When Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, the committee cited this motivation for celebrating his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” His novels—often gleaned from his own experiences, based on historical accounts and with Paris at the center— focus largely on the Nazi occupation of France.
Even before the Nobel Prize, Modiano enjoyed great success in France (winning the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française), and several of his works had been translated into English, including Night Rounds, Villa Triste, A Trace of Malice and Dora Bruder.
Though a small portion of Modiano's extensive oeuvre had been available in English since the early 1970s, he was not widely known outside France before the Nobel. Since then, many more of his novels have been translated for English readers, including Paris Nocturne (Accident nocturne). It begins when a young man is struck by a car. The female driver seems familiar to him, and she may have answers to his questions about his father and the past. But she vanishes, and a mysterious figure appears with a money-stuffed envelope. Libération calls Accident nocturne “a perfect book.”
Phoebe Weston-Evans, a Melbourne-based editor, translated Paris Nocturne for Text Publishing and Yale University Press. Phoebe recently took some time to discuss the art and work of translating with Sacred Trespasses.
When did you first discover the work of Patrick Modiano? What struck you in those earliest readings of his fiction?
I came across Modiano in my first year of undergraduate studies with a brilliant professor, Johnnie Gratton, at Trinity College Dublin. Chien de printemps was on the reading list for a modern French literature course focusing on novels with a degree of “autofiction.” Honestly, my first impression of Modiano’s writing was that it was quite strange. I hadn’t read anything like it before and I don’t think I really understood it initially because his writing asks the reader to read in a slightly different way, in a slower way perhaps. What I remember being struck by was the way his oneiric scenes could be conjured with such minimal means, and an atmosphere so utterly transportative.
The esteemed Anthea Bell has described translating as acting, as embodying a different voice for each project. Can you describe your process of translating Paris Nocturne? For instance, how many times did you read the novel in French before attempting your work? Did you correspond or meet face-to-face with Modiano during the process?
I think Anthea Bell’s description is quite right, and I would really love to compile a collection of metaphors for translation; it seems to be fertile ground. Translation could well be seen as the literary equivalent of acting, a form of mimesis. The notion of a writer’s voice is paramount, and equally difficult, for me in any case, to quantify or point to directly. I started working on the translation of Paris Nocturne for a university project and then carried on because I just couldn’t stop. For me the process turned into a form of veneration. It was a way for me to get as close to the writing as I could, to get in between every word, every letter, to inhabit the text in the most complete way. It was like moving inside it, or even ingesting it, in order to retell it in a different language. I don’t know how many times I have read it over the years. Some passages still get stuck in my mind like a line of a song.
I’ve neither met nor corresponded with Patrick Modiano. By all accounts he’s a very private person, and I respect that. This is not to say that I wouldn’t like to meet him. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Colin Nettelbeck, Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne, who was kind enough to read my work while it was still in progress and provided invaluable insight and feedback. He was an early champion of Modiano’s work and has met him on one or two occasions, so I’m only at one remove! I’m currently working on a different translation, and in this case the author has been very generous and keen to communicate and answer questions about the text. It’s altogether a very different experience.
Can you tell us more about that book and author?
With pleasure! The novel is called Alerte by Yves Ravey, and it was published in French in 1996. It takes place over a few hours during a visit to a fictional concentration camp called Waxhausen (bringing to mind Mauthausen) somewhere near Linz. The protagonist, a government official named Mandrake Lennox, is there to take samples of the stone, which is being mysteriously corroded by some form of saltpetre that slowly reduces stone to dust. The visit is interrupted successively by calls to Mandrake’s mobile phone, though which we learn of his domestic issues: his son is accused of biting the other children at childcare, his wife is too preoccupied with her work to notice, and his daughter is being threatened by some “off-stage” danger, real or unreal we’re never quite sure until the end. Although Mandrake is the principal voice, the narration shifts constantly from one character to the next, without these movements being overtly signaled by punctuation or any other means. It gives the novel a tremendous kind of energy and vigor that is both confronting and compelling. A precarious atmosphere is created and we are presented with a fluid yet fragmented picture of consciousness. Alerte is a formally ambitious novel about the erosion of memory, both collective and individual; it questions the purpose of memory, what it is physically and psychologically made up of, and obliquely raises the issue of why we preserve places of memorial and commemoration. It’s about a very dark period in our history, but somehow touches something timeless. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, it delivers a very powerful message.
None of Ravey’s twenty-five-plus novels and dramatic works has yet been translated into English… and I’m yet to even start looking for a publisher, but I think we’re in for a treat.
What, specifically, was the most challenging phrase or image or scene from Paris Nocturne to render into English?
That’s tough. One of the last things to get done, despite it being one of the first things to be tackled, was the title. The title in French is Accident nocturne, and a literal translation, Nocturnal Accident, just wouldn’t do since it immediately makes you think of bed-wetting. I went through so many different options, some departing from the original entirely, and I discussed some with my editor, but none of them met consensus. In the end I had a minor eureka moment when I was wandering around the Lifeline Bookfest in Brisbane. I’m not sure how it came to me, but it must have been something to do with running my eyes over hundreds of titles.
In general, one of the areas that was very challenging in this translation was tense. Modiano’s portrayal of time is quite idiosyncratic and the way scenes move from one to the next doesn’t necessarily follow a straightforward chronological sequence, indeed I think he makes an effort to disrupt traditional narrative sequencing. There is a definite present of the principal narrative thread and this present slips effortlessly and often without obvious signage to a different time, very often to the period under Nazi occupation. It is done in a way that is both smooth yet creates a rather precarious atmosphere and parcellated temporal fabric. This, coupled with the fact that French and English don’t quite behave in the same way in terms of their past tenses, made it an interesting area to translate.
How has translating affected the way you read for pleasure?
When I read in French I have to make a conscious effort to just read and not to pause and wonder how I might translate a certain turn of phrase or passage. But it’s possible and translation certainly hasn’t prevented me from reading for pleasure. I think translating has actually enriched my reader-self by adding another layer of linguistic awareness. I think it’s enhanced my sensitivity to rhythm, euphony and cadence in particular. I find it hard to be a peaceful reader of English translations, especially from French; I always want to know what the original was.
Which French novels do you wish that you could translate or re-translate? Which not-yet-translated French novelists are English readers missing?
I wish I was the one to have translated Duras and Camus, but fortunately and unfortunately I don’t think they need re-translating. There are of course a great many contemporary French writers who readers of English would be privileged to read and whose works haven’t yet made their way into English, and I probably don’t know half of them. Our Anglo-centric literary consumption is well known and seems largely to be a product of the big five narrowing their output and investing less in less-profitable markets, like translation. One of these writers is Yves Ravey, a rare and disquieting writer. Christian Bobin is an exquisite writer, some of whose works have so far been translated in English, but not all. I would love to have the skill to translate Paul Vincensini’s poetry, but I simply don’t know if it’s possible, as Robert Frost said, “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Another writer who has written seemingly untranslatable novels is Christian Gailly. He makes French perform the way a jazz musician plays a saxophone, and as in the case of poetry, I’m not sure if turning his work into English is possible, not without a more comprehensive reworking, but I really hope someone gives it a try one day.
Paris Nocturne is now available from Text Publishing, Avenue Bookstore and other booksellers in Australia. Yale University Press publishes the title in late October. Find it at your local bookstore, Powell’s, Amazon and all the places good books are sold.
To contact Phoebe Weston-Evans, please send an email via our contact page with her name as the subject.
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