Greatest Women in Translation: Linda Coverdale

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Happy New Year, dear readers! I hope you have had a great holiday season and are ready to rock 2020.

Let’s start by welcoming our first interviewee of 2020, Linda Coverdale, nominated by Ros Schwartz.

Linda Coverdale

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1. You told me that once you wandered into translation, you “took to it like a hermit in a cave, Saint Jerome in flip-flops.” How did you wander into translation?

By accident, at long last. Both sides of my family loved books and languages, and my parents even moved to France for a year so their young children could soak up French. Back home again, I studied Latin, Spanish, some German, kept reading, wrote stories, but worried that writing was too vague and risky to bank on for a profession. Good at biology, dreaming of oceanography, I picked my university early for its bio department, then barely survived bio-chemistry. Once at Brown, I listed French as my major, just to tread water for a while. Fascinated by ancient Egypt ever since I fell spellbound forever as a child, in my one and only experience of religious awe, before seven massive statues of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet in a dim and deserted hall at the Met, I eagerly took courses in Egyptology, and felt grounded again. Then I learned that the department chairman had mastered fourteen languages, plus the three types of hieroglyphics. So: another misfire.

Then French literature became a wonderland, and the junior year abroad was an adventure in all directions. Discovering the critical and literary works of writers like Blanchot, Richard, Poulet, and Bachelard led me to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where Derrida, De Man, Deleuze et al were holding court before Yale lured them away. The doctoral program’s year in Paris brought courses at the École normale supérieure, the École pratique des hautes études, the Sorbonne—and playing hooky at the Cinémathèques of Chaillot and the rue d’Ulm. My French dissertation was a labor of true love: Les romans d’Albertine, all because I’d sneaked the Scott Moncrieff Remembrance of Things Past from my parents’ bookshelves when I was about twelve, and God only knows what I made of it, but that die was cast. Offered a good teaching job, however, I balked. I’d had teaching fellowships, was a good teacher, revered the profession, but it deserved a passion I definitely did not feel. Another chilling impasse.

Writing my dissertation, I’d begun drawing at night when the brain had stopped Prousting but was still ticking over, and someone suggested that I’d gotten things backwards, because my drawings were good. Naturally, I went to art school, the Parsons School of Design. Those were marvelous years, but I have never pulled as many all-nighters as I did there, because with art, you see at a glance if something works or not, and it doesn’t matter how long you worked, if it doesn’t. But no one will hire you until your portfolio proves that someone else already has.

Now I had four degrees, but no job. I worked renovating houses, painting murals, and as production manager first on an indie movie, then in a small publishing company, where the accountant told me one day that Richard Howard, French translator extraordinaire, had two Roland Barthes books on deck but time for only one, and so, my friend Keith continued, he had volunteered my services. Oh no, I said, I know nothing about translation. Too late, replied Keith, I told him you can write, know French—and studied with Roland Barthes. Trapped. So, why not, I did my greenhorn best with The Grain of the Voice. The publisher called with another book, by a Cambodian girl who’d seen her family murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Adopted out of a Thai refugee camp by two Czech exiles in Paris, she’d spent a year weeping and raving in Khmer, dancing out her story while her adoptive mother tamed her gently, taught her French, and helped her write everything down. Again, I did my best, and have done so ever since, because the books kept coming. And they have taken me around the world, through the best and worst of humanity.

As for Saint Jerome, patron of translators, he keeps a skull for company, and ducking into that cave is how we translate. I pop in earplugs to enter the zone, where you feel at one with the “reeling and writhing” of French and English, words sluicing around among thoughts, on the page, shifting this way? That way? And you always, always, listen to what’s in your head: what does it mean? How does it read?

