All-star translator Jordan Stump and the man behind the Englishing of Two Lines Press’s forthcoming All My Friends gets interviewed at The Nervous Breakdown on the intricate prose of Marie NDiaye. Here’s a taste.
You’ve worked with some of the most innovative French-language authors to appear in English in recent years, among the Eric Chevillard, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Marie Redonnet. How does NDiaye’s prose compare to theirs, either as a reader or as a translator?
Over the years, I’ve decided that, from a translator’s point of view, there are two kinds of writers: some have a very tough and sturdy style that can be messed around with a great deal and still sound like itself, and others have a very delicate, precarious style that is very easily deformed in translation. Chevillard is perhaps the best example of that first type: you can turn his sentences around, break them up into shorter sentences, replace one bit of wordplay with another, range far afield for your word choices, and as long as you’re attentive and imaginative the result will still sound like Chevillard. NDiaye is a writer of the second type. As I said, her language is sort of balanced between poetic and prosaic, and if you go just a little bit too far in either direction it loses all its character. The vagueness of her narrative (by which I mean that she often refuses to give us the context that would make her meaning entirely perceptible) is also hard to reproduce. The translator’s impulse is always to find some way to explain anything that isn’t abundantly clear in the text, and that reflex has to be reined in, even as one has to find a way to make the text clear enough, and to make it clear that it isn’t supposed to be entirely clear. No translation is ever easy, but so much of NDiaye’s writing is a matter of careful, unlikely balance that the text can easily be ruined even by a translator with the best of intentions.
Get more information about the incredible Marie NDiaye here, and order your copy of All My Friends.