|Dr. Geraldine Brodie -
|Dr. David Bellos -
|University College London||University of Princeton|
David Bellos is the Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. He is the author of Romain Gary: A Tall Story (published by Vintage Digital, 2010), and Georges Perec: A Life in Words (published by David R. Godine, 1993) (Prix Goncourt for biography), amongst other books, and the translator of Chronicle in Stone: A Novel by Ismael Kadare (Arcade Publishing, 2011), amongst other translations.
Geraldine Brodie, our Linguist of the Month of August 2016 and since then a regular contributor to this blog is Senior Lecturer in Translation Theory and Theatre Translation in the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry, where she convenes the MA in Translation Theory and Practice. *
Your career has progressed from obtaining an Oxford French degree to becoming Professor of French and Comparative Literature and Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton. University, one of the leading universities in the USA. How has your study of French literature and language informed your interest in translation?
In my youth I was a scholar of nineteenth-century French literature, with a special interest in Balzac and in the book market of the Romantic era. Obviously, as a university teacher of French, I taught translation every week, but I never thought of myself as being a translator—which is just as well, since I now realize how specific the discipline of pedagogic translation really is. But one day, a colleague put in my hand a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of Georges Perec’s La Vie : mode d’emploi, saying, he couldn’t finish this, but I would probably like it. And indeed I did! It was a revelation. It struck me as a novel that happened to have been written in French but could just as well have been in English, or any language. I wanted to share it. More than that: I wanted to write it! By a series of adventures and misadventures, I did eventually get the chance to do just that. It was a lucky turn of events. La Vie mode d’emploi is not quite as difficult as it looks (much of it echoes the English tradition of the comic novel), but it is a pretty tough assignment (and a very long one) all the same. I think I learned to translate by translating that work. I learned a huge amount about writing in English, and also about the nature of French. The two languages are very close and have long borrowed from each other, but the task of creating Life: A User’s Manual really showed me how different they are in structural terms. To move a work successfully from one to the other takes quite a bit of thought, and if the end product makes it look easy, that’s because the process was very hard. That’s how my so-called career as a translator began: serendipitously. And I do not really think of it as a career. I have always had a day-job. But because Life: A User’s Manual attracted considerable attention, I was asked to translate more Perec, and then all sorts of other things too. Which I did, and still do, but limiting myself to one book a year, since the job that pays the rent has to take priority, after all.
For each book, I do my best to conform to the current ideology of translation, which requires the translator to find an English “voice” for each foreign author and to submit his or her own writing to that imagined identity and style. In retrospect, however, I realise that I write the way I write and that irrespective of my effort to find the right tone for Simenon or Berr or Fournel or Kadare, there must be stylistic commonalities between all the books I have written under my own name and all those I have written as translations. Perhaps one day some assiduous analyst will be able to nail down what it is that makes a translation by me more like another translation by me than like a translation of the same author by another hand. I can’t see what those features are, because they are natural to me, but I strongly suspect they exist.
What I like about translating is that it gives me a chance to bring things that I like to an audience beyond the academy. Luck also plays a role—in the titles that are brought to my attention, and in the respectful relations I have with a number of publishers who understand my taste. Also, because I do have that day job, I only translate books I like, and I know that is a rare and in a sense quite outrageous privilege to have as a translator. But I also think that because translating demands scholarship, on the one hand, and creativity, on the other, it is one of the most rewarding things that a language specialist can do.
Your publications list is hugely varied, with a large number of translations to your name. How do you see the mix between academic literature, translations and more publications of more general interest among your work?
You say my publications are varied, and I find that flattering, because I would like to believe that, like my hero Georges Perec, I never write the same book twice. Well, I would like to believe it, but it is not entirely true. Three of my books belong to the genre of biography (the lives of Perec, Tati, and Gary) calling on many of the same skills and methods, and they are located in the same cultural, geographic and chronological space—all my subjects are more or less un-French creators working in Paris between 1945 and 1982.
Three of my other books are books about books (Cousine Bette, Père Goriot, and Les Misérables) and similarly exploit the same broad field of expertise and the same general methods of approach. The outlier is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? —but that’s about translation, something I’ve been doing for thirty years, and that I’ve been teaching for even longer than that. If I had the knowledge and the cheek, I’d like to be much more varied than that!
|Translation and the Meaning of Everything||Une histoire fabuleuse de la traduction|
Is That A Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was described by Susan Harris in The Quarterly Conversation (5 December 2011) as ‘that marvelous rarity, a book by a specialist that can be enjoyed by general readers’. What inspired you to write this book?
