Jordan Stump a Finalist for The French-American Foundation Translation Prize

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Jordan Stump, super-translator

We are all incredibly proud (though, admittedly, not surprised) to see that Jordan Stump’s translation of All My Friends by Marie NDiaye has been named a finalist for the The French-American Foundation’s 27th Annual Translation Prize. Jordan is in some outstanding company, including the very, very talented Edward Gauvin translating for the hugely interesting Wakefield Press, as well as two books by Other Press (quickly becoming one of my translation mainstays) and another title from the always-interesting Seagull Books.

If you’ve been following Two Lines Press, it’s no secret that Jordan is one of the best French translators out there, and that this book really gave him ample room to showcase his talents. Here’s an exchange from an interview I conducted with Jordan, where he delves into his translation practice:

Another thing you touch on in your previous answer is that these stories all have interesting lacunae. For instance, in “The Boys,” a story about a young boy named Rene who dreams of selling himself to some shadowy people, just as his older brother did. In this story you never quite find out what Rene wants to sell himself into. Of course one would imagine it’s something terrible like child prostitution, but NDiaye never makes it clear. In a way, these lacunae are the most important things about the story—they hold so much of the characters’ fascination and hopes—but in another way it’s not really important that you don’t find out exactly what they are. The stories function just fine, or are arguably improved, but withholding. Did you find it challenging to maintain these spaces in the translation?

Yes, because in a sense you have to go against your readerly reflexes. As a reader, you spot those lacunae and you fill them in (you come up with your own explanation for what “being bought” signifies for René, or for what exactly has happened or is happening to Brulard in “Brulard’s Day”). Readers do that spontaneously, coming up with a provisional explanation for anything that the story leaves unspoken. I have my own idea of what awaits René, and of what has happened to Brulard, and that’s simply because I’m doing my job as a reader; the vitally important thing as a translator is not to let your own understanding of the story taint, however discreetly, your rendering of it. (And one can easily commit that misdeed, by one’s word choices, by the tone one adopts…) For me, translation is a process of continual rethinking. You have to revise your translation again and again, without looking at the original, so that it will work as a text to be read in English; but at the same time, you’ve got to be continually going back to the original, making sure that in all your revisions you’re not drifting away from the text, making it too vague or too clear, too limpid or too crabbed, and so on. Many of the challenges of translation, I think, can be gotten around by that process of continual rethinking and revision. It takes a lot of work and concentration. That’s why I only choose to translate books that, like this one, thoroughly fascinate or trouble me. I can’t imagine doing all that work for a book that doesn’t give me anything back. And, in my experience at least, NDiaye’s writing always repays that kind of careful attention.

I very much agree with that. When I was preparing for this interview, I simply began reading these stories again straight through, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience. The sentences are so strange that they feel as fresh as the first time you read them, and you can begin to savor new things about them. For instance, this sentence, from the beginning of “The Death of Claude Francois”: “And the woman who looked like Marlene Vador, and who was Marlene Vador, since she’d said so, added, teasing and vaguely put out.” That simple notion of Marlene Vador confirming her own identity, which NDiaye elongates over two clauses, drives home just how strange it is that her friend Zaka has seen her again after all these years. We’ve all done this: “yes, that must be so-and-so because he’s said so, but it’s hard to believe.” I also like how the sentence moves from outside to inside Marlene Vador. We begin it looking at her and we and end it inside her head, and that middle clause, “since she said so” is where we pivot from one to the other. I can only image the work of translating these sorts of sentences. Do you feel that there’s something about the French language that lends itself to these kinds of sentences?

Yes, absolutely. French looks much more kindly on wandering, complex sentences than English does, and NDiaye takes full advantage of that every opportunity. The difficulty of the translator, of course, is that this aspect of the author’s style has to be preserved, while at the same time not being too off-putting for an American reader. The answer to that, as with so much of translation, is endless revision and rethinking. Sometimes the differences between languages can’t be overcome. In the first story, for instance, the French reader learns very early on (in the sixth paragraph) that the narrator is a man, thanks to the presence of two adjectives in their masculine form; in the translation, the gender of the narrator isn’t made explicit until he sees himself in the mirror in the post office. Does that make any difference? That’s the kind of question translators have to be asking themselves at every moment, and generally the answer is extremely unclear.

You can also read a fine interview at Words Without Borders where Jordan talks more about his craft.

I think that the hardest part for me was translating the very last story, “Revelation.” NDiaye works on a broad scale—her stories unfold slowly. A very short story like that is an oddity in her writing. I found it a little daunting because everything has to fit together in a way it doesn’t necessarily have to in a larger story. So with that story I simply found it difficult to make it convincing in my own mind.

Apart from that, the perennial difficulty with translating writers like NDiaye or Eric Chevillard, who I also translate, is that they tend to write in a style that is pretty accessible to French people, with very long, complex, even run-on, sentences. Something at the end of the sentence can refer back to something earlier in the sentence because you know that the feminine singular pronoun has to be referring back to a feminine singular noun, etc. You can’t really get away with that in English. So the difficulty is respecting the author’s individual style while still respecting the differences between what is considered acceptable or only-slightly-excessive in English, and what is considered acceptable or only-slightly-excessive in French. That’s hard—reconciling what the author does with what the reader can tolerate.

And if you’d like to see for yourself, we have an excerpt from All My Friends up on our website. Just click here to give it a spin.

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