For example, I saw that my first Echenoz novel, Ravel, was less comic, more serious than the earlier books, with a “real” protagonist, yet still playful, with an elegance suited to the mannered but ultimately tragic figure of Maurice Ravel. And the novel opens . . . in his bathtub! “On s’en veut quelquefois de sortir de son bain.” En vouloir à, a convoluted expression of long history, means to reproach, be angry at, bear a grudge toward, resent, blame; s’en vouloir de doubles down: I regret, I’m irritated/furious/pissed off at myself, could have kicked myself. That’s trouble right there: “One is sometimes angry with oneself for getting out of one’s bath.” Stodge! French relies on “one”; British English finds it useful; American English uses it sparingly. That all-important introductory sentence went through kaleidoscopic changes, because the rest of the paragraph is a precise, slightly disdainful description of fussing over getting out of the tub while avoiding a possibly embarrassing injury, folderol that often required readjusting the whole paragraph to rebalance it. Finally, the first sentence wound up, simply, “Leaving the bathtub is sometimes quite annoying.” That fit the mood, sense, rhythm, and tone of the paragraph, even though the French sentence had three elements of a “self” now absent from the English. Reading later in an interview that Echenoz had had real trouble with his opening sentence, I felt relief, but learning that he’d settled happily on an alexandrine, I quickly checked my English: twelve syllables! Close enough. Sometimes you know more than you think you do.

I can now see how all my wandering was useful, even necessary, for my translations. Voracious reading stocked my mental reference library: I remember—in Technicolor—daring to pull The Brothers Karamazov from a school library shelf for a book report when I was eleven. Madness! But that book and all the others shoved new words and challenging syntax into me as if force-feeding a goose. The years in France provided vital firsthand knowledge of French life as it is lived, saving me from many a pitfall. My approach to translating has always been to make the English text reflect not simply what the French says, but also what it means to French readers. Languages and music helped me with the varied rhythms of an English text. Art school and museums taught me to decipher and compose images, while the study of literature and criticism let me make increasingly complicated sense of what I read, the vital requirement for correctly inflecting a translation in the subtlest ways.

In the end, I achieved my childhood ambition to become a writer, since fidelity in translation isn’t slavish faithfulness to words and syntax, but the result of skilled critical interpretation. Translators have different ways of remaining true to the French originals, and just as painters interpret what they see, so do we each see a French text through our own eyes, and tell readers what we saw, and for our reports to be moving, we mustn’t “copy” the original, but give our words a full-bodied life of their own. That life is our art, a re-creation, from melting down the French in our minds and recasting it in English.

Helped immensely by family and friends, teachers, publishers, editors, authors, and other translators, I finally and gratefully settled into my true vocation.

2. You were in the French-American Foundation (FAF) Translation Prize jury for 17 years and describe the experience as priceless. Why? What have you learned in those 17 years reviewing fiction and non-fiction book samples and helping provide finalists in each category?

The cast of characters on that jury shifts over the years, but a tableful of translators, university professors, and the odd literary figure guarantees passionate discussion and even some melodramatic extravagance. When I once questioned a new juror’s support of a shoddy translation, he proudly announced that he hadn’t checked any French texts, but simply bestowed his “discerning eye” upon some select English samples. Appalled, I asked him, nicely, just why he was on a translation prize jury, whereupon this emeritus professor remembered an urgent appointment and vanished, trailing his scarf. Silence. “Well,” remarked the FAF chairman with a smile, “that was interesting!” He always said sitting in on our jury was the most fun he had all year.

And it was fun, but I also discovered how bad a translation can be, even from a respected publishing house. British publishers seem to have more in-house French expertise, and their quality control is more reliable than ours. That’s the depressing aspect of the jury: slowly (or immediately!) realizing that a translator is overmatched, and sometimes vastly so. Things can become surreal: I remember a sample by the head of an American university French department who had translated classics of French literature, but whose English at times went berserk, to the point of changing farm boys sliding down a haystack into a child locked in a crowded broom closet. Another well-known translator produced a text so insanely muddled that I suspected senile dementia. How had these travesties made it into print? Of course the major problem is not knowing enough French, but more insidious is sloppiness, inattention to the original text, especially if it only seems simply written. Paying insightful attention to details is crucial, so when the translator is an insensitive reader, the English may be grammatically correct, even easily readable, but the full French text has faded, and this holds true for both fiction and non-fiction. Over the years I saw several versions of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, and the variations in quality among those texts was remarkable.

I think my major accomplishment on the FAF Jury was eventually persuading them to drop their shocking rule allowing translators on the jury to vote for themselves. And the chief lesson I learned was: how to wheel and deal! It’s literary horse trading. We all arrive at the voting luncheons knowing what we want, but as we wrangle and reflect, titles rise and fall in favor, points are conceded, loyalties swayed, darlings abandoned. A proper prize jury with sixty or seventy bilingual submissions to review (with three samples each in French and English) is a vast amount of work, but the drudgery and disappointments are forgotten in the end, when all vote on the finalists, and the winners emerge. So the Prize Luncheon was always a joy. Serving on that jury was a master class in the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the best submissions were a restorative delight.

3. You say you only translate works you can do justice to and feel a bond with. What book have you felt the greatest bond with and has touched you the most?

There are so many truly special ones! I’ll say Slave Old Man by the Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose first novel my friend Keith (intervening fatefully again) asked me to review in 1986. Chronique des sept misères was an absolute stunner, but when Carcanet offered to buy it for me, I knew it was too difficult. That hurt. In 1995 André Schiffrin of New Press provided what became Creole Folktales, Chamoiseau’s English debut and my first venture into his world. I was exploring French Caribbean literature, legends, plants, proverbs, history, vaudou, Creole culture in all its forms, amassing books, Xeroxes, glossaries, scribbled notes, prowling tiny NYC libraries, seeking Martinican contacts, especially during visits to the French Caribbean.

My next step was his School Days in 1996, and when my first love returned years later, I was ready: the magical-comical saga of the Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows appeared in 1999. L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse had come out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity! But it had already been bought over here, so I was crushed. When I later learned from a casual remark that L’Esclave was back in play after almost twenty years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), I pounced. And then the battle began.

The molosser, a huge dog of an ancient breed, became a “mastiff” in English and vanished altogether from the title due to sales rep feedback, but in all else, New Press supported me magnificently in my translation, which was daunting. A few books have driven me to nervous exhaustion, deep despair, and this one did. A simple tale: pursued by the ferocious dog and its master, a mute slave bolts from a long-ago Martinican plantation into an ancient rain forest, where this ordeal will transform them all in extraordinary ways, for they enter an overwhelming physical reality, a wild, lush jungle of life and decay into which the reader plunges as well, as the novel’s powerfully intricate language entangles us in an evocation of nature beyond all human control. Space and time meld in this living maze, where, revived in his lost identity and freedom, the old man reclaims his voice, and is whole again.

The book is as dense as some exotic new element, sinister but beautiful and embodied in a language that belongs in a way to itself alone. It bristles with Creole words, phrasings, and plenty of Chamoiseau-speak. French syntax is artfully tweaked until it becomes a kind of pepper pot, that perpetual stew kept going by Caribs and Arawaks who continually tossed whatever they had at hand into the communal caldron. I have had to reshape English in other books, notably in the Rwandan reportage of Jean Hatzfeld, matching the peculiarities of Belgian- and Kinyarwanda-inflected French to individual witnesses, and here I can only say that you must let your mind go, trust your instincts and your homework, and hope they deliver the goods. One of the three Hatzfelds won the Scott Moncrieff, another was a finalist, and I was ecstatic with relief.

Histoire means both “story” and “history” in French, and in Chamoiseau’s story of a slave’s flight into the unknown, he offers a cryptic history of the Caribbean, where plantation owners used their own languages as a weapon of control over their traumatized slaves, who then turned that weapon against the oppressor: plantation storytellers said more in their homemade Creoles than their listening masters could ever understand, taking care, as Chamoiseau says in his Creole Folktales, to speak in a way “that is opaque, devious—its significance broken up into a thousand sibylline fragments.” Which, if you think about it, is a fine definition of poetry. The mystique of the plantation slave Storyteller, sustaining the spirits of his flock with a lifeline to their vanished homelands, is the Creole soul of Chamoiseau’s writing, so willfully opaque, ludic, cruel, the voice of multitudes, a theme that empowers all his fiction and essays.

In this novel are words and references from the history, culture, and natural world of Martinique, as well as both creolized and arcane French, because Chamoiseau is a free-range writer. “My use of French,” he writes to his translators, “is all-encompassing.” French readers are more familiar with this background material than are English-speakers, however, so while the author does not want any Creole dimension of his work spoiled by the reductive ideal of “transparency,” some light must shine on these sibylline fragments for them to signify at all for the Anglophone audience. I tried to make any explanatory material unobtrusive, while moving this text into English with the least possible distortion.

