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"Temporal Dislocation in a Changing World": An Interview with Edward Gauvin

 Anne Richter (1939 - ) is a prominent Belgian author, editor, and scholar of the fantastic. Her first collection, Le fourmi a fait le coup, was written at the age of fifteen and translated as The Blue Dog (Houghton Mifflin, 1956) by Alice B. Toklas, who praised her in the preface. She is known for her twice-reprinted international anthology of female fantastical writers, whose introductory essay she expanded into a study of the genre. She has also edited official anthologies of the fantastical work of Meyrink and de Maupassant. Her four collections have won her such Belgian honors as the Prix Franz De Wever, the Prix Félix Denayer, the Prix du Parlement, and the Prix Robert Duterme. She is a member of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Association of Belgian Writers, and PEN.

Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Lannan Foundation, and the French Embassy. His work has won the John Dryden Translation prize and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the French-American Foundation and Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prizes. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House , Harper's, and World Literature Today. The translator of more than 200 graphic novels, he is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders.

Edward Gauvin's translations of her work have appeared in The Collagist and Sisters of the Revolution, an anthology of feminist speculative fiction from PM Press.

Anne Richter's story, "The Great Pity of the Zintram Family," translated by Edward Gauvin, appeared in Issue Sixty of The Collagist.

Here, Edward Gauvin speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about how translators are like cover bands, Poe’s “unity of effect,” and translation as a chance for reciprocal influence.

What first drew you to this story by Anne Richter?

Honestly, it was the completely loopy prayer to Fire the father offers up at dinner that sold me. I’m drawn to stories that raise conflicts and questions, then defer them in favor of forward movement. Stories that entice, even mislead, with promise; stories almost (meta)morphic, constantly on the verge of becoming a different kind of story, about something else. By the end some kind of closure is made available—sometimes poetic, often oblique—but the drama is not addressed in the lock-step storytelling fashion often preached (“character wants something,” “obstacle to wanting,” etc.).

“The Great Pity of the Zintram Family,” both tonally and content-wise, reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “House of Usher.” Were there any writers/translators that you were influenced by when working on this piece?

That’s a great comparison for many reasons, both within and outside the text: the water imagery, the incest theme, a verse interlude, the pervasive sense of doom. Poe’s a definite touchstone for Francophone fantastical writers, due entirely to Baudelaire’s famous and transformative translations, and Richter, herself a scholar and editor of fantastical work, is an acutely self-conscious of these traditions. “Zintram” certainly also aspires to Poe’s “unity of effect.” I suppose to me a mark of the story’s modernity relative to Poe is its compression, which is a way to combat reader familiarity. Major events happen in a very short span of narrative time.

When I was working on Zintram, I’d spent several years steeped in 20th century French and Belgian fantastical fiction—reading, translating, researching, writing critical sketches for Weird Fiction Review—so I was very aware of the Francophone side. While there aren’t specific writers or translators I’d single out, I was also generally conscious of addressing a tradition—or two, really, wanting to put Francophone work in the corresponding Anglophone context to spark a conversation. Every translation is a chance for exchange, for reciprocal influence, and certain traditions are more closely twinned than others, have a close and almost… incestuous? history.

What was the most challenging aspect of translating this work of fiction from French to English?

Richter has a very nimble voice—for all its watery imagery, her story never bogs down—so fleetness and fluidity were my priorities. I was careful with alliteration. A translation is a record of the translator’s comprehension (that is, explaining a text to him/herself—the first draft especially); the fantastic must never be leaden or overexplain.

Do you feel that English changes the tone of this story in any ways? If so, how?

I think the very name “Zintram” strikes a more eccentric note to French ears than to ours. It’s exotic, claptrap, nonsensical—the singsong “Lady Zintram-Zintram” mention is meant to highlight that—and this additional strangeness can get lost, for English readers, dismissed simply as foreign as anything else. In an earlier draft I actually tried switching names for the brother and sister—they became Roberta and Gilbert, old-fashioned names both—because I wanted emphasize the noble family’s almost temporal dislocation in a changing world. In French, it’s Robert and Gilberte, the latter of which led to Gilbertine.

There’s this idea, along with the translator’s invisibility, of a translation’s transparency: a pane through something once obscure magically becomes legible. I guess I think of a translation as a cover: you didn’t write it. Your band is probably different, your style is different. But you can still pay it tribute, and if you do it right and you’re lucky, own a piece of it forever. In fact, with every tiny choice you make, you’re helpless but to leave your mark on it.

What are you working on now?

Comics are my bread-and-butter, always coming and going across my desk. Two of the largest French comics publishers, Delcourt-Soleil and Dargaud-Dupuis, have recently taken the new media initiative of trying to reach American readers directly with digital offerings, the first with a selection of titles on Comixology, and the second with their own beautiful site, Europe Comics. These should really open the eyes of American readers to the glorious diversity of art style and subject matter in one of the richest comics traditions the world has to offer.

New York Review of Books also enters the graphic novel game next spring with the brand-new imprint New York Review Comics. I’m proud to have translated one of the launch titles, Blutch’s eerie and majestic toga epic Peplum, a contemporary remix of Petronius’ classic Satyricon.

Meanwhile, I’ve got four full-length prose translations coming out from now to next fall. The first, Eyes Full of Empty, is a contemporary Parisian noir featuring a Kabyle fixer, an antihero who offers a new point of view on race and class in a gripping yarn that upends a few of the usual satisfactions. Jérémie Guez, a rising star of French crime, was flown over by the Embassy and we have a few tour dates in California this week, northern and southern, courtesy of our publisher, the LA-based Unnamed Press.

The second is Serge Brussolo’s The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, a book I pitched to Melville House as “Inception directed by David Cronenberg,” though traces of Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard can also be detected. Due out mid-January, with the first chapter online and an overview here.

Belgian fabulist Paul Willem’s slim autumnal collection, The Cathedral of Mist, comes out in the spring. In the last few years, Tin House has run two of the stories, including the title piece, and Subtropics another. This work of melancholy beauty is my second book with Cambridge-based curator of Euro-obscurities Wakefield Press, after Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and Other Tales.

And finally, next fall should see my next Jean-Philippe Toussaint translation, the final novel in his “Marie tetralogy,” Nue, from Dalkey Archive.

Are there any translation projects you can recommend to us?

To be honest, the past year’s staggering workload has left me little time for pleasure reading, something I hope to rectify with the holidays. I salute not only the many young small presses doing amazing work in translation, but the new openness of literary magazines, upstart and established, to work in translation, though I do wish that rights legwork didn’t always fall on the translator. I know litmags are sorely understaffed, but in our IP-centric world, rights are an issue of increasing importance, and a better understanding of them would help just about anyone in publishing.

I was recently at the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference, and at the book fair there, I picked up the massive tome Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! from The University of Chicago Press, an anthology that unites several translators’ work on the eccentric and visionary Paul Scheerbart.

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