WWB: Can the two of you talk about how The Most Secret Memory of Men came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation.
Listen to Lara Vergnaud talk about the origins of The Most Secret Memory of Men
But for now, I will simply speak to how the English version came into being, which was a mix of a good eye, Judith Gurewich’s to be specific, and good timing, mine. I have a wonderful working relationship with Judith, who is the publisher of Other Press. At this point, I’ve translated a few of their books. About halfway through the pandemic, six months or so after I had my daughter, I gave Judith a call, ostensibly to discuss another previous translation of mine that was in the editing phase. But in reality, because I was coming out of maternity leave and looking for work. Judith told me she had recently acquired the rights to a phenomenal novel. “I think it’s going to win the Goncourt, Lara,” she said. She went on and told me she was looking for a translator. The Prix Goncourt is France’s highest literary honor. It’s awarded every year.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. I read the book in a matter of days actually. It’s a long book, but I raced through it and I agreed that it was both phenomenal and would probably win the Goncourt. I then was given about one week to prepare a translation sample. The agonized [inaudible 00:01:36] would be the more accurate way to describe that. I think I translated the first sentence of that book about 10 times, if not more. From my understanding, that sample then had to be vetted by a few individuals, including the author, which was somewhat of an unusual process. That whole review took about a month, one long anxiety inducing month. Meanwhile, the novel did win the Goncourt. It was shortly after that, to my delight, I learned that I would be the one to translate it.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as The Most Secret Memory of Men was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?
LV: I always say that the last book I translated is the hardest book I’ve ever translated. But in this case, I think it’s true! This novel posed a number of challenges, starting with its length, 460 pages in the French. Additionally, it’s not a single chronological narrative; the book is split into different time periods, and multiple locations. But what made the translation particularly difficult is that the book is further divided by different narrative voices and writing styles. For example, though much of the story is told from the third person point of view of the main protagonist, the novel periodically switches to sections written in the form of a journalistic investigation, diary entries, or letters. Even the omniscient narrative voice changes, at times wry, at times detached, at times untrustworthy. Half-way through the novel, there is a long section that echoes the Senegalese tradition of oral storytelling, then another written as the incoherent raving of a mother gone mad after losing her son, and yet another, from the perspective of a poet recounting her experiences in a drug-induced hallucinatory state. So in addition to tackling the typical linguistic challenges of translating from French, I had to capture these disparate voices and styles and somehow, as Mohamed did, maintain the coherence of the narrative.
When translating, it can sometimes take a long time to get into a certain voice, or find the rhythm guiding a book. With The Most Secret Memory of Men, it was that ten times over. My solution was to deconstruct the novel into three books, which I approached like separate projects, meaning I produced one polished draft before moving on to the next. During the revision phase, however, I would sometimes edit those mini-books out of order—I find there’s something about eliminating the logic and chronology of a text that lets you zero in on the language and identify your mistakes. And then, of course, I eventually had to put the whole book back together. (Also, thank goodness for phenomenal editors, namely mine—Yvonne Cardenas at Other Press.)
WWB: Lara, I’d like to ask about translating work by an author who has previous work in English. Are there any unique considerations you take into account in doing so, or, on the contrary, are there reasons to approach it as you would any author whose work you’re translating for the first time?
LV: As far as I am aware, this is my first time translating an author who has already been published in English (a previous novel titled Brotherhood, translated by Alexia Trigo and published by Europa Editions). I perused that translation, reading only the first two or three pages, but then decided not to read the whole book. There is certainly an argument to be made for consistency with previous English translations, especially since Mohamed does have certain stylistic tics that recur throughout his writing. But as I mentioned, it was a challenge to capture the myriad voices in his latest novel, and to do so I felt I needed to go in with a blank slate. I feared that I might be overly influenced by another translator’s choices, although I have no doubt they were excellent choices. Ultimately, the translator leaves an imprint on every work they produce, be it so subtle as to escape detection or a more visible flair; I’m not sure which category I fall into but I wanted all my choices to remain unquestionably mine, for better or worse, detectable or not.
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