I never intended to write a book about translation. In 2007 I was asked to become the director of a new undergraduate program at Princeton that aimed to educate our students about the nature and stakes of translation (not to train translators—Princeton doesn’t do vocational training of any kind). So I devised a new course that introduced some of the philosophical, linguistic, historical and social issues related to the phenomenon of translation. It was a whole new education for me! In the course of devising and teaching the course I became increasingly irritated by the numerous inherited clichés that many others have railed against before me, and I began to write a few little squibs about the silly things people carry on saying (“translation is no substitute for the original”, les belles infidèles, traduttore traditore, and so on). My son, who is a much more celebrated writer than I am, took a look and told me to carry on. So I did. Especially because on the first day of a semester of study leave I slipped on a patch of ice and broke my ankle, so I had three months stuck indoors in a plaster cast. What else could I do but write a book? I had no idea who might publish such a set of essays, so I contacted a literary agent, and she too urged me to carry on and to turn it into a book, subject to various adjustments she thought necessary. In due course, she found a publisher for me, and my editor at Penguin (and then the American editor at FSG) made all kinds of smart suggestions for re-ordering the material and bringing the work to completion. So although the book is undoubtedly mine, it is also the product of my students, my agent and my brilliant editors. I really enjoyed the back and forth, and the discovery of what the book really had to say through argument and discussion. I know a lot of people grumble about publishers and agents and editors but I must say I have found wisdom and support in those quarters. They are not writers, but they do know what writing is.
Since I argue very strongly that everything can be translated—I have an almost allergic reaction to people who declare things to be untranslatable, even when translating books absurdly entitled “Dictionary of Untranslatables”—I was overjoyed when foreign publishers bought the rights to Is That A Fish in Your Ear? It’s a book that can only be proved right by its own translation! Flammarion put me in touch with Daniel Loayza, who turned out to be the most perfect French translator imaginable. He’s a learned classicist with long experience in translating for the theatre and a tremendous sense of fun. He translated, I commented, and together we found solutions to the thorniest problems I had created, in correspondence but also in brainstorming sessions in Paris and in Princeton. The title was altered to Le Poisson et le bananier , because the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which inspired the English title, (Is That a Fish in Your Ear?….) is not very well known in France.  (It is not a problem in German, since Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is well known there—in fact, the German title is a direct quotation.) So for France we replaced it with an internal reference to the first translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Malay, where the parable of the fig tree is transformed into a banana in what is perhaps the earliest example of cultural substitution as a translation technique. The word fish remains in Le Poisson et le bananier, but supported by two additional pages explaining the story of the Babel Fish, with a picture to show it too. The French translation appeared just a few weeks after the English original, so it was available to the Spanish translator as a model of adaptation; he borrowed some of Daniel Loayza’s ideas but also added informational paragraphs about the specific history of Bible translation in Spain, which is different from the English story. The German translation changes, adds and subtracts very little, partly because German is (perhaps surprisingly) quite close to English in translation culture. As for the Asian translations, I’m afraid I don’t have the equipment to get involved. I just look at the Korean on my bookshelf and admire.
My next project? I’ll tell you when it’s done! This semester I am teaching a new course on the history and culture of copyright (COM 332, Who Owns This Sentence?), in partnership with an Intellectual Property lawyer. It’s a complicated subject, also fascinating and great fun—and also, I believe, quite fundamental to the world in which we now live. But I don’t yet know if it will grow into a book very soon, or at all. Am I not allowed to take a break?
 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the first of five books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comedy science fiction "trilogy" by Douglas Adams. The novel is an adaptation of the first four parts of Adams' radio series of the same name. The novel was first published in London on 12 October 1979.
* Geraldine devised and co-convened the Translation in History Lecture Series and the Theatre Translation Forum, and was a co-editor of the online journal New Voices in Translation Studies from 2012 to 2015.
Geraldine's research focuses on theatre translation practices in contemporary London, including the collaborative role of the translator in performance and the intermediality and interlinearity of surtitles.She is a frequent presenter on these topics, in the UK and internationally, and her work has been published in a variety of publications. Geraldine is a member of the Panel of Associates of ARTIS, a new research training initiative in the broad area of translation and interpreting studies.
Geraldine has an MA in Comparative Literature from University College London and read English as an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford where she specialised in Linguistics, Old and Middle English and Old French. She has a Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera from the Instituto Cervantes. Geraldine's research interests include the multiple voices of translation; direct, indirect and literal theatre translation; adaptation and version; the intermediality of surtitles; and ethics in translation. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. Geraldine's first monograph, The Translator on Stage, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.