The Howling Fantods

David Foster Wallace News and Resources Since March 97

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home News by Category General Updates Translating DFW Into French

Translating DFW Into French

Translating David Foster Wallace into French.
An interview with Charles Recoursé

-Ariane Mak

Charles Recoursé is a very prolific translator of Wallace’s books. The Broom of the System (La Fonction du balai), The Girl with Curious Hair (La Fille aux cheveux étranges),
The Pale King (Le Roi pâle) and “This is Water” (C’est de l’eau) have all been translated into French thanks to him. And his translation of David Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace Although of course you end up becoming yourself (Même si, en fin de compte, on devient évidemment soi-même) was released earlier this year. All of them have been published by Au Diable Vauvert editions, where Charles was an editor and translator for several years, before turning to full time translation.
The supposedly quiet Parisian bar I had chosen to conduct this interview, proved to be not so quiet after all. Many thanks therefore to Charles for kindly answering the following questions amid Bob Marley tunes and a loud football game.

Charles Recoursé [via Overblog]

Ariane Mak: Charles, you have translated many of David Foster Wallace’s books into French. Could you tell us what led you to translation in general and to the translation of DFW in particular?

Charles Recoursé: Well the first two translators were Julie and Jean-René Etienne who did a great job translating Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Brefs entretiens avec des hommes hideux) and A supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again (Un truc soi-disant super auquel on ne me reprendra pas). Their work has proved very useful to me, especially to have an idea of what I was in for before I started translating The Broom of the System (La Fonction du balai). About what led me to translate DFW, well it started when I was doing a master’s degree in political sciences in Rennes, in Brittany. It was a time when I basically stayed home, reading books and smoking joints all day! One afternoon, I asked myself what I was going to do with my life. And as I was constantly reading books, I thought – somewhat naively perhaps as I had no idea how to go about it - I might become an editor. So I applied for internships with three publishing houses. I did an internship at Payot & Rivages (the Rivages/Noir collection, French home of James Ellroy, Donald Westlake, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane and many more) then at Au Diable Vauvert, where amongst other tasks I proofread translations, which I quite enjoyed. I became assistant editor then editor at Au Diable Vauvert. I was sharing an office with Laura Derajinsky, who is also a brilliant translator, and one day I saw Simon Reynolds’ Bring the Noise on her desk. I knew his book well because this was right in the middle of a post-punk, new wave, cold wave, post wave, whatever-you-can-think of-wave revival and the French translation of Rip It Up and Start Again had just been published. I offered to try to translate it and my first trials were accepted so I started translating Simon Reynolds’ Bring the Noise – this was in early 2008.

This translation was to be interrupted. I went with the Diable Vauvert team to the “Fête de l’Huma”, a large French festival, where we had a bookstand. I remember an evening we had packed everything up and were smoking cigarettes with Marion Mazauric, the boss and publisher. She checked her emails and her face suddenly changed. She had received an email from Wallace’s agent announcing his suicide. This was September 12th 2008. This came as a total shock. Wallace was 46 at the time, we had thought we had time to translate and publish his works. In France the two first Wallace translations had received a very enthusiastic reception from the press in 2005, but the French publishing market isn’t used to short stories and nonfiction collections so only 500 or 600 copies of them had been sold. And Au Diable Vauvert, being an independent publishing house which hadn’t had many best sellers yet, couldn’t pay 10 000 • to translate a book which would bring in only 3 000 •. We realized that with Wallace’s death, if we wanted him to find the readers he deserved we shouldn’t wait to translate him. So we decided that the French translation of the Broom of the System would need to be published the following September. Marion Mazauric told me “Listen, I know you’re able to switch between slang and a more classic kind of writing. I want you to be in charge of the translation.” I wasn’t sure if I was up to the challenge but you only live once and it’s the kind of offer one can’t refuse. So I put the translation of Bring the Noise on hold and started translating The Broom of the System.

Continue after the break...

AM: Kurt Baldinger summarises the classic debate about translation in the following way: "By all the accepted theories of linguistics, it should be impossible to translate from one language to another. Fortunately the ordinary translator does not know this, and he goes ahead and translates anyhow.” (Semantic Theory, 1980) Wallace famously declared that his work was “untranslatable”. As his translator, one who needs to go ahead and translate anyhow, can you tell us about your experience of translation? What is it like to be immersed in Wallace’s writing for months?

