The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books) has been making a bit of a buzz lately and I’m pleased to be able to host a virtual interview with the three translators, Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Louise Rogers Lalaurie. Thank you to you all for answering my questions so patiently and for such a marvellous insight into what sounds like a fascinating project.
I’m sorry to say I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, so can you give me a brief summary of the plot?
LRL: Dining alone in a Paris brasserie one evening in the mid-80s accountant Daniel Mercier finds himself sitting next to a party including President François Mitterrand. When the President’s famous homburg hat is left behind, Daniel takes a snap decision to keep it for himself, with life-changing consequences. The hat’s ‘power’ touches other lives, too.
How did it come about that there were three translators working on the book?
LRL: I wasn’t able to take on the whole translation within Gallic’s time-frame, and Jane was interested in ‘casting’ the book’s different voices to a corresponding cast of translators. Gallic’s in-house translator Emily Boyce took two characters, and Jane and I ‘voiced’ the other two.
JA: I had always felt that the hardest aspect of translating a novel was getting all the voices to sound different. For an author, the characters come from within, but the translator is following the voices. It seemed to me that in this respect, translation was rather like interpreting a play script with actors for each part. As The President’s Hat had four such distinct voices, it definitely made sense to try this approach. So we each took a character and translated that character’s story.
How did that work in practice? Was it a collaborative translation or did you all just work on your own sections and then put them together at the end?
LRL: We each translated a section/character (or two characters in Emily’s case), and Jane edited the complete text, smoothing out the wrinkles.
JA: We all worked separately our own sections, which didn’t really overlap and then I edited the whole work. We then discussed all the finer points amongst ourselves.
LRL: e.g., how would the oysters react when Daniel Mercier squirts them with lemon juice at the brasserie? Do they retract? Wince? Squirm?
EB: Since Jane and I share an office we did discuss how we might tackle certain common issues, such as the numerous cultural references to 1980s France.
How did you come to work on the sections that you did? Was it luck of the draw or a question of who felt at home with which voice?
LRL: I had already translated part of the opening chapters (Daniel Mercier) for Fiction France, the bi-annual review of new French writing published by the French Book Offices in London and New York, so I ‘voiced’ Daniel throughout – the beginning, middle and end of the book.
JA: As the oldest translator I felt I should do Pierre! And I really loved his story. Louise had already translated extracts of Daniel for Fiction France so it made sense for her to continue. Emily is the closest in age to Fanny so that seemed suitable too.
Do you think having a different person working on each section made the translation stronger?
LRL: I think the book lends itself to that treatment, and yes, I hope the approach reinforces the different qualities of the various ‘voices’.
JA: I believe so, you do get a slight change or tone with each character that I think works well. (I suppose the readers will have the final say though!)
EB: I think so, and reviewers who picked up on it have said they thought it worked well. Since we chose to credit the translators who ‘voiced’ each character at the back of the book, many reviewers didn’t realise it was a co-translation until the end, but once they looked back over the text they did notice subtle differences between the sections. I think that shows it was a successful approach to take, since our individual styles didn’t disrupt the flow of the book, but meant we were more able to create distinctive voices for the protagonists of each section.
Has it made you more interested in collaborative translations in the future?
LRL: A couple of books I’m interested in at the moment would make appealing collaborative projects: Murtoriu by Marc Biancarelli (Actes Sud) is one example. It was one of the books I looked at with the And Other Stories Paris reading group in spring this year. It’s set in modern-day Corsica, with a cast of characters including a world-weary, caustic bookseller (who has been described as a Corsican Houellebecq…), and two young, hapless island “gangsters”. The tripartite register moves between the bookseller’s stream of bitter invective, often extremely funny accounts of the gangsters’ heists, and a lyrical evocation of Corsica’s past, culture, traditions, landscape and terroir (the cheese, the charcuterie…). Ideal for three translators…. In fact, the French version (the one I read) has been translated from the Corsican by three French translators, including Jérôme Ferrari, whose Goncourt-winning novel Le Sermon sur la Chute de Rome is due out from Maclehose Press next year (trans. Geoffrey Strachan). Marc Biancarelli’s book makes an interesting pendant to this.
JA: Yes, Emily is working on one at the moment, which is similar in that it has two alternating voices.
EB: I’m working on one at the moment with Ros Schwartz. It’s an epistolary novel called ‘The People in the Photo’, and we’re each taking the voice of one of the two letter-writers. In the early stages of the project Jane and I had mooted the idea that Ros and I might somehow echo the correspondence in the book by taking it in turns to translate a letter, send it to one another and await the reply. However, since we both had other projects on the go, this was bound to lead to some workflow issues! So in the end we worked separately, each translating one side of the correspondence. Only now at the editing stage are the two sides coming together. It’s very satisfying to see the questions raised in my character Hélène’s letters finally being answered by Ros’s Stéphane! Ros is overseeing the editing of the whole book, but we are working together to decide joint approaches and to ensure we agree on the tone and register to adopt. One of the most important aspects of the book is the way in which these two characters’ letters begin very formally and very gradually warm up. The French letter writing style is conventionally very formal, so we have toned it down to make it sound natural in English, but there still needs to be a shift from the very polite to the more friendly. I find I can often see a solution to a problem in someone else’s translation much more readily than I can in my own, so I find the process of working together and mutually offering suggestions very rewarding. It’s something I first experienced taking part in the summer school at UEA and I think it’s important for translators to take the opportunity to learn from each other whether at study workshops or working together via email.