Interview with Jordan Stump, Translator

Jordan Stump is Antoine Volodine’s translator.  He’s many other things – professor at the University of Nebraska, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the author of numerous articles… today he’s a guest of this blog.  I’m both honored and grateful to him for taking time out of his busy semester to answer my questions.

Jordan, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  My first question is:  how did you first come to read Volodine (and company)?  Was it as a translator or as a reader, or as both?  What interested you in the author and which is your favorite novel?

I was in Paris, looking over the new arrivals in my favorite bookstore (Compagnie), and my eye was caught by Des anges mineurs.  It was published as part of the Editions du Seuil’s “Fiction et Cie” series, which is always a good sign, and I liked the odd look of the very short chapters and the strange names that served as their titles.  I bought it, went off to a bench in the Luxembourg gardens and started reading, and I was immediately enthralled.  I’m always reading as a translator—I can’t read a book without wondering if I want to translate it, and how I might do it—but when a book really grabs me I forget that, of course, and approach it simply as a fervent reader.  I loved the strangeness of that book, the very peculiar blend of “sci-fi” (for want of a better term) and Tibetan ritual and the grim realities of existence at its most banal.  And I loved the humor, of course, and the deep sadness.  By the time I finished it I’d decided it would be my next translation project.  That book—Minor Angels, in English—remains one of my favorites, but I also love Bardo or not Bardo and Nos animaux préférés; those latter two haven’t yet been translated into English, but perhaps their time will come.

Have you had the opportunity to consult Antoine Volodine during the translation process or do you have to resort to other sources?  From what I’ve read on the internet (and of course, if it’s on the internet it must be true!) Volodine is one of the author’s many pseudonyms – which makes me wonder if he’s trying to retain a certain amount of anonymity.  I realize that it’s common for translators to work without the author’s input (for example if he/she is dead), but I would think it can be particularly difficult if the author is alive but unavailable.

Oh, he’s very available, and extraordinarily helpful.  He’s a very open, unassuming guy, funny, enthusiastic, fond of extremely modest Chinese restaurants: nothing of the enigmatic loner about him.  I always try to work with the authors I translate (in part because I’m a big fan, and meeting an author whose work I love is a real thrill for me), but I think Volodine has been the most helpful of the bunch: always eager to hear my questions, and intent on coming up with concrete answers.

I’ve read that Volodine is also a Russian translator (though some readers believe the author he “translates” is just another pseudonym). Do you detect a Russian influence in his writing?  And if so is it something you consider while working on your translations?

It’s hard for me to say that there’s a strong specifically Russian influence, but it is most certainly true that there is a very strong influence of a kind of non-specific foreignness.  Somewhere he says something to the effect that his books read (or should read) as though they were translations from another language.  There is still, in France, a certain notion of “literary style,” and that’s absolutely what he avoids, which isn’t to say that he writes in some authentic vernacular, either: he writes in a language that is entirely approachable but at the same time marked by certain quirks.  That’s what you have to think about when you’re translating him: you don’t want to turn him into poetry, and you don’t want to flatten out his writing so that it reads effortlessly.   As I remember, I asked him if he had any thoughts about what the general tone of Minor Angels should sound like (that’s a question I always ask writers); he answered, “Tired.”  I see exactly what he means, but try getting that across in a translation!

Are you ever concerned about how the book you’re working on functions in relationship to Volodine’s other books – or do you approach every book as an individual, stand-alone project?

I look on them as stand-alone works.  His output is vast and varied, and any scholar of his writing should be interested in the whole of it, and how each part functions with respect to the others.  But they work perfectly well on their own—you don’t need to know anything about Volodine or post-exoticism or anything to fall in love with his books—and that’s how I prefer to think of them.

Speaking of post-exoticism – is there a seminal text that provides the key to this movement?  For example, Le post-exotisme en dix leçons  is the one title I keep coming across again and again.   Is it a mistake to believe that all his work is concerned with/falls under the category of post-exoticism or does he also write stand-alone novels?

