Earlier this week, I reviewed Annie Ernaux’s I Remain in Darkness, which was translated from French by Tanya Leslie. Ernaux now has a new translator, with whom she won the 2019 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation for The Years – an extraordinary work, which comes bound in one of Fitzcarraldo Editions’ white covers (denoting non-fiction), yet was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (fiction)! I’m delighted to be talking today with Alison L Strayer, translator of both The Years and A Girl’s Story, a forthcoming Ernaux memoir, due for UK release in April.
How did you become a literary translator?
Through a circuitous route!
To begin with, reading and writing have always been at the centre of my life.
At university, I studied French and Québécois literature, then trained as a teacher and taught English for ten years. By about my seventh year of teaching, I started translating literary texts for my own pleasure, and decided this what I wanted most of all to do, besides writing. Professionally, I started with film translation (there was a film boom in Canada at the time), then branched out to other domains, quite a variety — popularised medicine, cuisine, tourism, dance (etc.), though not a great deal of literature. I’ve worked primarily as a literary translator for about six years.
How did you become Annie Ernaux’s translator?
I was asked to translate The Years in the end of 2015 by Dan Simon at Seven Stories Press, New York, for whom I had done translations before. After The Years came out, I was invited to translate Mémoire de fille (A Girl’s Story).
What makes Annie Ernaux as a memoirist so special?
(This is just one aspect among many… it especially struck me in A Girl’s Story.)
I appreciate the author’s simultaneous endeavour to tell the story, and seek a way of telling it which will allow her to get as near as possible to ‘what happened’. The reader is carried along (included) in the process, so that the author’s seeking becomes very much part of the adventure.
For example, in A Man’s Place, in which AE writes about her father, “l’ecriture plate” (flat, ‘objective’ writing), was essential to the telling of the story (in which there can be ‘no lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony…’ she writes [translation Tanya Leslie]). In The Years, the narrator’s search for the “total book” is very much part of the narrative. She reflects upon the book for decades, takes copious notes and endlessly seeks a form, concluding : “it will be […] composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life. An outpouring, but suspended at regular intervals by photos and scenes from films…”
In A Girl’s Story, to write about the summer of ’58, and the ensuing years it so powerfully influences, the author must make contact with the real of ‘then’ — of events which at the time left her speechless, incapable of thought and action, physically present, but in a state of ‘stupefaction’ (as she describes it). She must make contact with the girl of then, who, she writes: ‘from a distance of fifty years is able to resurface and set off an interior collapse, [and has] a hidden, indomitable presence inside me’. (p. 21)
I like it too that we (readers) get to see the author’s trial and error in finding a way of telling her story. For example, in A Girl’s Story, hoping to capture that summer and ‘the girl’, and ‘to go as far as possible in the presentation of the facts and deeds’, the author starts by recording daily events of the summer of ’58, as she recalls them (and she has excellent recall!), but soon concludes that in using this approach, all she has done is ‘remained steeped in the pleasure of unwrapping memory after memory [and] refused the pain of form.’ (p. 17)
(‘Refus[ing] the pain of form’ is one of my favourite phrases in the book!)
The Years provides an account of French society spanning some 65 years. How much research was needed for you to translate it?
A great deal of research about French history and politics since about the end of World War One. Luckily, most of the necessary information was available on the internet.. The research was very pleasurable! I was always learning.
There was also cultural detail to be researched – publications, films and later television, the multiple peculiarities of the school systems, products of all kinds, trends in consumerism, different foods and appliances, and ever-changing folk wisdom about it all.
I imagine the development of linguistic idiom in both French and English throughout the decades would have been a particular challenge. How did you approach this?
The main challenge came from the linguistic variety needed to translate jingles, slogans, favourite quips from popular comedians, titles and scraps of songs, obscure rhymlets, schoolyard taunts, puns, spoonerisms, etc … This required more research on translation or dictionary internet sites, lively discussions with French friends and family, as well as invention and a great deal of tweaking. In a pinch (depending on the editor’s agreement), I created footnotes.
Otherwise the narrator’s prose doesn’t change in terms of idiom as the story unfolds from decade to decade, though it is a variegated prose from other points of view.
The author is keenly aware of language, how it changes, how it is associated with certain people and situations, etc. She alludes, for example, to “outdated expressions, heard again by chance…(old geezer, hullabaloo, a turn up for the books! You little nincompoop,)” (p. 17)’, or to ‘phrases […] of the parents which after their deaths remained more alive than their faces, curiosity killed the cat, little jugs have big ears’ (p. 19), or, on the other hand, to expressions learned by the narrator from grownup offspring: ‘They renewed our supply of words commonly used by the young, astutely imparted so we too could inject ‘trippy’ and ‘freaky’ into our exchanges” (p. 179-180).
