To add to the ongoing discussion about Georges Simenon's The Engagement, we asked translator Anna Moschovakis a couple of questions.
Q: How did this project come about?
A: I was lucky this time because the project came to me. I had already worked with Edwin Frank, the editor of New York Review Books Classics, on two other books, and he approached me about translating The Engagement. I actually had not read the novel; my parents had Simenon books around the house when I was growing up, mostly from the Maigret series, and I'd read and enjoyed a few of those. I'd also seen and liked the French film adaptation, Monsieur Hire. So I eagerly accepted the job.
Q: There are a lot of reasons for retranslating a particular book, and, I assume, a lot of potential complications in doing the actual retranslation. Where you already familiar with the original translation of this book? Did you think it was flawed? Did it serve as a guide at all? I'm not exactly sure how to ask this, but I think readers would be interested in knowing if/how the process for doing a retranslation differs from doing a book that's never made it's way into English?
A: It's interesting that you should use the word retranslation, though I suppose that's an accurate way to put it. (Somehow retranslation sounds to me like what a translator does to his or her own translation, while trying to get it right… .) The decision to commission a new translation for The Engagement was the editor's, so I can't really speak to the motivations behind it. Sometimes these decisions are made for reasons of copyright or other logistics.
As for my experience of it, this was the first time I'd translated anything of substantial length that had already been translated into English. I felt that I should consult the existing version, but I didn't know when or with what intentions. I think my subconscious took over: I ordered the book just after beginning work on my translation, and I couldn't help glancing at the first couple of pages to see how different the choices I was making were from the other translator's. But (fortunately perhaps) I was in the midst of a move during this time, and I managed to lose track of the book the next day, so I completed my translation without looking at it again. By the time I finally found it and was able to read it through, I'd already worked through the trouble spots, and I had a deadline to meet.
There is something exciting about translating something for the first time, and there's also something extremely interesting about working on something that has been translated a thousand times, like a Baudelaire poem. There does seem to be something awkward about doing a new translation of a book that is already adequately translated. But translations do fall out of date; the earlier translation of this novel was British and several decades old, and it seemed, in places, too tidy. When I translate prose, I translate for tone and rhythm, and what I wanted to capture about Simenon's style was the halting quality of the sentences. Often I felt that the language Simenon used was just another facet of his character, Monsieur Hire: awkward, conspicuous, sweaty, always a little out of place.
Q: In contrast to the movie, which, granted, is French, you went with “Mister Hire” instead of “Monsieur Hire”—was there a particular rationale behind this?
A: Well, as you say, the movie was in French, so it's natural that the character would be called “Monsieur”! But I admit I kept “Monsieur” throughout the book — the switch to “Mister” was an editorial decision, which may have something to do with a general policy of the publishers. The same goes for the choice to convert all the metric measurements to the British/American system. There are arguments for both choices: I tend to want to retain a sense of foreignness in a translation, so the reader never forgets that she is neither at home nor fully in the language and culture of the original text; she is in the non-space of translation, which is an activity rather than a locale. At the same time, if a sense of foreignness and being-in-translation is all that the reader takes away from a text, there would be no use in continuing to translate different texts! So, these decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.