The conversation unfolded in a relaxed and engaging way, reading excerpts from the book in French and in English, and discussing the translation process. Within the first minutes I was deeply intrigued by the text which I later read in a few short bursts (this is something engraved in Peirene’s philosophy of publishing short books which could be read over a journey or a single sitting). I felt the need to continue this conversation with Sophie and Jennifer and was happy they both agreed.
Emmanuelle Pagano’s book could be described as a collection of short stories or as a fragmented novella. There is a delicate, almost translucent thread entwined in the narrative which provides hints, takes the reader to the next story, like a children’s game, only to discover a new detail, invisible before. What holds these stories together are the re-appearing characters: people on the periphery, be they the loony standing by the road every day at 5pm, waiting for the return of his dead relatives, or the young girl imprisoned in therapy sessions due to killing a fox with her bare hands, or the woman who takes her own life. In all of the interconnected vignettes, different voices take the stage; each one telling the story of a character who might have been briefly sketched in the previous ones, and thus, changing the point of view with each text.
I found interesting this change of viewpoint—it’s not only an experimental technique but a necessary tool for this particular narrative to show that we can never understand other people’s motives unless we put ourselves in their shoes. For me, this is a book of empathy.
Nataliya Deleva: On that note, Sophie and Jenny, was this change of viewpoints a challenge for the English translation? Each story is told by a different character, and so, its voice is distinguished. How did you approach this Pleiades of voices?
Jennifer Higgins: Yes, it was certainly one of the most challenging and interesting aspects of translating this book. Much of the difference in voice is built into the characters’ trains of thought and the distance from which they are recounting events: some stories are told by characters looking back at things that happened a long time ago, and their voices are more measured and authoritative than characters still immersed in difficult situations, who repeat themselves and circle around obsessive thoughts.
Sophie and I often had differing ways of rendering these voices initially, so we needed to discuss our understanding of them and bring our ideas together. This extra attention to the difference not only between the voices but also between our approaches to translating them made us think hard and question our choices; always a good thing for a translator.
ND: The book, albeit a slim volume, reveals a great complexity of characters and also an experimental style. This must have been a challenge to translate, especially that it’s the two of you working on it simultaneously. Could you please explain the co-translating process? Was this a hindrance to the overall translation or rather the opposite?
Sophie Lewis: Our process was not a complicated one, despite the apparently complex intermeshed nature of the book. We made an overall wordcount and then shared out the stories between us, doing our best to make sure that the overall allocations of words matched the amount of labour and time we had agreed we would each put into the first draft stage. We then made some complete but not altogether finished first drafts of “our” stories. Then we exchanged stories and went through each other’s, in this second draft stage proposing rephrasings and improvements, and also spotting reiterated phrases and micro-level connections between the stories that would guide us through other decisions on words and phrases to choose. Then we swapped back over, then swapped again, then met on a couple of occasions to work through our last remaining points of dissatisfaction, until we were completely happy and agreed with the finish of each story.
By this point, they were no longer Jenny’s or Sophie’s but a fully melded co-translation. The work was a pleasure and we have no doubt that our finished translation was all the better for our two sets of eyes and tongues. (One aspect that was complicated was working out how to divide our payment between us, based on this working practice!)
ND: Reading your translators’ note at the end of the book, I understand that the English version is much shorter than the French original and you had to select the stories to remain and the ones to cut out. What dictated the choice of stories in the English version? Was any part of the book re-written or amended to suit this choice?
JH: The French text contains a mixture of some stories that have characters in common, and others that don’t share characters but do share themes. We tried to maintain this balance of linking and separation in the English version. The initial agreement to make a shorter book was made between Peirene Press and Emmanuelle, then Sophie and I made a selection based on important themes and really unmissable stories. Emmanuelle suggested some changes to that, which we made, but in fact we found that all three of us had surprisingly similar ideas about what to include and what to omit. There was no re-writing, but there are one or two slight changes to the order of the stories: the last story in the English isn’t the last story in the French edition, and a couple of paragraphs were omitted to accommodate that.
