Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Virginie Despentes’s work?
Frank Wynne (FW): I have been reading Virginie Despentes’s work for several years, so I was excited to read Vernon Subutex when it was published. I thought it was unlike anything else in French (or English) literature—a broad, brilliant picaresque that takes a sweeping view of the modern world: social media, sexuality, violence, dispossession. It seemed to me to encapsulate a world that is fragmented and fragile, but one still imbued with hope and empathy. I have rarely laughed out loud or cried so much.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
FW: Vernon Subutex is filled with voices—each character has a distinct voice. Many are slangy, caustic, bitter; others are brutal, even racist; some are plaintive and wistful. Recreating those voices without losing a sense of place was a unique challenge. I had to find the rhythms and cadences of a sprawling cast of characters, playing with slang and dialect while preserving what is quintessentially French yet also highlighting what is truly universal in a human comedy worthy of Zola.
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?
FW: I am fortunate to be able to read widely in a number of languages. I am currently reading Europa, Cristina Cerrada’s haunting parable of migration. Though many novels from French and Spanish (the languages from which I translate) come from Europe, I would love to see greater attention paid to writers from the many countries where these languages are still a part of the literary tradition, such as the Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah; the Togolese author Kangni Alem; or the great Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra.