Bernard Turle is the official French translator of T.C. Boyle, Peter Ackroyd, Rupert Thomson, and André Brink. He is also currently working on translations of V.S. Naipaul and Alan Hollinghurst. In Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy (Le Traducteur-orchestre; tr. from the French by Dan Gunn, 2013), we get Turle’s experienced technical and personal views on translation. This being part of the magnificent Cahiers Series, the book itself is a thing of beauty. Mixed with Turle’s text about translation, which comes to us translated by Dan Gunn, are various images from old Super-8 reels filmed by Gunn’s father between 1958 and 1963, the year Gunn’s father died. The result is a personal work of art about translation from two translators.
Besides enjoying literature in translation, I’m also fascinated by the art of translation itself. I’ve interviewed a couple of translators on this blog and learn a lot about literature and language when I read about their work (you can read my interview with Chris Andrews here and with Margaret B. Carson here). I recently began my first (and, who knows, maybe last) attempt to translate something from Brazil. I love it.
In this book, Turle writes about various themes about translation and has organized his topics by alphabetical headings: Alphabet, Bulimia, Competition Contradiction, Diplomat, Espionage, etc. Sometimes he talks about his childhood, about the events that either show why his personality attracted him (or, at least, suited him) to translation. For example, tolerance and passivity, which can be seen by some as flaws:
One day an Indian friend declared that he had never encountered anyone more tolerant than me. A political opponent once told me, ‘Dialogue is possible with you’. I am said to have an ‘open mind’ (too open perhaps). My parents used to complain that I was overly given to turning the other cheek, my partners that I tended to accept too much stick. I have been accused of being a chameleon, of letting others trample over me, even sometimes of having betrayed my camp by according too much credence to the opposing side. A journalist friend who looked over the first book that I wrote myself (rather than translated) told me she regretted it contained so many different voices: ‘Publishers wish to hear a single voice in a book, that of the author’. At Jussieu, my university in Paris, an essay came back from one of my professors with the comment: ‘You either really know your stuff or you are a masterful forger’. I neglected to confirm that the second hypothesis was the correct one: I turned it into my profession.
This passage shows that, even though this is a book about the art of translation, it is also — perhaps primarily — a personal, introspective look at the makings of an artist. Even when Turle is talking about the stages of translating a book, as he does in the section “Line of Beauty,” we get a sense of the artist’s personal interaction with a text, from the first stage when he scans the novel “to verify our compatibility” to the “bitter delight” of seeing the book published and independent. It’s a romance, a process by which one can map ones life.
Turle also speaks about some of the perhaps unexpected hurdles of translating from the English to the French, not the least of which is gendered pronouns as used in the non-gendered English and the heavily-gendered French. And perhaps this is more of a gripe than a hurdle, but Turle takes a few jabs at the “Physical, All Too Physical” nature of English writing: “Writers in English tend to pepper their pages with details about the material world that are best left out of French — details that translators would gladly do without at least, and with which, rightly or wrongly, they grow impatient. [. . .] so many ‘high-backed’ chairs in English novels, but dammit, in everyday life how many chairs have low backs?” He goes on to explain what he considers to be a fundamental difference between English and French writing, something I’d love to explore more:
In short, description in English is physical, where French tends to privilege the mind. Add to this the impression one sometimes gets, that English-language authors have so far integrated the commercial supremacy of the cinema that they are writing screenplays rather than novels, already prompting the actors in the film to be drawn from their book . . .
This edition comes with another little booklet that contains Turle’s text in the original French. This is another touch that allows us, as we think about translating, to see how Gunn himself translated the French into English, what choices did he make, where did he have to add an editorial comment, as he does in the section simply titled “X.” The original French reads simply: “Un traducteur est un auteur né sous x.” Or, in English, “A translator is an author delivered under x.” Fortunately for me, Gunn adds a brief paragraph before this statement that explains this reference to a bit of French legislation. The translation of the title itself — from Le Traducteur-orchestre to Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy — shows an artistic choice.
All of these interesting bits aside for a moment (though I recommend the book for them alone), what I keep coming back to when I think of this little book, what sticks in my mind, is the highly personal feel. I don’t simply mean personal views. I mean the introspection, the strange way that this little book about translation touches on existence, on life and death.