The Translator

I am a translator. At first, it is a pleasure a bit like being an actor. You have to get used to someone else, listen to him, understand him, immerse yourself in him, except that a novel, rather than a character, must be interpreted.

I always proceed in the same manner. Once the book is in hand, I shut myself away at home. I wait till dark to start reading. At night, the violence of the outside world subsides; you’re that much more available. Seated at my desk, I read by a lamp that gives off a very soft glow: it’s a first date, a kind of candlelit dinner, hope for potential seduction, for pleasure to come. That’s all I’m hoping for—to be charmed.

For that to happen, I must start by forgetting what I will have to translate. I tend instinctively to spot words or phrases that will pose a problem. But I forget them easily. Forgetting can be as much a virtue as a defect. Here, it is a gift. I let myself be swept away, I surrender myself to the author, I let him do as he wishes, I haven’t the right to impede him, he’s always right; to resist him, to bicker, would be the beginnings of infidelity, and for a translator, infidelity is the worst of crimes. This first reading must stay with me. It tells me what’s essential: the music of the book. I keep listening to this for the next few days. I must not forget it. And then, I begin to translate.

In this way, the author and I form a happy couple. Then why, one day, did I tear it apart? Why did I betray? Why did I grow unfaithful? Let us return to forgetting, virtue or defect, and in any case an essential part of myself, since it is how all this began. I committed an act of forgetting. A trifling one. So trifling another word is required. Infinitesimal, for example. I forgot a semicolon.

It was a spring day. I’d brought my editor my latest translation. It was sitting on his desk just next to the novel I’d translated. At one point, my editor stepped out for a reason I no longer remember. The two objects remained before me, the original and the translation. Why did I take hold of them? Why did I start weighing them, setting one atop the other, leafing through their pages? Something to do while waiting, no doubt, or perhaps the pleasure of caressing a completed task. The fact remains that—a translator’s final instinct—I wound up reading the last line of each work. There I discovered an anomaly. Instead of a semicolon, I’d put in a comma.

The author had written, “It was over; day was about to begin.” I had translated, “It was over, day was about to begin.”

The addition of a simple dot above the comma would have sufficed to correct this mistake. I did not add it. I gazed once more at the semicolon, the comma. They left me indifferent. And I set the novel and my translation back in their place.

I should’ve realized that something was starting just then. But it is often a quirk of beginnings to be forgotten; how many wars, how many affairs would we have avoided had we seen them coming?

Nevertheless, the episode marked me, for in the course of my next translation I began to wonder about the value of semicolons and commas. Naturally I could go on about the differences between them, in many cases perfectly pointless, but my intentions lie elsewhere. It so happened that I then eliminated a considerable number of semicolons from that next book. Forty-eight, to be exact.

If someone had noticed, my fate would no doubt have gone on unaltered. But this wasn’t the case. No one noticed their absence. That the editor hadn’t seemed normal to me. An editor has several translations going at the same time, and begrudging him for not noticing the disappearance of forty-eight semicolons would be unfair. On the other hand, the reaction of the author, an Englishman I met a year later, was unacceptable. His French was perfect and, to hear him speak, my translation had enchanted him. I thought these superficial compliments at first, and wondered if he’d really read it. But, pressing the conversation further, I realized from several details that he had. Without noticing a thing.

Can one begrudge an author for not remembering his semicolons? Of course not, and all the more so since he’d finished his book three years earlier. Yet begrudge him I did. I believe my resentment came from having always been perfectly punctilious, out of respect for the author, love for literature, and need for fidelity. And I expected the same virtues in return. But perhaps this rancor was necessary to clear the first obstacles from the path I was about to take. Perhaps I also wished to test the attention, the respect, that an author or editor bears a translator? How to tell? From having translated so much, and so many characters, I know there’s never only one reason for anything.

Still, old loves are not so easily divorced. By and large, and despite this domestic row, I remained ever faithful. But it must be said that adultery, once committed, becomes tempting. It is a moment of freedom, a little secret that offers a pleasure for which one rather quickly forgives oneself when the other person fails to notice a thing. That is how I recall my third escapade. I was translating a Swedish author. (I translate from three languages: English, German, and Swedish.) His style was very visual, and one of his habits was quite precisely describing the colors of his characters’ eyes. He matched these to their temperament in a way I deemed too predictable. The ethereal, slightly schizophrenic blonde had eyes of almost faded blue. Those of the man she met, an inveterate womanizer, were a deep, burning black, and so on. These were the colors I changed first. The blue eyes became hazel, and the black eyes, green.

There is ecstasy in taking a risk. Adrenaline surges when you set your translation down before an editor. It remains high in the following days as you await a reaction, comments. Then it transforms into a strange jubilation when you are heartily congratulated for your work.

But I am not naïve. If at first the feeling of fooling everyone around me was pleasantly amusing, I soon understood that something else was going on. I was the one being fooled. I was betraying everything I’d ever been. The escapade faded away, the divorce stood out starkly. A difficult moment. It’s not so easy to leave yourself behind. And where will you go?

