Interview with American wordsmith, author, translator and publisher Mark Polizzotti
Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books from the French, including works by Gustave Flaubert, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, and Arthur Rimbaud. He is the author of eleven books, including Revolution of the Mind:
Born in Iowa, Ella Bartlett is a writer and poet who is delighted to discover more about translation. After graduating from Barnard College of Columbia University, she is currently a graduate student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is currently writing her thesis on intersectional feminism in the works of two nineteenth-century women writers, George Sand and George Eliot. Her works can be found in JetFuel Review, decamP magazine, and forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins.
You are a writer and a translator of more than 50 books and are currently the Publisher and Editor in Chief of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Can you speak a little about how your writing projects, translations and otherwise, fit together with your work at the MET?
Whether writing, translating, or publishing (or editing), it’s all about books, it all draws from the same source and serves similar ends. As a self-admitted book nerd, I believe these activities are all interrelated and cross-pollenate. To take an example, when I was writing the biography of André Breton, the original manuscript was something like 1200 pages long. My editor sent it back with one piece of advice: cut it in half. And largely because I’d been lucky enough to have experience as an editor of other people’s work, and therefore had been trained to look at any text, even my own, not only as a writer but also as a reader, I was able to do it without too much stress—and the final manuscript was much the better for it. Ultimately, in all three domains, it’s about the optimal use of language, how to say what needs to be said in the best (or most appropriate, or most economical) way.
When you were seventeen and studying at a university in Nanterre, you met the French author Maurice Roche, whose books you then went on to translate. I have to admit that’s a little bit of a fantasy for those who want to go into translation! Can you speak a little bit about how this small event turned into a career? What did you do following this encounter that paved your way into translation?
I had actually dabbled in translation before that encounter with Maurice Roche. In high school French classes, for instance, instead of just reading the chapter assigned for homework, I found myself translating it, trying to get a deeper sense of exactly what was going on in the text. Later, in college, after I had met Maurice and “translated” (in big quotes) his novel CodeX, I took a translation seminar in which everyone worked from different source languages. So by necessity, the emphasis was on the end product, the English translation, as its own entity rather than as a successful or unsuccessful mirror of the original. The questions we asked were, Does this work as a text on its own terms? Does it make sense to a reader coming to it cold, with no reference to (and probably no understanding of) the original? How did the author of the English text (i.e., the translator) achieve that particular effect? And so on.
Meeting Maurice Roche was a wonderful catalyst, because even though I took on CodeX without having any idea what I was doing, it tossed me into the deep end of the pool and got me grappling with issues that, to a large extent, I’m still grappling with today. CodeX was a mid-seventies experimental fiction, and highly demanding, but the challenges it posed, deep down, are no different from those posed by a Patrick Modiano novel: how can you make this text work in another cultural context and linguistic system while keeping it true to itself? After that, I took on another novel of Maurice’s, Compact, which I found could be adapted more successfully and which eventually was published, and in the meantime I was asked by a friend who ran a small publishing house to translate the essays of René Daumal (eventually published by City Lights), and by one of my ex-professors at Columbia to translate several books of philosophy for the Semiotext(e) imprint, which he ran at the time. And little by little, the more books I translated, the more people started seeking me out.
Which is not to say I haven’t pursued projects with publishers. Aside from Compact, which took years to place, I intentionally went after the novels of Jean Echenoz. Jean’s novel Cherokee was submitted to Random House; I read it as a favor to the acquiring editor and fell in love with it. After the then-editor in chief of Random House passed on it (by literally tossing the book over our heads and into the hallway), I learned that the small Boston house of David Godine had taken it on; so I wrote to David, saying that I had almost no translation experience but I loved the book and would like to translate it if he’d give me a chance. And he did!
The other thing I should mention is that, because I don’t live off my translation work, I have the luxury of taking on only those projects that appeal to me - or, more accurately, projects that I connect with, to which I feel I can do justice. If I don’t feel I can give a text my best effort or that I can put myself in the skin of the writing, then my impulse is to turn it down. It wouldn’t be fair to the book, the author, or the reader for me to translate it under those conditions. That said, there are times when you take on a project you don’t feel as viscerally connected to, for any number of extenuating reasons, and of course you do the very best job you can, but it’s not ideal.