The majority of the Martinican Creole and creolized French words remain intact in the translation, either easily understood in context, or clarified by me with a descriptive word or two, or paired with an English meaning: “djok-strong,” for example. For more complicated words or a short phrase, the English appears immediately next to the italicized original text. Some words, as well as almost all the deeper background references (customs, places, etc.), are marked with an asterisk and explained in my endnotes, all listed by the number of the page on which they appear, in case any readers prefer to check batches of endnotes in advance.

Here is a look at the creolized French in the novel’s opening sentence: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” In Martinican Creole, neg means both “man” and “people.” It is the default term for any Creole person of color. It also means: a black man, any mixed-blood person, a servant, a friend, and has many compound forms, such as neg-lakanpay, a country fellow, and gran-neg, a pretentious man or uppity youngster. The Creole vié-neg is not necessarily derogatory—vié means “old,” as well as “ugly,” “horrible,” “shoddy,” even “diabolical”but here simply means an “old man, who is black.” Gros-saut looks like “big-jump” in French, but the Creole gwo-so breaks down as follows: gwo means big (among other things), and so can mean a bucket, a hard tumble, a waterfall, and the kicking of a harnessed horse. The expression fè gwo so refers to that last meaning, and its figurative sense is thus “to kick, lash out at, be ornery.” So: the context suggests the interpretation.

Writing with both studied care and fond disrespect for words, Chamoiseau is not only free-range, but free-form. His syntax, lexicon, and punctuation (or lack thereof) can even be technically incorrect in French, but must be respected—in this disrespect—by the English. In this novel, language not only tells the story, it is the story, an enactment of the subversive action it describes, and as the slave old man moves into a disorienting but exhilarating new dimension, Chamoiseau’s parlance does too. As with poetry, the reader makes sense of the text, as an active audience for this storyteller. In the end, as Chamoiseau has said, créolisation is a matter of expressing a vision of the world, and my aim was to make that vision accessible to the English-speaking reader in its moving and mysterious glory. Regarding the prickly counterpoint of sound and sense, and in homage to the orality of the Creole he champions, Chamoiseau sums up his instructions to his translators with triumphant glee: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.”

In the service of Chamoiseau’s short tale, I felt like a spider endlessly prowling the Web. Dozens of books were read. Months of research and headaches produced the end notes and afterword essay on the author and his enigmatic mentor, Édouard Glissant. The challenge of translating this novel I could not face again, but living, lively language like this is rare and lovely, and it is irresistible. Any translator who has experienced real discouragement and travail will understand my happiness in saying that the translation went up for four prizes, and won three. I love this book.

4. You say the FAF takes its prize very seriously—and that you may even nominate someone from amongst those you have met over the years. Besides your nomination, why don’t you recommend for us a great (fiction or non-fiction) book you have reviewed or that has already won the FAF?

For non-fiction, here are two superb biographies that won the prize, huge books about two extraordinarily different men who crammed more into their lives than seems humanly possible:

Bonaparte: 1769-1802 by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall (Harvard University Press)

Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, translated by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell (Yale University Press)

And for history, anything translated by Arthur Goldhammer, five times winner of the FAF prize, the only translator I know whose publishers permit his editing (when sorely needed) and whose grateful contemporary authors welcome it.

In fiction, Lydia Davis’s translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Viking/Penguin Group) and Proust’s Swann’s Way (Viking Press) both won the prize. Of course.

5. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I nominate the poet and translator Jody Gladding, a finalist for the 2004 prize in fiction for Jean Giono’s The Serpent of Stars (Archipelago), and who won the prize in 2009, along with the author, translator, teacher, and horticulturist Elizabeth Deshays, for their translation of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives (Archipelago). Both books explore the deep bonds between the human soul and la France profonde, and the juries were unanimous in celebrating the extraordinary match between the French and the translations, so sensitively attuned to the rich yet delicate beauty of the authors’ impassioned voices.

2 thoughts on “Greatest Women in Translation: Linda Coverdale

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Ros Schwartz | Carol's Adventures in Translation

  2. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Jody Gladding | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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