I’m not sure there really is a seminal text.  Le post-exotisme en dix leçons is a wonderful book, and a useful addition, but (predictably, I suppose) it doesn’t answer many questions, or give many explicit lessons.  Post-exoticism is (to my mind at least) a genre that defies explicit definition.  Some readers will want to see all his works in that context, but it would be terrible if you had to know all about post-exoticism to appreciate his books.  Thankfully, that’s not how it is at all: any one of his books can be read, can fully signify, can offer an extraordinarily rich and haunting experience, for anyone at all, whether they’ve ever heard of post-exoticism or not.

Are you working on a new project at the moment that you would like to talk about?  What other French authors do you read for pleasure and/or recommend?

 I’m working on a new project that I’m finding so difficult I prefer not to think about it, much less talk about it!  In my opinion, the three great French writers of the early twenty-first century are Volodine, Eric Chevillard, and Marie NDiaye.  There are a great many others, of course, but those are the three I would strongly urge people to read more of.  NDiaye is a particularly underrated writer here: she’s got a little more attention on our shores recently, but she wrote a lot of fantastic books before Three Strong Women, and for the most part those have gone untranslated.  I’m hoping to do my small part in remedying that.

Thank you so much Jordan!  And, dear readers, there’s exciting news on the horizon.  This May the second book to be released by Two Lines Press is Marie NDiaye’s collection of 5 short stories All My Friends, translated by none other than Jordan Stump.

_____________

Jordan Stump, Professor (Ph.D. Illinois, 1992), is the author of articles on the Marquis de Sade, Georges Perec, Marie Redonnet, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, among others, and of Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). He has also published translations of novels by Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Patrick Modiano, Christian Oster, Antoine Volodine, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Jules Verne, and Honoré de Balzac. His translation of Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (Northwestern University Press, 2001) was awarded the French-American Foundation’s annual translation prize in 2001, and in the fall of 2006 he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His interests include literary theory, the contemporary novel, the ontology of fiction, and literary translation.  –  courtesy of the University of Nebraska’s online directory.

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An Interview with Margaret Carson

Margaret Carson is a fixture in the NYC translation community.  Most readers probably know her from her gorgeous translation of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds but (to quote her Words Without Borders biography) she’s also translated fiction by  “José Manuel Prieto, and Matilde Daviu, plays by Virgilio Piñera and Griselda Gambaro, and poetry by Mercedes Roffé and Nancy Morejón”.  She’s a member of the PEN Translation Committee and a fierce advocate for translators and translated literature .

BSR:  Margaret, thank you so much for offering to answer some questions.  We keep bumping into each other at NYC literary events – always to do with translations.  It seems to me that there is a very active community of translators in Manhattan.  I wonder if you might talk about that?

MC:  Yes, there’s a lot going on in New York! And lots of the action in international literature is happening at small independent bookstores, which are run and staffed by book lovers whose enthusiasms happily extend to works in translation.

There’s at least one reading series in New York that specializes in translations (the Bridge Series, run by Bill Martin and Sal Robinson at McNally Jackson Bookstore), frequent readings and presentations by foreign authors all over town, events sponsored by universities, book festivals featuring international literature, and plenty more. Hardly a week goes by when there’s not some event that touches on literature in translation.

BSR:  Do you think translators should be involved in the promotion of translated/international literature?

MC:  Literary translators have a lot to add to the mix. Some of us are already active on the literary scene, helping to promote books in translation, and we’re wondering what else we can do. How do we get more recognition for our work and build a reputation? It’s still sadly true that many times the names of translators don’t appear on book covers, and book reviewers often fail to mention the translator or to comment on his or her work in the body of the review. Translation is basically taking apart and rewriting a book in another language, and many of us wish that reviewers would engage more with that.

BSR:  We first met after the ‘Walker in the City’ panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, – which you and Sergio Chejfec were a part of.  It’s my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that not all translators have the type of access or personal relationship that you’ve had with Sergio Chejfec.   Do you think knowing the author as a person – in addition to knowing his work – influenced your translations (particularly since a auto-biographic component seems to inform Chejfec’s writing)?

MC:  The response to My Two Worlds has been terrific. Lots of credit goes to Open Letter for getting the book out there and for building up a readership base for Sergio Chejfec. The fact that Sergio lives in New York and is willing to get involved in the translation and promotion of his books has also helped. Of course, it’s a great novel and deserves the attention, but you never know what path a book will take after it’s published, especially a translation.