Some of the books you’ve translated -- I’m Gone by Jean Echenoz, for example, or the novellas Afterimage and Flowers of Ruin by Patrick Modiano (in the volume Suspended Sentences), feature a young or middle-aged man who disappears, leads a life that is secret to some, or leaves a wake of absence. I’ve heard that writers have a handful of themes that they write about constantly—take Proust, for example, whose themes might include obsession, love and memory. Like a writer, do you think that a translator can have their “themes”? And if so, what are yours?
I think you’re right that these writers have that little cluster of obsessions they keep coming back to. For Modiano, it’s the past, the unreliability of memory, the long trail of the Occupation on the French psyche. I greatly enjoy translating his works, I strongly feel that connection I just spoke of, but these are not necessarily my obsessions. The same for Echenoz, who I’ve loved translating, and who often uses the conventions of thrillers and detective novels, some of them quite violent - even though I myself have never chased after anyone with gun in hand.
Those are surface differences. For translators, as for writers, the real ‘theme’ is language, and how that language is manipulated. For me, what appeals is a dry, phlegmatic tone, and also economy of expression, in which not a word is wasted – which is why I enjoy translating writers like Modiano or Echenoz or Marguerite Duras. Paradoxically, I find that kind of understatement and economy leaves open a space for greater emotional impact than with a writer who lets it all hang out, perhaps in the same way that shadow is made possible by light.
This reminds me of Patrick Modiano, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, whose dry tone has clearly something boiling underneath it. This comes across very clearly in your translation of his Suspended Sentences. In this book, his descriptions of Paris are dreamlike, ghostly, yet specific. How did you become intimate with Modiano’s Paris, and what kinds of research did you do to recreate his vision in English?
I’m so pleased you recognized that! That ‘something boiling underneath’ is exactly the quality I was trying to convey in the translation. His writing has a calm surface, but there are monsters under there. As well as a very wistful sense of nostalgia for a Paris that no longer exists, and maybe never did.
Many think of Modiano as a writer of the French Occupation. But while that historical moment clearly haunts him (he was born in 1945, so just after the war ended), the real turning point in his life is the early to mid 1960s, when he found personal liberation. He had a very difficult childhood, as he has recounted— among other things, his brother, with whom he was very close, died at a young age, and his parents were disasters—and the period when he turned twenty, freed himself from dependency on them, began writing, and began living his own life, is the setting of many of his books. The other thing that occurs frequently in his writing is a, for lack of a better word, discomfort with what Paris has become. I don’t know whether his nostalgia is for the way the city used to be per se, or for that sensation of endless possibility that he apparently felt in his youth, for which mid-sixties Paris, with its specific cars and cafes and metro stops and bookstores and restaurants and neighborhoods, provided the backdrop.
Modiano’s Paris is from the mid-sixties and I first lived there in the early ‘70s, so not that much had changed. I remember some of those neighborhoods, those places that he mentions and that are now gone. The things is, though, it’s not the way Paris really was that matters. I learned this when I went to visit some of the sites he mentions, intrigued by the foggy, magical atmosphere that emanates from his descriptions. What I found was not the wonderland I had envisioned, but rather that Modiano had filtered these places through his consciousness – of course he did, he’s a writer. Though these places existed in the physical world, in a very real sense they existed only in his mind. He gives many geographical particulars in his writing, as a way of anchoring the story he’s telling in physical and historical reality, but the end result is only to make them more elusive. His books are about indirection and vagueness. He gives you clues and then leaves you to create your own narrative—and as such, to become much more emotionally and personally invested.
I want to speak a little about your book Sympathy for the Traitor. You add an incredible and realistic perspective to translation theory, notably your rejection of the notion of “fidelity.” This age-old debate of Schleiermacher, Venuti, and others— is based around foreignizing or domesticizing the original text by how exactly the translator replicates it. Why do you think this notion of fidelity has become the dominant discourse in the field?