CR: Well the Broom of the System (La Fonction du Balai) remains a book for which I have a lot of fondness even if Wallace said it could have been written by a 14 year-old kid. I really had the feeling I was translating a long-lost brother who managed to articulate some of the things I had sensed. Things such as the anger and guilt one throws at others, everything which we project onto others, which degrades human relations. This was a voice I felt I could translate. And even if all his writings revolve around the teenage and post-teenage years, the trauma, the studies, the first loves, the things that structure us at that age, I feel that there is a sort of innocence that Wallace lost after The Broom. This is something I felt starting right from Girl with Curious Hair (La Fille aux cheveux étranges). The book opens with the abandonment scene of  “Little Expressionless Animals” and there’s this shift to a graver Wallace, which is how he remained: a person who decides to open his collection with an abandonment scene and to close it with the words “You are loved”.

This is what I felt at the end of the day: it’s going to be hard, but let’s go forward with it. And you go there with the author too, because you know it is hard for him too. It takes a lot of research, of introspection and efforts to contemplate humanity and try to be lucid about it. What is astounding with Wallace is that he can describe the worst bastard imaginable without falling into cynicism. Otherwise he would have lost hope and would have judged his characters, something he rarely does. Or he would have fallen into irony and would have become like many American writers, who write on bastards but who are not worth much more themselves. Wallace kept a kind of tenderness.

La fonction du balai (The Broom of the System)


La fille aux cheveux étranges (Girl with Curious Hair

Then, concerning the technical difficulties of translating language registers and cultural references, well you just need to plug away at it! You try and use the things you’ve read, the things you’ve heard, in your family, in the streets, on the train ; this is your toolbox, and you want to keep it as rich as possible. To pick up your quote, the translator needs to go ahead. Or he’s a bad translator and sweeps difficulties under the carpet! To tell you the truth, in Le Roi pâle (The Pale King) I swept one or two things under the carpet myself. A reference to a brand of cookies for instance. I discussed it with Jill McCoy but we could never find anything about this brand, she had never heard of it, and neither had her family and friends. On occasions like these, you look at your paragraph with or without the word and it doesn’t change a thing so you’re better off taking it out.  

AM: Regarding The Pale King, the book’s state of incompleteness was made even more evident with the opening of the archives at the Ransom Centre. The initial drafts and narrative structures deposited there were the subject of much debate at the Infinite Wallace Paris Conference. How did you deal with translating an incomplete book?

CR: It’s very tough actually, because as a translator you have no idea where you’re going. There are many problematic passages. And you know that even if they could have been elucidated later, they won’t be. The same thing goes for the characters, many of them could have been expanded further. Sylvanshine is only skimmed over for instance. And Meredith Rand proved to be a particularly tough nut to crack. At the beginning of the chapter she is described as a stunningly beautiful woman who looks down on the other employees. Then the chapter goes on and you realize that she has in fact many weaknesses… before discovering that she still remains an egotistical bitch. It’s very destabilizing as a translator, and it makes it hard to find the right tone. 

There’s this great chapter where Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion are talking in a bar and Shane Drinion starts to levitate without being aware of it. Wallace was thinking of adding a second chapter about the two of them and one is left wondering if it would have included some explanation for Shane’s levitating abilities. The same goes for Toni Ware, the girl who had a traumatic childhood: “Don’t mess with this girl, she’s damaged goods”. Well the chapters devoted to her background are some of the most haunting things I had to translate. That scene where she watches her mother being strangled by the man whose camping car they stole is certainly the most brutally violent scene I translated. Then Toni Ware disappears from the book only to make a useless background appearance in another scene!

The Pale King, in its published version, is a bit like arriving in a meadow then seeing that you have a very large shadow and attempting to analyze it. What you are missing is looking up to see the mountain which creates this shadow. What you have is the shadow, not the mountain behind. And this is infuriating, really. I don’t see how The Pale King could have been less than three times longer than it is now. It’s an unfathomable book.

Le Roi Pâle (The Pale King)

AM: Let’s zoom in on the more technical aspects of the translation process. It seems to me that the professional jargon of the IRS which peppers The Pale King must also be a serious challenge for a translator.

CR: It was a real pain in the neck to be honest. I purchased a splendid administrative and financial dictionary which I hope I will never have to use again! And I had the help of a tax lawyer to clarify the administrative hierarchies, because I had to avoid sticking the structure of the French administration over the American one. But when you ask for this kind of help, people say they need more context. Then you have to answer that you don’t have any more information and that the author is dead. So the jargon was definitely tough.

AM: You have also translated Although of course you end up becoming yourself (Même si, en fin de compte, on devient évidemment soi-même) which has just been published in France. The book is the transcription of Lipsky and Wallace’s conversations during the Infinite Jest book tour. In it, David Lispky says that Wallace “talks slangily, like Huck Finn grown up and Ph.D.-ed, Huck with doctorate”. Was the translation of the transcribed spoken word an additional difficulty for you? What solutions did you have to come up with?

