The Translator as Overachiever: Alison Anderson at 111 Minna

By Victoria Pacchiana

Just prior to attending Alison Anderson’s talk through the Center for the Art of Translation, my friend and I were discussing the complexities of translation and the difficulties that translators face. My friend, a budding translator herself, does not, as a rule, purchase books in translation by just any old translator.  She needs to know that the translator has had enough contact with the author, and has enough knowledge of the country and language of origin, to understand and truly grasp the “essence” of a story.  Once she has found one of these translators, and concurs that the end-result is a valuable one, she becomes something of a translator loyalist—looking only to the worthy few who, to her, are the ambassadors of the non-English literature world. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that there was such a large crowd gathered last week at 111 Minna, a small gallery in downtown San Francisco, to hear Alison Anderson speak. Anderson is best known these days for her translation of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog which, since its publication in 2008, has remained on the New York Times bestseller list. But Anderson’s translation career did not begin with this success. As she told the crowd, it started many years ago out of boredom. As a student of French and Russian, with a Master’s in translation, Anderson had experience with the craft through her role as a translator for an international organization. Yet it wasn’t until she stumbled across Olivier de Kersauson’s The Sea Never Changes—that she entertained translating literature.

Since these beginnings, Anderson’s translations have grown into a repertoire that represents the diversity of French culture and literature.

She gave the audience a small sample of this diversity by reading from three authors who, together, formed an unfamiliar portrait of modern French literary culture: Muriel Barbery, the Nobel Prize-winning author, J.M.G. Le Clézio and perhaps the most obscureof the group, Christian Bobin. 

The three excerpts were all incredibly unique, in both content and style. Le Clézio writes with elegance and intention behind each word as he explores the disastrous effects of colonialism in Africa as seen through the eyes of a young European boy. This is in high contrast to Barbery’s prose in Gourmet Rhapsody, which is airy and humorous in relaying the antics of a gluttonous dog.

In between the two falls the lesser-known Bobin, whose short essay-like stories in the collection The Little Party Dress meditate on life and literature. As Anderson says of Bobin, “he sees the world in a grain of salt.” 

From his essay, “Promised Land”: 

“You who travel little, you who never travel: still, there comes the odd day when you happen to take a train. At the station there are lots of businessmen. You can spot them from a distance by their missing faces. The same man, in dozens of copies. The same young man, old in his words, embalmed in his future.” 

Anderson is now working as a full-time translator and the future looks bright. We have, through her recent success, come to understand her work as integral to our understanding of French literature and culture. Indeed, for many it is because of her that we know its many facets at all. 


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