Well, as you know, debate between so-called fidelity and felicity, or literal versus liberal, stretches back to the very beginnings of translation. Horace and Cicero were making pronouncements about it at the turn of the first millennium. Throughout history, commentators and practitioners of translation have taken sides, depending in part on whether they think of translation as an art or a science. I think if that debate has taken on the character it has today – I would say ‘the acrimonious character’, but it’s always been acrimonious; people get really worked up over this stuff – it’s in part because translation theory has emerged as a significant academic discipline, one with (it seems to me) deeper roots in linguistics than in literary studies. And by nature, an academic discipline, to preserve its credibility, tends to systematize and look for applicable rules – some translation schemas look like mathematical formulas - which runs counter to a view of translation that’s more instinctive, less codified, and by nature less easy to encapsulate. Although certain aspects of translation do lend themselves to codification, once you get too rigid about it, or become too swayed by a particular theory, I believe it leads you down a false path. To create a good piece of writing, you have to call upon many different strands, many approaches, sometimes mixing several at once. And that also means knowing when to let something go, sacrificing it for the greater good, as it were. If you become too attuned to the original, too attached to its every nuance, the harder it becomes to translate, because the reality is you can never catch everything. But you can catch what’s essential.
With Sympathy for the Traitor, I was not interested in advancing a theory – there are enough of them as it is. I approach translation as a form of reading, a very active and creative form of reading suspended between two linguistic and cultural systems. By nature, that reading will be personal – the translations I produce are a result of my reading. Someone else would do it differently. But for me, the measure of success is whether, in reading over the English translation, I can hear in my head and feel in my heart the same resonances that I hear and feel from the French. That to me is the kind of fidelity that matters—but to arrive at that overall fidelity, you often have to commit many small infidelities.
In continuing with this idea of fidelity, I’m curious if an English reader who is familiar with French might feel as if the translation is hiding something if a cultural detail is “anglicized” to a certain extent. For example, if a French character takes an aspirin, when another brand of painkiller is a lot more common in France, that might be bizarre for certain English Francophile readers. How familiar do you expect your readers to be with the source language and culture?
I don’t expect the readers to be familiar at all, or at least I can’t count on it. There is no simple answer to your question, though, as many of these choices are case-by-case. Almost every translator will come across this kind of problem, and much of the time the solution depends on what the text specifically needs at that point: Is it enough to know the character took a painkiller? Do we need to know it’s ibuprofen and not paracetamol (and does it matter if I call it ‘acetaminophen’ instead)? If I specify that it’s Percocet, is that relevant information (for instance, do I want to suggest the recent controversy over painkiller addiction, in which that brand was often named), or is it only to give a patina of precision to the text, in which case any name might do? In cases where the reference is a throwaway, it might be less cumbersome to just let it go. If an unfamiliar reference conveys important information, I might need to sneak in a ‘stealth gloss’, a word or two unobtrusively added, to clue the reader in.
I want to mention your biography on André Breton, yours being his first comprehensive biography in English to date. What drew you to him as a surrealist, and how did this project come about?
I came upon Surrealism by accident when I was a teenager and used to practice automatic writing, without knowing what it was until a friend pointed me toward some Surrealist art books. I became fascinated by not only the visuals, but also the atmosphere. Later, in my first year living in France, I began reading books by Breton and other Surrealists, and in college I took a class where the professor made that whole crazy movement come to life. Over the following decade, as I read more and more of Breton’s works, I realized that, although a lot of his writing is self-referential, he didn’t really tell you a lot about his life, and I was curious.
My first instinct, since I was working as a fledgling editor at Random House by that time, was to commission someone else to write the book; but Random House wasn’t interested in the biography of someone who, they said, no one had ever heard of. Not long afterward, after I’d left Random House and was interviewing for a new job, an editor suggested that I should try writing it myself, which hadn’t really occurred to me. I happened to have a friend who was just starting out as a literary agent, so I put together a proposal and she ended up selling it to Farrar, Straus.
The biggest obstacle at first was getting access to Breton’s unpublished papers, which had been put under embargo for fifty years after his death in 1966 (when I started the project, it was only twenty years after the fact). I met with Jean Schuster, Breton’s literary executor, who gave me the gift of his trust, asking only that I take an honest and open-minded approach, and who opened a number of doors for me. He also took me to meet Breton’s widow, Elisa, whose signature I needed in order to see these unpublished papers, by special waiver. At their request, I translated my proposal into French and sent it to them, and then waited and waited for an answer, in the meantime doing what research I could. Finally, the answer came back: a formal No. I wrote back and asked if I come see them the next time I was in Paris. Fine. So around a large table, at the famous apartment at 42 rue Fontaine, with much of Breton’s collection still on the walls (this was before everything was auctioned off after Elisa’s death), I sat with Elisa Breton, Jean Schuster, and several others and asked them what, specifically, they had objected to – thinking it was some drastic flaw in my approach, or the very fact of writing a biography. Instead, they pointed to a paragraph in which – for the benefit of the American publishers to whom we’d pitched the project – I listed a number of famous figures with whom Breton had interacted; and buried in the middle of that paragraph was the name Jean Cocteau. ‘You say here that Cocteau was a friend of Breton’s,’ they told me. ‘Breton hated Cocteau. You obviously don’t understand anything about him, so we cannot grant you access.’ ‘I know Breton hated Cocteau,’ I replied. ‘All it says here is that they knew each other.’ ‘Oh… well, in that case…’ – and in two minutes I had the authorization I’d been waiting nearly two years to receive!