CR: I think the “Huckleberry Finn” aspect mostly comes from Wallace’s intonations. In speech as well as in writing, Wallace suddenly shifts from a very informal tone to dense impeccable sentences. So for the first part, I tried to keep the informal tone by removing negations and by slipping in some slang. I also kept many verbal tics: I translated the omnipresent “I mean” by the French expression “enfin”, which seems to convey both a hesitation and a desire to clarify, and “you see” by “vous comprenez” or “vous voyez”, because sometimes I wanted to emphasize once again on this desire to clarify, to be understood, which is very strong in Wallace’s writing and even stronger in this long interview. But I chucked out all the “like” because when translated into French they make your character sound like he’s a fourteen-year-old teenager.

Même si en fin de compte on devient évidemment soi-même (Although of course You End up Becoming Yourself)

AM: The French language raises another issue here. Indeed, while the English language uses only “you”, in French there is the need to choose between a “tu” which denotes informality or familiarity and a more polite “vous”. You chose to make Lipsky and Wallace use the polite “vous” form. Could you talk us through this choice?

CR: I chose to use “vous” because I had a hard time imagining them using “tu” as soon as they met. First because Lipsky was there to do a profile of Wallace and “vous” sounds more professional. Second because there is this idea of admiration and distance. But once I started using the polite “vous” I was faced with the issue of determining when to switch to the more familiar “tu”. When I was a kid I had become aware that two characters in a movie would usually switch from “vous” to “tu” once they had slept together… Which doesn’t happen here, so I had to find a breaching episode. Something like ‘they are attacked’ or ‘they have a car accident’, well after this kind of event you definitely use “tu” to address the other person. But here the worst that happens to them is that they missed their plane! Big deal. (laughs).  

AM: Have you been in touch with David Lipsky as part of the translation process?

CR: Definitely, I had lots of questions to ask him. Especially because in Although of course you end up becoming yourself, the transcription has kept all the hesitations, verbal tics, sentences without endings, sentences which bifurcate. This is a very American way of transcribing interviews and I think it was the right choice. In France we tend to box the spoken word into the categories of written prose. But it complicates the translator’s task. I stumbled over many Wallace-esque digressions and undefined “it” pronouns for instance: I thought to myself “What the fuck is this “it” they are talking about? I’ve got nothing to relate it to in the past two pages!” (laughs) It’s definitely not helping. So I had many questions like this to ask him and he was very receptive, really nice. At the end of our correspondence he even sent me three audio extracts of their interview. One of them, which I particularly like, is a moment where Wallace speaks of Braveheart and they are in a pub in a similar context to the one we are in right now, and Wallace chants in a low voice: “Wallace! Wallace! Wallace!”

AM: The Diable Vauvert publishing house published most of Wallace’s books in France. It was also supposed to publish Infinite Jest for a while. But the Editions de l’Olivier will actually be the one to publish it in the end, and Francis Kerline was entrusted with the translation. Why this shift? And did it come as a disappointment to you?

CR: It’s a very complicated story which is not really mine to tell. Au Diable Vauvert lost the publishing rights of Infinite Jest to the Editions de l’Olivier. They decided that Francis Kerline should translate it for several reasons: they wanted a translator from the Editions de l’Olivier and a more experienced one too. I was a bit disappointed but it came precisely at the time when I was leaving the Diable Vauvert to become a full-time translator. And translating Infinite Jest would have meant spending three more years as the translator of David Foster Wallace, that is to say someone who translates complex postmodern literature which doesn’t sell well in France. And I had already spent a long time inside his head so to speak. So I sure would have liked it but I have no regrets in the end because I was lucky enough to translate great books during that three-year period. I have translated Mitch Cullin’s UnderSurface (A pic) for Inculte Editions, a thriller for Sonatine Editions (Daniel Friedman’s Ne deviens jamais vieux). I was also lucky to work on Lydia Millet’s Ghost Lights (Lumières Fantômes, Lot 49 Editions), Tao Lin’s prose and poems for Au Diable Vauvert and Brian Hart’s The Bully of Order (Au bord du monde, éditions du Seuil, to be published January 2015). These would not have existed otherwise and I am happy they do. 

AM: Do you have any idea how you would have translated the title « Infinite Jest » into French? This issue was recently debated at the Paris Infinite Wallace conference and no satisfying solution could be found.

CR: Now that you are mentioning it, I think what would make an excellent title, especially almost twenty years after the original publication is just: “LOL ∞”. (Laughs) No, I honestly have no idea! It’s very complicated.


Thank you to both Ariane and Charles for this interview.

Last Updated on Monday, 29 December 2014 13:08  

The Howling Fantods