A writer and her double
It could be seen that the Lady Mavis had prepared her little feast with some care, building a small canopy of red and black silk against the decaying battlements, and setting out on a long damask-covered table beneath it tasty dishes, flagons of pink bubbling wine and garlands of holly, with leaves like needles and berries red as blood. And she herself wore a snow-white robe under a scarlet overdress, with a garland of the holly shining in her hair.
That is the sumptuous prose of the famous English author A.S. Byatt, read by the critic Raphaelle Rerolle in an extract from the novel "Babel Tower".
Almost. Because it is of course a translation of Byatt, made by her translator Jean-Louis Chevalier. Up to what point is it possible to keep the beauty of the original text in its translation? What are the choices to make if you want to remain faithful to the original? These were the themes tackled the day when Byatt met Chevalier for a debate entitled "The writer and her double". Madame Rerolle being the chairperson opened the discussion by speaking first to the author:
RR: Did you give much consideration to the choice of your translator? Did you have the opportunity to...?
ASB: No, I would not know how to choose a translator but I was very flattered when Jean-Louis said that he wanted to translate "Sugar and other tales" which is a book that I am much attached to because I believe that it is the only autobiography that I am ever going to write. The most French of my books.
RR: Why do you say that? What is it?
ASB: I wanted lightness in the French in what I was writing even if it was English. It is not at all like what you have just read. It is something mure robust and lighter you see.
JLC: Yes, there was only one "purple patch" which was the making of the boiled sweets. That provided of course all sorts of shades, translucent, solid, transparent etc in the making of the sweets that meant that the grand father and the narrator are making sweets. Well it was however very Byatt, but simply a little corner. The rest was what Antonia does elsewhere, that is... but that is not as flamboyant as it appears at first that is a reflection of herself, her life, her death, her parents, literature, Van Gogh, in the end a reassembly of all that Antonia has written. And in my opinion, it is her most beautiful work.
RR: In any case, it is... you have through the work of Antonia Byatt, you have been able to become a sort of sweet specialist because when we talk about boiled sweets and then we get to the extract which I have just read, we have something perfected on this subject.
ASB: I was just thinking when you were reading that it is a lot more appetizing in French than in English.
RR: It's maybe very rich, in fact.
JLC: In fact, no it is not about sweets. It is about everything and anything. Because you have to be a fashion expert. Recently I was an expert in snails, in the next one there is gem stones. I can't tell you... The way that insects make their offspring is no longer a secret to me, and I am only telling you about simple things because there are others. Well fine! In my home life there is a situation which happens about four times a week. I come down and I say "Do you know what Antonia has made me do now". And at one time we invented a game which we called 'Byatt Pursuit' where my children used to say to me. "Does Antonia talk about rice and curry?". "Yes, she talks about rice and curry...". "Does Antonia talk about blue monkeys", and I used to say "Ah yes, in The Forest, there is a blue monkey" and they had a hard time to find things that Antonia hadn't talked about.
ASB: It happens from time to time. When I am writing in the morning, I think "I am going to add something that will be challenge for Jean-Louis Chevalier".
You know, French is the only language that I speak quite fluently besides English, so it the only language that I can think in and make a martyr of the translator. But no, it's not that. It is my game to challenge the game of your children. I want to do something which is really difficult because it always succeeds.
RR: It is a long collaboration and I imagine that the world of each of you ends up invading that of the other but also you have seen over a time like that, quite long, you have seen changes in the writing of Antonia Byatt. Have you seen changes at work?
JLC: Yes, that is true. It is true; it is writing, in my opinion, more and more inspired by reflection on the sciences. It used to be rather a writing inspired by reflection on literature and art, and the sciences, all sort of sciences, biological sciences as well as other, but it has been biology recently, I don't say "taking steps" but taking on importance that they did not always have without reducing the role of literature and arts which means that the scope increases, but the scientific area is however the most recent.
ASB: It is a bit... That interests me more and more because something has happened, in England at least, to the study of literature. It is no longer real. They speak a language which only discusses this language. But I always involve myself in things. There is almost nothing else in literary criticism. So, I've always thought "you must deal with reality". So I've gone off in two directions, towards the sciences to have something solid, exactly as you have said. But then it's changing.
RR: You talked to me once about the way you used to have of working and of leaving things - you used an expression that I found again when going through my notes before coming that I had found very nice - of letting things tick over in the back of your mind. You had told me that to explain to me that you left things like that as that works in your subconscious mind before you write them.
ASB: Yes, the back of the mind, that's the expression of a scientist whom I met who was studying the stars. He was an astronomer. I told him how I worked and he said "yes, first of all I look with the front of my mind, I look, I read, I read, and I read. And then I work with the middle of my mind which tries to understand what we have done... when we have tried all the time that we can, we put it into the back of the mind, but we even let it go to sleep, even during the day. You must not look at it any more and it works on its own". So I always tell people who ask me "How do you work?", I say, "You have to always do two or three things at the same time".
