On Translation, Commas, and Run-On Sentences in The Fata Morgana Books

Charlotte Mandell, translator of our November title The Fata Morgana Books, has a great piece up at Necessary Fiction on her work with this title and its author, the French/English bilingual Jonathan Littell. The whole thing is definitely worth a read, as Charlotte is one of the best translators out there right now (short list of her work: Proust, Blanchot, Littell, Énard, Rancierre . . .), but the part that really caught my eye was where she talks about her and Littell’s competing versions of the “Fait Accompli,” which is part of the book’s first (of four) novella, “Etudes.”

I think it’s interesting that Charlotte chose to highlight the use of commas and run-on sentences here because she’s probably the world authority on that topic, having translated Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, which is nothing but one enormous run-on sentence, with, of course, lots of commas. “Fait Accompli” isn’t quite that, but it is a strange story (break-up as a mathematical equation is what we’ve been calling it around the office), and I’m guessing it required some serious translation ingenuity to pull off.

Anyway, you should have a look at Charlotte’s piece to see a comparison of her translation and Littell’s. I’ll post hers right here and let you click on over to compare.

In the case of the Fata Morgana books, I seem to recall the changes as being for the most part quite minor — matters of punctuation and sentence structure, mostly. There’s a story in Etudes, called “Fait Accompli,” which has a lot of commas — it’s a series of run-on sentences, basically — and Jonathan wanted to use more commas and fewer periods. Here are our two versions, mine first:

“Talking, then, a conversation in short, like many others. But whoever says ‘conversation’ says ‘scene,’ it’s a convention of the genre. So the conversation takes place in a park, by the side of a grey pond, in the racket of cars and trams going by them, between two rows of trees including chestnuts, recognizable from their eggplant-shaped leaves and especially from the chestnuts strewing the ground. It’s fall and the already yellow leaves on the trees including chestnut trees are falling and strewing the ground and floating on the grey water of the pool and often raised in heaps by the cars and trams passing right next to them, and their sad footsteps tread on the yellow and brown leaves and a few rare chestnuts and many husks, the green ones freshly fallen and the brown ones yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s, shaken from the chestnut branches by filthy kids who have gathered the chestnuts for their slingshots, hence their rarity, but they left the husks, hence their ubiquity. No that won’t work. Let’s say rather a subway station, by for instance the Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow subway, chosen at random, with all along its vaulted ceiling its pretty oval mosaics, planes, aircraft, parachutists, young Soviet athletic types bursting with health and joy, all the way to the end of the long hall with at the end the bust of the poet, the filthy bust, the filthy poet. They are walking, she with her ashamed and suffering eyes fixed on the concrete of the platform, he with his face raised to the mosaics, the fragments of colors stuck between the arches, this imaginary innocence. No that won’t work either. In fact they’re sitting down since thinking about it has tired them too much to walk.”

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