it seemed to me that I had caused a few specific problems for my translators. I have on occasion written books in which cycling plays a large part—this is an obsession of mine. When I’m not out on a bicycle, I write on bicycles (or, rather, about bicycles). The peloton of the Tour de France being what it is, by which I mean a talkative inner circle, over the years there has emerged a specialized language based on French but enriched and embellished by large personalities such as Alavoine or Raphael Geminiani. This language, which can be deliciously expressive, also poses considerable problems for translators. How can one really translate “ce raton est en train de m’en rouler une dégueulasse” [“that wheelsucker is really sandbagging me”]? Or what about “le cuissu avait du jus et il a mis une mine dans le talus” [old beefthigh was juiced and dropped the hammer on that hillstart]? Even if the translator understands the meaning, often the tools necessary for the translation are lacking. My exploration of some of these same texts in English plunged me into deepest despair. I won’t call out anyone in particular, but the disastrous banality of the results leaves me filled with dismay.

In 2012, I published a novel called La Liseuse, which was to become the first in a series of four novels about publishing and author-publisher relationships.[1] For that first volume, which I devoted to the arrival of the e-reader into the reading landscape, I had selected a form of constraint that I defined in the following manner:

This text adopts the form of the sestina, a poetic form invented in the twelfth century by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel. It involves a strict number of stanzas and the rotation of its rhyme words. The words reading, cream, publisher, mistake, myself, and evening rotate at the verse ends as per the classic sequence pattern of the sestina.

The lines are measured. As their function is to count down the destiny of a mortal man, this measure is subjected to attrition (a melting snowball): the first stanza is composed of 7500 combined characters and spaces, the second of 6500 combined characters and spaces, and so on until which time that the sixth is constructed of 2500 combined characters and spaces. The entirety makes up a poem of 180,000 combined characters and spaces.

This decision was not purely a question of esthetics; the goal, for me, was to make a book that was theoretically locked into a certain form, this at a time when e-readers will soon allow a reader to go into the text to modify it as he or she sees fit. Symbolically, anyone who would lay a finger on any character in the text would destroy the entire project.[2]

The book was well received, and its English translation was entrusted to David Bellos, the translator of Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, as well as his biographer. This, for me, was the best possible choice. And so David came up with Dear Reader, and we shared a great many fertile exchanges while he worked.

Sometime later, David felt the need to explain, at a literary conference, the difficulties that he had had to overcome during the project. He called this communication Fournel’s Headache

He starts off by giving me a good rap on the knuckles for having confounded French literature with World Literature. That I am stupid enough to have made such an error seems entirely possible to me, but that I’m a big enough idiot to believe it seems unlikely. Let’s just say that it is the strict counting of characters that led me to this wobbly landing. Thank you very much for correcting me. A translator can also play the role of a faithful and generous guardian angel. 

Next, he arrives at the crux of his difficulties. First, the preservation of the rhymes, which poses a serious problem in English, especially when he arrives at the word “reading”:[3]

“That really does bring on the full blast of Fournel’s Headache. To dissipate it, as I said, requires you to carry right on to the end, using on the one hand all the subtle resources of the target language but also, on the other, and this is what I must insist on, all the necessary re-imagining of the original. To put it bluntly, if Fournel wants to be read in English, then he has to accept that his book has to be written in English, and that it cannot be quite the same book.”

Well, yes, dear David, I do want to be read in English, and this collaboration in the creation of the text is an integral part of the translator’s job. 

Even more than with the translation of the rhymes, there was a big problem when it came to the counting of the characters. 

Bellos explains that since English as a language is more compact by 10-15%, he had to expand the text to reach the objective, as he had chosen to respect the rule. To do so, he added text here and there, embellishing upon longer turns of phrase, leaving his own mark all over this Dear Reader that I consider to be a happily enriched version of my own La Liseuse. For this I thank him.

Let’s circle back to the case of the author when he must himself translate. These problems, as you can imagine, at that moment when he’s trying to fall asleep, at that moment when he’s out for a stroll, at that moment when he’s dashing for his next meeting, give the author food for thought. It’s hard to know which of the world’s words and which of the world’s things truly speak the world. That pie, over there, in French it’s a tarte à la crème, but what exactly is a tarte à la crème other than being a “tarte à la crème”? It is an entire language unto itself, inside of which dance a flaky, buttery crust, some calories, a few jokes, a few slaps, some pies in the face, which naturally brings to mind the shadow of BHL [the oft-pied Bernard-Henri Lévy], and that of Chantilly whipped cream, of course…as long as the English pastor, genius inventor of English custard, doesn’t interfere…

And what exactly are bangs that hang down in front of your eyes, anyway? The world is a language against which I struggle. The whole world comes to me already written and what I write of the world is much akin to translating it.