ND: During the conversation at [email protected] you mentioned that the title of the book is different from the French original. What influenced the change and how did you choose this title (which I personally find very relevant, by the way). I wonder what Emmanuelle Pagano thought of it and whether she also participated in the title selection.
SL: The original French title is Un Renard à mains nues, which could be translated as “a fox with bare hands,” although in English one would be tempted to include a pronoun, so “with her bare hands” (as the story is about a girl) or “with my bare hands.” It’s a title we both found beautifully, brilliantly allusive, intriguing, somewhat dark but also open and suggestive to any reader yet to get into the stories.
For our publisher, Peirene, this openness was a worry—it seemed to translate to obscurity, a lack of clarity, uncertainty as to what the collection would be about. Also, the compulsion to clarify evident in our desire to add that pronoun already muddied the impact of the original. So we looked for alternatives that would similarly arise from not just the events of the stories but turns of phrase used in them. We settled on a line that we adapted from another of the stories, reshaping it slightly so that it would work as a title while remaining recognisable in its story. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is similarly suggestive but gestures more clearly towards the range of characters encountered in the stories and to the theme of mental confusion which is common to many of them. We liked it and sent it with a few other options to the publisher and to Emmanuelle. Emmanuelle was sympathetic to our concerns about the original title and happy to approve our new one.
ND: One of my favourite passages in the book is from “The Loony and the Bright Spark”; it reads: “He is irreducible, he can’t be explained or understood, even if we put together all the fragments of him lingering in the memories of all the drivers.” To me, this sentence is a metaphorical representation of the whole book. The way the loony is discovered bit by bit by the passing drivers resembles the novella structure and the way we interpret it. The meaning is in between these separate yet linked stories, never quite within reach. We consume it in its fragmentation. Do you agree? Is there a specific part of the book that carries a special meaning for you (you could approach this from a translation point of you)?
JH: Yes, absolutely. The loony is seen by many people as they drive past the place where he always stands, but he remains on the margins of their vision. When they have to slow down next to him and look for longer, he becomes clearer but still not completely comprehensible. Many of the stories are about how the effort to see others, to understand them, is vital even if never entirely successful.
We both have a particularly soft spot for “Just a Dad”; it contains so much that’s at the very heart of this book: empathy, what it means to be humane, all sorts of things—and the source of the original title image. The touches of humour also make it special: the woman’s voice as she narrates the story of her childhood self becomes slightly rebellious and truculent. We liked that, and hope we managed to keep it in the translation.
ND: This is not the first book of Emmanuelle Pagano you’ve both co-translated. Trysting (And Other Stories, 2016) was your first project of her work. The book, albeit similar in its fragmented structure, is also very different. While Faces is a book about people on the periphery, Trysting creates a mosaic of beautifully written vignettes about love: with its lows and highs. The Kirkus Review described them as love bites. How is Pagano’s language different in these two books and how did you approach the translation?
SL: In Trysting, there is a much closer-up, more visceral and also more forensic method to Pagano’s language than in Faces. Whereas in her more traditional stories, there are narratives that develop and characters whose lives we come to understand in some depth, in Trysting, Pagano documents individual details of people’s love lives, their imaginings about other people, the physical habits and sensations of their living together, the experience of aftermaths, of fallings out and leavings—and nothing further. The texts do not link up and we never read anything like a fully developed character. Quite a few of the texts in the book manage the feat of not revealing the sex of the characters—a feature we struggled to retain in English where specific pronouns are unavoidable much of the time. Given the nature of both this style and Pagano’s chosen form, this collection of many very brief texts, it was simpler for us to divide the work. We made a split down the middle of the book, then went through the same first and second draft process as explained above for Faces. The swapping of the texts revealed differences in our own stylistic approaches, so we soon realised what we needed to decide upon and which decisions we should take forward. Again, by the end of the process, we had lost track of which text was “whose” in the first place, and so we trust that no reader can tell either.