RR: I say that because I believe that's what you had done, you were on a trilogy, and before setting off, it seems to me, Babel Tower, about which you said that as it was going to be a big piece, you decided just to write the book, which was going to bring you the Booker prize later. That's not bad!
ASB: Yes I thought that it would be easier. You have to learn to write books in other styles in a book. You have to learn to write. I did not know that it would be poetry, but with several voices in a single book because in the Babel Tower there are many voices. And I did not know if I was able to write in many styles. It was an experiment to know if I could do it.
After the lecture, Chevalier gave some tips for those who might want to follow him in the profession of translator:
Stay very close to the English text except when French does not allow it and tell yourself that we hope that the explanation of the text - which is a French genre more than an English one - that the explanation of the text from the translation could give the same result as the explanation of the text from the English text. My goal is always 'is the text going to say the same thing and approximately in the same way?'
It is not always easy:
What is infuriating, are the texts where you have a man, a lady and a thing "his, her, its" and in French you are sure that the thing will be masculine of feminine of course. "Its lag was broken". In French, it is the man, or the lady, or the table, in English it is two. The other difficulty is the role of past tenses which do not function in exactly the same way in the two languages and sometimes there are conjugal pairs, twins, but French does not allow both of them. You have to choose. So there are problems of continuity or repetition with past tenses. That, that's always tricky, always.
So, when we get to the problem of references, sometimes it is even impossible:
There are some of them which are going to be lost. There are some of them which are not recognized by the French, let's say the cultured - who are however the French who read Antonia, when there is "to be or not to be" or "a thing of beauty is joy forever". There are some of them which cannot be conveyed if we do not explain them, so depending on their importance we can say "as Milton said" - because on the next page there will be "Milton had said that", so this is a technical requirement. Sometimes, so what. Some people will know it, others will not know it, but all the same, if, very naturally a reference does not change things - a French reference - does not change the text of Antonia, I am never looking in the text for it but it can happen. In the text that I am translating there are "laughing elves" except that there is a little French poem that all the French know which says "cronwed with thyme and marjoram, the laughing elves danced on the plain". I am tempted to translate "the laughing elves" because that would cause a little echo for someone who would have lost a dozen even.
Whilst as for the almost impeccable French of Byatt, it is the product of a long story:
It is the language that I love the best. It is because I learned it at the age of eleven and I fell completely in love with French. We even bought a house in Cevennes where I go. Now I spend three months of the year in it. I always come in the month of June. I leave mid September. This year I am leaving in mid August because my daughter is going to have a child in San Francisco. But usually I am there.
And to finish here is another little extract of the combined work of Byatt/ Chevalier.
Now the people quickly perceived that with great ingenuity the feast had been laid out on the table in the form of a Man or possibly of a Woman, for the Lady Mavis, in her old-fashioned modesty, had wreathed the joining of the legs in further holly, beneath which sugared figs could be seen nestling, and the breasts were, as we shall see, ambiguous. Now this human feast seemed on first sight like a giant gingerbread man, such as the Witch offered to Hansel and Gretel to entice them into her cottage, a great form composed of smaller forms, custards and tartlets, marzipan sweetmeats and blancmanges, jellies and syllabubs, mincemeats and flummeries, fools and darioles, mirlitons and millefeuilles. Its head was crowned with a circlet of tarts, of cockscombs, and the flesh of its body was all veined and contoured and dimpling, made of peaches and cream here, and slices of quince there, blueberry veinings and blackcurrant flushes. The face was whipped cream and meringue and rose petal pies for cheeks and huge lips plump and red with apple-cheeks and cranberry froth opening on an oval tart of baked larks' tongues, surrounded by sugared almond teeth. The eyes had sloe berry tartlets for pupils, and greengage jelly for the iris, flecked with vanilla, and white syllabub slicked round that, fringed with lashes of burned spun sugar. The Sweet Human had long red shining nails, on its fingers and toes, made of pointed tartlets glazed with scarlet redcurrant jelly, from which dripped pendant tarts like gouts of blood, also glazed scarlet. The breasts of this confected Being were low circling mounds of pink marzipan sweetmeats, with a castle of chocolate truffles for nipples: they were the breasts of a young girl or nubile boy, sweet to touch, sweet to taste. The navel was a deep custard tart amongst the peaches and cream, with a spiral swirl of creme patissiere inside it. The sweetmeat body was so to speak naked expect for a necklace of round red tarts of currants in scarlet jelly, and a line of these ran also, like Pantaloon's buttons, from chin to belly to crotch, and a further line also dissected this line at the waist, bonds or quarterings of glistening vermilion.
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