Jessica Moore was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Maylis de Kerangal's Mend the Living. Her other translations include Maylis de Kerangal's Birth of a Bridge and Jean-François Beauchemin's Turkana Boy, for which she won a PEN America Translation Award. She is the author of the poetry collection Everything, now.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Maylis de Kerangal's work?
Jessica Moore (JM): I love Maylis de Kerangal’s deeply original use of language—employing rare words and mixing registers, giving grammar new rules—and I am captivated by the fluidity of her writing. Lately I have been referring to this book, Mend the Living, as a strange, sad, beautiful river—and there really is something liquid and fascinating about her work, and a musical fluidity I had to echo and make new in translation.
She also has this capacity to alternate between close-up detail and enormous metaphysical expansion. She surprises the reader with exquisite insights into life and this what-it-is-to-be-human. So it was her daring with language that I first was drawn to, her long searing passages, and then the skillfully-presented truths about humanity—emotion, obsession, habit—that she lays out in her books.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you'd done?
JM: In many ways, Mend the Living is similar to Maylis de Kerangal’s earlier novel Birth of a Bridge (which I translated in 2014)—it, too, employs detailed and very specific vocabularies (here, the language of surgery especially, but also of surfing, opera, songbirds, soccer, and boat-building; in Birth of a Bridge, mainly the engineering vocabulary associated with the construction of a suspension bridge somewhere in a fantastical California), shows minute attention to characters’ impulsions and patterns, could be seen as a technical epic, and demonstrates a wonderful brashness in her use of language (in both books, she frequently mixes antiquated words with colloquial or slang terms). What is unique about Mend the Living is that the story is carried along by a strong central thread of emotion—grief—and for me as a reader, this makes it a deeply compelling work. The story is centered around Simon Limbeau, a young man who loses his life and whose organs are donated; we get close, moving glimpses into the shock and sorrow of his family and those close to him, as well as flashbacks to vivid moments in his own life and loves. I think this book shows a writer at the height of her craft and I can’t wait to read her next novel (about the cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France, and the reproductions made of these ancient caves).
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
JM: Right now I’m reading Les grands, a meandering, musical, melancholy book by Sylvain Prudhomme. Mixing fiction and fact, he tells the story of a famous 70s music group in Guinea-Bissau and of an entire population living under an army dictatorship. The book is also a love story, told through the eyes of the group’s laconic guitarist as he wanders through the city over the course of a single day—strangely enough, like Mend the Living, Les grands takes place within the span of twenty-four hours. I absolutely think Sylvain Prudhomme is one to watch!