To finish, I am going to quote you in Sympathy for the Traitor. You write, “What concerns me is the emergence of a world in which translation really is no longer necessary…because the world’s languages no longer express the psychological and cultural differences that make them distinct…” (page 149). Do you think we will ever get to a point where translation is not necessary?
This was one of the tougher themes to think through in writing the book, and my discussion of it was meant mainly to open the question, rather than to provide answers that, frankly, I don’t have. In broad strokes, the paradox is this: On the one hand, translation can create a context for greater understanding, or let’s say, greater availability of other points of view, other ways of living. On the other, this increased availability leads to greater familiarity, which can lead to homogenization as other people’s ways of living, to which we now have almost unlimited access, become absorbed and assimilated into our own. It’s true that a cultural viewpoint is not the same as the cultural artifacts that form the backdrop of modern life seemingly everywhere – the Gaps and Starbuckses and Uniqlos, the “ethnic” foods, pasteurized music, anonymous high-rises, and other more obvious trappings of globalization. But we are formed in part by our surroundings, and when those surroundings begin to look increasingly uniform, you have to wonder if specific cultural viewpoints will begin to follow suit.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating isolationism or parochialism, not at all. I just think it’s a regrettable tendency when places lose their distinct character and start looking like everywhere else. We’re not there yet, of course – Paris is still not the same as London or New York or Seoul. But the Paris of cafes, which for centuries was such a central part of its cultural life, is fading; the Parisian bookstore, to me one of its crowning glories, is under threat—as was driven home the other day when I read about the closing of Le Pont Traversé, one of the truly wonderful bookstores of Paris. It’s a loss, a progressive erasure. But again, it’s difficult, because the logical antidote would be to freeze a city or a culture in time, which of course is absurd. Things, places have to evolve. I would just hate to see Paris, or anywhere, become one more undistinguishable metropolis, another exemplar of International Bland. Part of this is that the US has a great cultural pull, largely by virtue of its economic and linguistic dominance, and we tend to try to remake things in our image, for better or, mostly, worse. And translation plays a part in that.
What are the consequences of translating into English, which is a language that is has a large, sometimes dominating, as you say, influence in modern life around the world?
There’s no question that English, specifically American English, holds a disproportionately influential position in the world today and that this influence can often be abusive and hegemonic. I’m in no way an apologist for the American/Anglophone will to dominance and exploitation. But I do believe there is a difference between American politics (military, economic, or cultural) and the American language per se, and we can demonize that language to a point where we become paralyzed and exchange becomes impossible. You mentioned foreignization. The thing about foreignization – subverting the norms of so-called ‘correct’ English by importing syntactical or grammatical conventions from the source language – is that, ultimately, it becomes counterproductive. You end up with is something that sounds not innovative or culturally responsible but merely incompetent – something that does not credibly represent what the author was trying to do in the original (unless that author set out to violate the rules of his or her own language, which is a different story). To my mind, this does a disservice not only to the target reader, but also to the source author whose book you’ve just mangled.
As a translator, I feel my responsibility is to represent the works I translate, not apologetically, or by artificially denaturing the English into which I render them, but by using the resources of the English language to the best of my ability to convey these works with respect and conviction. To me, ‘fidelity in translation’ means representing a viewpoint and a discourse so that their foreignness and uniqueness remain intact even as they reach across cultures, geographies, and times to touch a different readership – and, in my ideal world, so that they leave the reader seeing things differently from when she began.
Mark Polizzotti. Why Mistranslation Matters.
Would history have been different if Krushchev had used a better interpreter? N.Y.T. 28/06/2018
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