The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
01 July 2010
Interview with sf/f translator and writer Edward Gauvin
Edward Gauvin has been the premier translator of the work of French fantasy writer Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud. Edward's new book, A Life on Paper (Small Beer Press), contains English translations of twenty-three of Châteaureynaud's short stories, many of which have appeared, over the last five years, in magazines and journals. Edward’s alter ego, H.V. Chao, writes fantasy.
Un grand merci for having me, Shauna.
I must admit I had never heard of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud before meeting you. Could you explain his importance as a fantasist?
I think it highly unlikely any English speaker would have heard of him before Words Without Borders published “Delaunay the Broker” in 2005. I can count on one hand the number of times his name appears in an English language publication before that: World Literature Today, the French Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and Paths to Contemporary French Literature (the latter two both in articles written by John Taylor). He had no Wikipedia entry in English, which is a contemporary standard for anonymity.
Even after “Delaunay,” Châteaureynaud appeared mostly in literary journals that don’t attract the attention of a wide or genre audience. It wasn’t till “Icarus Saved from the Skies” got picked up by F&SF that I think he got some attention in the blogosphere. He’s been translated into thirteen other languages, but in many ways English remains the gateway language. I hope that with this book, his presence in English and elsewhere is just beginning.
Châteaureynaud has a twofold place in French letters: he was part of a generation of authors (Saumont, Bens, Ravalec, Fournel) who began publishing in the 1970s and were responsible for a renaissance of the short story, which had been a moribund genre in France. He’s also a prominent figure among contemporary fantastiqueurs, or writers of the fantastic, a genre that wasn’t quite as dead when he started out—it underwent a certain revival, laced with latter-day Surrealism, right after WWII, with writers like Noel Devaulx and André Pieyre de Mandiargues—but was similarly not mainstream.
I’m happy to say both modes persist today, if still slightly out of the limelight. Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud is, to date, the author of nine novels and more than a hundred short stories. Over a career of more than thirty years, he has been honored with the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Giono, and the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire at Utopiales.
Does French speculative fiction have any special character of its own? Is Châteaureynaud representative of French sf/f writers?
French sf is still probably best known for kicking off sf way back with Jules Verne. There’s a very specific French sf tradition—like Andrevon, Klein, Wul, Pelot, Ayerdhal, Dunyach, writers all to be found in various English anthologies—that arguably grows out of Barjavel, France’s Bradbury. This is more sf as we American readers think of it—space travel, apocalypse, alien races—though arguably the themes are less technological and more hard-humanities.
The fantastic, as differentiated from fantasy in general, is a very specific vein born of the transition from Romantic to Modern. In Tzvetan Todorov’s famous formulation, the fantastical tale forces the reader’s hesitation between natural (psychological) and supernatural (marvelous) explanations for the apparently impossible events that befall its protagonist. The genre is thus usually said to lie between the marvelous (fairy and folk tales, magical creatures, secondary worlds) and psychological suspense. Poe and Hoffmann are among the early practitioners whose work laid the foundations for the genre.
It’s my own theory that the reason the fantastic flowered in France and England, notably among the Decadents, and magical realism (which falls more in the vein of the marvelous) never did is because magical realism is essentially pagan, like Spanish Catholicism. France’s Cartesian rationalism and England’s Protestantism banished the uncanny and unreal so that when these did erupt in stories, things took a turn toward terror.
Châteaureynaud is at pains to dissociate himself from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of horror, which he sees as potentially impoverishing the possibilities of the fantastic as a form by reducing it to what critic Roger Caillois claimed it was: a series of manipulations of formal elements whose only goal was to elicit fear.
Châteaureaynaud’s work eschews shock and disgust, pursuing something more understated and elusive: a feeling of foreignness, disorientation, or wonder. “Inside the human skull are the heavens of another world,” he notes. “What amazes us and what frightens us comes from within ourselves.”
French has a smaller vocabulary than English, which would suggest that French words have more nuances on average and thus many possible English translations. How do you decide which English word most closely approximates the author’s intended meaning?
It’s about maintaining consistency. Using one word leads to using another. Maybe it’s not the all-time best choice, but for the moment it allows you to move on, cover more ground, see the terrain ahead, get a sense of how the whole will look. Then you come back: Sometimes that choice still holds. Sometimes it has to be changed, and if it does, that’s likely to impact a string of other word choices predicated on that initial decision. To evaluate a decision when revising, I consider theme, rhythm, register, sonority. Context locks one into certain choices.
The vocabulary is smaller, but I would venture to say that the idiomatic variety is just as rich: It is often a question of finding an equivalent colloquial phrase rather than a single word.
How do you strike a balance between translating the words accurately and translating the inflection, tone, diction level, and mood accurately?
In other cases—often when I’m assigned a piece to translate—I cleave closer to the letter, at times uncertain of its spirit, and trusting the literal to speak for itself; I think this is a matter of confidence. Diction level or register is a major judgment call that frames an entire piece, affecting tone and mood. To a certain extent every author invents his or her own language: an idiolect to express idiosyncrasies. Superior, innovative writing is difficult to translate, as is awful, inexpressive writing—both make meaning difficult to decipher. As with any bell curve, most pieces fall somewhere in the middle.
How does the creativity used for translation differ from that used for writing fiction?
I think translators spend a great deal of time finicking with things writers don’t consider till the final drafts. Not having to feel their way toward a story frees translators to focus on prose polish: In some ways, that’s their focus.
Translation is close adaptation. Adaptation is the art form of our time. Which makes fidelity one of the era's major issues.
Translation has also been spoken of as close reading. For better or for worse, translation engages the critical faculty more than pure creation. Much has been made of late about translation being a species of performance, like a musician’s of a score: translation as interpretation.