In The Years, I found the use of photographs to document the passage of time on Ernaux herself particularly pleasing. Did you have access to these?
It’s funny, it never occurred to me to want to see the photos. The photos wholly existed for me through the words, the descriptions.
I too find her use of photos very pleasing and effective. And her ways of using them are so varied, from documentation of specific moments to jumping-off points for reflections on time, some very subtle and complex.
‘The distance that separates past from present can be measured, perhaps, by the light that spills across the ground between shadows, slips over faces, outlines the folds of a dress – by the twilight clarity of a black- and-white photo, no matter what time it is taken.’ (p 33)
Via the photo, at times Ernaux goes quite far beyond what can necessarily be perceived in a visual:
‘… it is with the perceptions and sensations received by the bespectacled fourteen-and-a-half-year-old brunette that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.’ (p. 53-4)
… And she goes even farther: after observing that nothing about the photo allows one to put a date to it, she says: “yet the beam that lights one side of the girl’s face and the jumper […] was for her a sensation of heat from the June sun of a year that no historian, or anyone else who lived at the time, could mistake for any other than 1955.” (p. 53-4)
Did you need to consult much with the author while translating The Years?
I knew that Annie Ernaux was very receptive to answering questions, but I did not contact her for The Years. However, I have done so while translating A Girl’s Story.
A Girl’s Story, Ernaux’s memoir of the summer of 1958, will publish in the UK in April. Can you tell us something about that?
It is a remarkable book!
Its title in French is Mémoire de fille. Writing began in the 2000s, I believe. It was published in French in 2016.
The story revolves around the summer of 1958, when the narrator, as a late adolescent (whom she later refers to as “the girl”) arrives at a camp for children in the Orne, a region of Normandy, where she has been hired to work as a group leader.
At almost-eighteen, she is unprepared for life away from her parents, her town, and convent school; or for a setting where young women and men mingle at work and after hours. Certainly she is unprepared for her first harrowing experience of sex, with the head counselor, ‘H’. To her mind, ‘H’ has ‘elected’ her to be his lover, however H is quick to disdain her. She remains in his thrall throughout a summer that is both an exercise in freedom (as she sees it) and a waiting for ‘H’, her ‘master’, to come back to her. She will be harshly judged by her peers.
The overweening sway of the past, its power to abduct us, is vividly portrayed in A Girl’s Story. For the writer-narrator, fifty years after the summer of ’58, ‘the girl’ remains an indomitable presence, though she has long wished to forget her completely. She returns to the long-ago summer by way of writing. That it is a vital necessity for her to do so, becomes clear: ‘As I sit with this page before me, those years are not the past for me but, on some deep level, if not literally, my future.’(p. 75)
Later, having written about the summer of ‘58, the girl and her ‘master’ ‘H’, the narrator observes:
‘There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.
I do not envy him: I’m the one who is writing.’ (p. 90
Was translating A Girl’s Story easier with The Years under your belt?
I was less daunted because it wasn’t my first time translating Annie Ernaux.
With The Years, I’d spent a while underlining and making glossaries and thinking about what I was going to do before I started to translate. With Mémoire de fille, I dove right into it. This said, I immediately landed on one of the most challenging passages in the book, where the voice has a very particular resonance—stark, sort of eerie. You feel there is an exact English word waiting in the wings to translate each of the French ones, and only that word will do.
Otherwise, there are quite a number of incidents related in A Girl’s Story that I recognised from The Years. Certain words and expressions recur, difficult syntax I more readily knew how to attack. I was more familiar with certain paths of Ernaux’s thought. But on the whole, the book presented its own, new challenges.
In addition to translating from French to English, and from English to French, you also write novels. Which do you prefer, writing or translating?
Translating authors whose work I feel a close affinity with is very much like writing, but with more of its keen pleasures and fewer of its occupational hazards.
Translation is tonic. It allows for the tug of war, the wrestling with language that writing is, at its best moments.
I’d say I enjoy translation more, though it does not replace writing.
If you were a castaway on a desert island with only one book to read and another to translate, what would they be and why?
Mavis Gallant’s fifty years of journals. I’d hope for their release by the time I land on the island. The publication of all the journals was announced in 2012, when Mavis Gallant was still alive, and then in 2015 a first volume (1952-1968) appeared for pre-sale online, but as far as I know, they are still yet to appear.
Why this book? Mavis Gallant’s work has been essential reading to me for most of my life — since I was fifteen, when I was shocked in a way no adolescent wants to admit by her novel A Fairly Good Time (1971). (I had the luck of co-translating this book into French with my friend and colleague Geneviève Letarte in 2009).
As for the second part of the question, I think I would prefer to use my desert island time for writing. Having said this, I would really hope for rescue within, say, six months!