Most of the authors I’ve worked with have been extremely generous about answering questions. In the case of Sergio, I was new to his work and that added to the challenge. Sometimes my queries were not so much linguistic (“what does this word or phrase mean?”) as they were about how a sentence was developing, what the thought was behind it. It’s often reassuring when you’re translating to feel that something is clicking into place, that you “got it” in English. But on the other hand you realize that when something clicks it may be because it’s a predictable solution, something commonplace in English, and you ask yourself: would a writer whose subject matter includes the experience of language itself want this to be so neat? Answer: no, so you have to go back and make your English do more, even going beyond what seems “correct.”

About the autobiographical elements: I was careful to put a distance between the first-person narrator of My Two Worlds and Sergio Chejfec, the author. Maybe they’re similar in some ways, and it was helpful, for example, to see and handle the Art Deco cigarette lighter that’s described at one point in the novel, but I enjoy the fictional artifice. With his essays, though, it’s different. Recently I’ve been working on an essay in which Sergio tells the story of his last name and talks about his father. It’s clearly a non-fictional space with another kind of exploration, nothing like the fiction.

BSR:  Do you have an opinion as to why Argentina seems to be such a hotbed of authors?  It seems that everywhere you look a new Argentine author (or a new edition of an old book) is being published.   Of course there is Borges & Cortázar… but there’s also César Aira, Sergio Chejfec, Eduardo Sacheri, Juan José Saer… just to name a few.

MC:  There’s great literature all over Latin America, but yes, Argentina has an extraordinary literary tradition. I’m not sure what factors explain it, but at least when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago, there were plenty of bookstores, large and small, as well as cafés where people can read, write and talk about books, all signs of a healthy book culture, along with a remarkable number of individuals who seem to have read everything. That doesn’t explain why there’s been great literature in Argentina, but it seems like a necessary condition. And keep in mind that we’ve only seen a small part of that literature—the part that gets translated into English.

BSR:  How do you feel about the future of translation and translated literature in the U.S.?  To me it appears like translations and international books are showing up in more bookshops and getting more attention every year.  I have no hard evidence to back that up, though.

MC:  Neither do I, but your question made me take a look in four bookstores within walking distance of each other in the Village — St. Mark’s Bookstore, McNally Jackson, Three Lives, and NYU’s bookstores. I admit, not a very representative sample of bookstores across the U.S., but I was heartened to see that a good number of translations were on the front table or equivalent. We still need some hard evidence, but I think your impression is correct.

My question to you: do you think bookstores should group translations together, or should they be part of the general mix of books?

BSR:  Hey I thought I was supposed to ask the questions! :-)  But, since you asked – I think translations need to be shelved with the general mix of books.  We both attended that panel at the PEN World Lit Festival this past April on Reviewing Translations – and I think we’re in agreement that the translators name should be right on the cover with the author’s.  After that, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate translated books out of the general population.  Most readers are just looking for a good book, maybe in a specific genre, but I believe there are very few readers who browse for books by specific languages.  Though that would be kinda’ awesome.  I’d love to walk into a bookshop and say “I’m in the mood for something… I don’t know…. Japanese.  What do you recommend?”  I might just try that next time I’m in McNally Jackson.

Now, back to my questions.  As a member of the PEN Translation Committee have you seen a greater appreciation, demand for translations and/or skilled translators?

MC:  I think there’s an increased demand for great translations, though there’s no consensus on what that means. And also an increased demand for re-translations. But those are general observations, not really related to my being on the PEN Translation Committee. Our central concerns there are to advocate for the translator, to increase his or her visibility, and to raise awareness of literary translation on the whole.

BSR:  How do you accomplish that?  Are there any events planned that readers can attend or participate in?

MC:  And here I’d like to mention two panels coming up this fall the PEN Translation Committee has organized to help carry out these aims:

The first will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, September 23, and will highlight recent translations into English of poetry and fiction from North Africa (exact time to be announced).

The second will be on Thursday, October 4 during the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) conference at the University of Rochester. We’re assembling a panel made up of people from the world of publishing, book reviewing and book selling, to discuss how translators can best navigate the literary landscape and collaborate in the marketing of their translations.

BSR:  Thank you again for answering my questions!  I guess we’ll be seeing each other at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

MC:  Thanks so much for this chance to talk to you!

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