One thinks of castles and abbeys, like the Cloisters in New York, that were bought by robber barons and dismantled, shipped stone by stone across the Atlantic to be recreated in a New World setting. If the masons have done their job, the work is a perfect replica, but what, really, is the same about it? The mortar is new, like the view out the windows whose stained glass will receive a different sunlight during different hours of the day, and in the autumn different leaves will fall into the courtyard. Again, context is everything. As in Châteaureynaud’s tale about King Guita and his pavilion, one has the simultaneous and irreconcilable impression of sameness and difference. And yet something stands, where once there was nothing, which can be visited by people who could not otherwise have visited the original. Is this, then, a translation?
Has being a translator had an effect, good or bad, on your fiction writing?
Translation got me back into writing and taught me to tell a story: taking one apart into the tiniest possible pieces and putting it back together. One hears of writers retyping the stories of authors they admire: I get the perk of having a publishable product from this exercise.
Really, a lot of translation drafting approximates the final stages of a fiction drafting, when the plot’s in place and it’s a matter of ensuring prose flow. Placing so much intense attention on prose mechanics has its drawbacks for a fiction writer. Writing and storytelling are two very different things, I think—basically the debate between style and content—and literary tastes have often swung between these poles.
Being a freelancer, however, has not been the best thing for my writing.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
It takes me forever to put out a first draft. I brood on a story in my head a long time before committing it to paper. The way I see it, the first draft has to be good enough for me to want to keep going on it. If I set down any old thing it won’t impress me or endear itself to me enough for me to see the potential for something good in it.
I’m still trying to develop a regimen. I don’t recommend anything I do to aspiring authors; I’m still one myself. I seem to have to reinvent the wheel every time I sit down.
This summer, I’m taking part in the Clarion Write-a-Thon. The Clarion writing workshop has been running for forty-two years and has turned out many bestselling and award-winning writers, often in the speculative vein. Funding has been cut this year, and Clarion has responded by running a "Write-a-Thon" to ensure that the workshop can continue. Sponsor me, and all proceeds go to keeping Clarion alive. What this entails is making a small PayPal donation via my profile page, which can be found here. Even a $5 donation helps Clarion tremendously.
C.’s stories in this book are often brief and bittersweet. Is that typical of his whole oeuvre?
Yes. He’s a melancholy writer, obsessed with nostalgia and the irrecoverable, which is something that drew me to him. On the whole, I do not believe he is convinced fate is kind, or that people succeed in their efforts to rectify this. I feel something American in myself buck sometimes when I encounter this… fatalism in his or other European writers’ stories. We Americans expect so much more of our protagonists. They should all be extraordinary; they should all be heroes, while remaining human enough that we relate.
I did opt for shorter works. I am hoping to assemble the novella-length ones into a later collection, as Old Earth Books did with Howard Waldrop’s “long stories.”
What is the importance of C. to the sf/f field?
Time will tell. I suppose in my mind he deserves to be in the pantheon of 20th-century authors who have broadened and deepened the literary possibilities of the contemporary fantasy: Borges, Cortazar, Calvino, Kafka, Buzzati.
Did you become a translator of C.’s work by accident or design?
Very much design. Châteaureynaud was a labor of love for me, the first author I managed to convince a publisher to pick up, as opposed to the works-for-hire that publishers pitch me, in which I am invested to varying degrees.
What draws you to C.’s work?
Puzzlement, at first, and intrigue. As with any unfamiliar form of fiction, whether foreign or merely outside one’s comfort zone, there was a learning curve to reading him: Sometimes I worked backward from the assumption, if this is a story, what makes it work? But even then I liked his fragile characters and the longing they are prone to. He is an inveterate nostalgist, a self-pitying fatalist, a frequent ironist. I also liked the dreamlike texture of his work.
It’s difficult for me to speak of it now as if these effects were new, but his stories lend substance to the intangible in both language and plot, drawing readers gracefully into a realm where the most improbable events are briefly, poignantly, made real. Patiently he traces the faintly drawn, often permeable frontier between realism and fabulism, reality and reverie. A trickster among writers, his lyric prose and masterful storytelling deck falsehood out in all its finery to approach, often obliquely, human truth.
Are C. and Kurt Vonnegut identical twins separated at birth?
No, nothing so mundane. I’m sure the real story involves time travel, clones, benevolent aliens, and passing chance encounters of the kind that go unexplained and haunt one for the rest of one’s life.
Your writing voice and C.’s voice in your translations are similar. Was he a strong influence on the development of your own voice?
Is that true? I thought you said the opposite in an email to me once. I don’t suppose we’re ever entirely truthful about our influences—in any list, there are some we’re likely to forget, and what, oh what, does that omission betray about us?—but I think of Châteaureynaud more as a thematic and structural model than a prose influence, though I admire his way with the occasional epigram. We are somewhat philosophically kin; I see some of my own suspicions about life in what I perceive to be his worldview, and appreciate the ingenuity with which that worldview is expressed through certain stories.
I stress, however, that this worldview is something I’ve assembled as a reader, which the author might himself disavow or profess utter ignorance of; I doubt many writers start with a coherent worldview that they then try to force their fiction to convey. That seems somewhat didactic and programmatic in a way that precludes effective fiction. Authors often seem surprised, in retrospect, by the coherence of their body of work, ascribing what the reader sees as intention to obsession and accident.
Thanks again, Edward, for visiting my blog.
You can learn more about Edward and Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud by visiting Edward’s blog at http://www.edwardgauvin.com/blog/. A Life on Paper is available from your local bookstore as well as at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Borders.