I remained cautious, faithful once more. But to no avail; once you’ve tasted risk, you miss its dangers, boredom sets in, adventure calls, and a German author, Hermann Schloesser, was to pay the price. Don’t get me wrong—I hadn’t been surrendering myself to my authors for a some time now, and this one annoyed me considerably with his way of describing women. They were monuments to psychology, machines for pondering love that, from sheer deliberation, were lost to abstraction. They lacked shape, shapes, bodies described in ways besides analytical metaphors. That was where—with a speed that still astonishes me—I began to add text. It was a very long sentence, written all at once, straightforward at first but soon traveled by slow curves, a sensual sinuosity, full of hollows and undoings, the colorful course of a woman’s body whose contours never bored me, sweeping me toward other words, happy conjugations, winged and playful, bringing me to prolongations, to comings and goings that I would no doubt have pursued had Hermann Schloesser’s stern shadow not fallen slowly over the page.

Schloesser was right. We were far from the semicolon. Far from an altered color. This was pure usurpation.

I don’t know what I would’ve done with this crime had a female friend not phoned me at that instant. Slipping the sentence into my translation would’ve been impossible. It would probably have ended up in the trash. But my friend called me up. She was a fairly talkative woman, sometimes a bit wearisome, and soon I was only listening with one ear, preferring to mechanically read over the sentence I’d written. I did so several times, each with the mounting desire to know what my friend would think of it. So I pretended I was writing a short story, and read her the description I’d just written. She listened, and found it magnifique.

Translators are often congratulated, but never admired. Here the admiration was undeniable, warm, enthusiastic. To listen to my friend, rarely had a woman’s body been so well described, and if the rest was just like it, I was writing a very good story.

That compliment saved the sentence. I set it aside on a corner of my desk, far from displeased to reread it from time to time. And this was clearly the satisfaction that, a bit later, prompted me to start up my little game again. Once more aghast at a passage of Schloesser’s, still too abstract when it came to women, I expressed what he wanted to say in a different way, always more embodied, sometimes taking up a few of his words but adding in my own to give his women much more movement, thus expressing their psychology through physical sensation and increased spatial presence. A technique I was to reuse several times, until I’d created, or hijacked, forty-four sentences.

It was an enormous risk. I might be struck from the list of translators. This didn’t happen. I was treated to congratulations. In my editor’s defense, it must be said that I was a well-known translator. I was trusted, and my translation must have been read only superficially. The fact remains that when the book came out, several people noticed a change in Schloesser. They found him happier, not as dry; he’d evolved. Thus did I discover that my forty-four sentences, although far from changing the book shape, of course, nevertheless brought it nuances which, by dint of being repeated, gave off another color.

And this color interested me. But identifying it wasn’t easy. At first sight, this way of rendering women more physically came close to being a sensual aspiration. It was partly that voluptuousness was involved, but on reflection it seemed more and more to touch on another domain. It seemed women were but the medium and that, beyond them, I’d discovered a sensuality hitherto unknown: that of writing.

In many ways, translation remains a technical act. Even if, as I’ve said, melting into an author’s music resembles the gesture of a lover, the blow-by-blow that follows, the word for word, soon grows fairly dry. Here, when hijacking, or rather—let us not fear the word—when creating these forty-four sentences, any impression of technicality was erased.

Such erasures are not forgotten. Nor the impulse they produce—that freedom, that élan. It stays with you. It moves in, between you and the dictionaries. It renders those tomes less friendly, sometimes frankly unwieldy, soon hostile, until one day you hear them hurl the words right in your face: using them, translating, is no childhood dream, but a job. Did I want to hear something else?

Every translator has dreamed of writing someday, and I was no exception. Sheets of paper have long dawdled in my drawers; diverse notes, vague plans for novels, even the beginning of a short story. But I’d always given up under the pretext of having a translation to start or finish. In truth these projects didn’t inspire me; they lent me no élan. Perhaps there would be a day for writing, but moreover, and most importantly, you must know just how daunting writing is for a translator.

I make definitive assertion: no one knows books better than we do. Readers, critics, editors—none of them know the weight of a word, the structure of a novel, its most intimate arrangements, as we translators do. I’ll go even farther: in many areas, writers themselves are less aware than we are of their work. Quite often their style, an instinctive reflection of their affect, gets away from them; they toss it onto the page, too busy to chase it down and make out the logic whose very workings we translators follow with a jeweler’s loupe.

Far from being liberating, this knowledge is a restraint. It worries, leads to constant comparison. I’d gotten rid of it by bracing myself against someone else. I’d mingled my science with his to see the result. The world had been satisfied. My words were well worth as much as someone else’s. My day had come.

From Le Traducteur. © 2006 by Jacques Gélat. Published by Les éditions José Corti. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.