Let’s take the stupid example of a sunset. How does one translate a sunset? How about the August 15th version, with its strong coloration? We can look this entry up in the catalog of the beauties of the world, with all of the typical wordsauce that comes along with it: we’ve got the blazing, the bloody, the crimson, the Twilight of the Gods, Hugo’s rays and shadows, the wide array of oranges, the agony of vermillion, cherry red, and the “what do we really amount to in the face of all this beauty?” We have Turner, we have Hugo, we have Paul Klee, we have any number of sunset-covered books about Africa. We also have a call to silence. With which language is it possible for me to translate this sunset, said and resaid a thousand times? The exercise is practically impossible, other than to approach it in terms of parody. The next one of us who manages to pen a beautiful sunset without a trace of the well-worn will be the writer among writers. Even the talented Pierre Charras sidesteps the issue: when his character finds himself looking out over the water, facing the day’s conclusion, he recognizes that he has run out of words and that, in the face of such a sight, there’s nothing to do but get a hard-on. And he does.

What do you think should crop up opportunistically on the horizon of the text if not a young girl with light hair and eyes: she advances with her hair inevitably “golden as the wheatfield” and her eyes most certainly “blue as the sea.”  How are we to pull her from this visual insipidity? How can we offer her up to truly be seen at long last by the reader who has grown tired of reading the world, if not through translation?

To not write by heart, to resist the text of the world: that is translation. It is translating with your fingertips in order to leave language and the world changed by the tiniest smidgen, a dollop that will one day be translated in turn. This precious space, that of the translation of language into language, is the very space of literature. In this confined space, to translate is to move forward in language, it’s to move to the side, it’s to take a step backward, it is to make use of the contradictory forces of translation. And here’s Rabelais translating the country almanacs into Rabelais, here’s Flaubert translating a banal anecdote into Flaubert (in this hypothesis, the legendary “Madame Bovary c’est moi” [“Madame Bovary is me”] would be nothing more than “Madame Bovary est ma traductrice” [“Madame Bovary is my translator”], and it’s Aragon translating the eyes of a blonde into Aragon. It will be left to me to translate them all so that her hair is never again golden like the wheatfields, and strong men are never again “sensitive deep down inside.”

If reading and rereading is any indication, it would seem that all the texts that participate in what we collectively produce and name “literature” are animated by a double movement: the literary text tells the story of the lives of men, and in doing so transforms them, even as it tells the story of the language of men, and in doing so transforms it. This double movement is indispensable to literature. One is never without the other (to put it simply, we could, for example, think that Camusartre says more about the lives of men than about the language of men, whereas Mallarmé does the opposite), but any text that doesn’t participate in this two-way play between life and language is in danger of being forgotten. To say the same thing again, or to say something new in the same way, or even more so to say the same thing in the same way, these are writing processes that only churn out tedium. This is the reason that no matter the commonsense advice I receive each day from one or another of my friends and from the hard economic realities involved, I cannot imagine producing a text in any language other than the one I first began reading in. In any other language, I’d be far too happy to write the way the language writes. And, drunk on this delight, I’d forget my obligation to translate.

Amid the noisy clamor of our little world, I seem to have heard somewhere that translators might not be creators in their own rights. These sorts of statements are the kind we laugh about when we first hear them, because we find this absurdity to be so enormous. But let this remind us to take precautions. We’re never prudent enough when it comes to making sure we don’t let points of view like these re-norm us.

Originally given as a talk at Dieulefit on May 28, 2022. First published in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne (#240) as Traduire est écrire suivi de Fournel’s Headache in January, 2023.


[1] Those four novels are La Liseuse, Jason Murphy, Jeune-Vielle, and Le Livre de Gabert (all published by Éditions P.O.L.)

[2] It was upon reading a beautiful text by Robert Coover that the publisher Robert Dubois offered this curious praise to two famous translators: “We’d need to get [Bernard] Hoepffner or [Pierre-Yves] Pétillon to translate it. And how much is that going to run us?”

[3] [Translator’s note: This headache-inducing “rhyme word,” in the source text, is lue: the past participle of the verb lire with a feminine agreement, whereas gendered agreements don’t exist in English, and the syntax of the preceding direct object would not allow for this placement.]

Paul Fournel, born in 1947 at Saint-Etienne, France, is a French writer. He was a longtime editor and publisher (at Ramsay and Seghers, among others). He has been President of the Société des gens de Lettres, Director of the Alliance Française in San Francisco, and cultural attaché to Cairo and London. He now writes full time, and is a cyclist with what remains of his day. During his third full-time, he participates in the work of the literary group Oulipo.

English translation originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 25, 2023

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