The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Céline, incest and the mafia – why translators are refusing to censor ‘dangerous’ books
Giving a text a new readership can be a controversial act – or even, in extreme cases, prove fatal. Leaf Arbuthnot talks to those whose job it is to produce a faithful version of troubling work
In 2021, a retired journalist caused a sensation in France when he revealed that, for 15 years, he’d been the custodian of a trove of manuscripts written by the revered novelist and vicious anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The papers, whose discovery was hailed as a “miracle” by the French press, had vanished in 1944 when Céline fled Paris for Nazi Germany. Among them was the manuscript of Guerre, a novel set in Flanders in the First World War, which was finally published in France last year to broadly admiring reviews.
Not everyone, however, has toasted Céline’s posthumous comeback. Writing in The New Yorker in the wake of the discovery, Adam Gopnik spoke for many in suggesting that the novelist’s work cannot, today, be separated from his views: “This is an inherently dubious proposition ... writing doesn’t work that way.”
For others, there’s a strong case for bringing Céline’s recovered works to a wider – and Englishspeaking – readership. Last month, the American translator Charlotte Mandell announced that she would be translating Guerre into English for New Directions. “I would never translate things that incite hatred or that are racist in any way,” she tells me, but adds, “I think literature is more important than politics.” She calls Guerre a “searing indictment of the horrors of war. Obviously, there’s a lot of objectionable language in it, but... I don’t believe translators should be censors. We need to act as mediums, not so much for the author, but for the text.”
Mandell has little time for arguments such as Gopnik’s. “There are so many authors that have views that differ from us, and also horrible views,” she says. “We can condemn [Céline’s] views, obviously. We shouldn’t just ignore them. But we can’t not pay attention to him, or not acknowledge what a great author he was.”
Translators often try to erase their footprints as they move through a text, producing as faithful a version of the original as they can. But feelings and politics have a way of involving
themselves in the process. Most translators have red lines: texts they wouldn’t work on for moral reasons. Mandell, for instance, says she would never do Mein Kampf.
The Irish translator Frank Wynne is in contention for this week’s International Booker Prize, for Standing Heavy, his English version of the novel Debout-payé by the Ivorian writer GauZ’ (aka Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé). He says he takes the broad view that “any book that is of genuine interest probably deserves to be translated”. Even Charles Dickens, he points out, was “not a nice human being”: the novelist tried to have his wife committed to an asylum so that he could take up with a younger woman.
Wynne is well known for rendering the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq into English. For him, discomfort when translating comes with the territory. “Virginie Despentes, whom I’ve also translated, has a number of extraordinarily Right-wing
Translation has become a site on which distinctly 21st-century arguments are taking place
characters, one of whom is profoundly racist,” he says. “I found translating a section about him where you’re inside his head very uncomfortable.” He kept in mind that Despentes’s character was, well, made up, and was being used by the author to explore the appeal of far-Right ideology.
Even once a translator has agreed to do a book, challenges can arise on a granular level. What should, say, a German translator do in 2023 with the claim in The Spy Who Loved Me that “all women love semi-rape”? Remove the line, as Ian Fleming Publications Ltd has already done in English, with “several racial terms”? Or treat the book as a historical artefact and translate it all, wokerati be damned?
The problem is that “translating it all” isn’t straightforward – in fact, it can be a minefield. “The emotional weight of words is not the same in all languages,” Wynne points out. “The n-word in English is straightforwardly the n-word” – but the equivalent word in French, he explains, has several meanings, so an English translator must work out what exactly the author meant. Getting that call wrong can be serious.
For some translators, the stakes can be extreme. In July 1991, the Italian translator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was stabbed in his apartment in Milan, and survived. Ten days later, the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed, too; he died. Virginia Jewiss, who translated Roberto Saviano’s 2006 mafia exposé Gomorrah, agreed to do the book before it had become a hit – and before Saviano had attracted the ire of the mafia. She says she realised early on that the book was audacious: “I called my editor and said: ‘This guy’s in trouble.’” But even when Saviano went into police protection, it took her a while to realise she could be in danger, too – though she didn’t, in the end, come to any harm.
Lately, translation has become a site on which some distinctly 21st-century arguments are taking place. Should a posh white woman, say, translate a working-class Senegalese poet? Some in the literary world believe not. In 2021, there was a row when the Dutch publisher Meulenhoff announced that it had chosen the acclaimed white author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to translate a book by the black American poet Amanda Gorman. Writing in a Dutch newspaper, the Afro-Dutch activist and journalist Janice Deul asked why the publisher hadn’t picked a translator who was, like Gorman, a “spoken-word artist, young, female, and unapologetically black”. Rijneveld soon pulled out of the project.
“I think it helps when there’s some kind of chemistry between author and translator,” says the British translator Sam Taylor, who worked on Lullaby (originally Chanson douce) by the French novelist Leïla Slimani. “But it doesn’t have to be as reductive as sharing the same gender or ethnicity. Leïla is female and has Moroccan roots, but she is also, like me, a writer, a voracious reader, a parent.
“It’s true that I feel an extra frisson when reading or translating passages relating to those aspects of life that we have in common, but I don’t think that frisson substantially alters the way I translate those passages.”
The American translator Tess Lewis produced the English version of Christine Angot’s explosive 1999 novel L’Inceste, which describes – in unsparing detail – a woman called Christine Angot having an incestuous relationship with her father. Lewis says she “knew [the translation] would be an emotionally charged experience”, and that the book did prove “difficult [and] challenging”, given how Angot so convincingly “recreates the overwhelming sense of emotional claustrophobia” that many survivors of incest feel. But the work also gave Lewis a “deeper understanding” of the difficulties that victims can face.
She believes translators should generally be “careful about selecting fraught texts, or texts that will inevitably offend”. She doesn’t think that every text that has been written “should” be translated. “On the other hand,” she adds, “it’s one world. We have to learn how to live with each other – and literature is one way of understanding the world view of those whose backgrounds, ideology, points of view and experiences we don’t share.”
The International Booker Prize 2023 will be awarded on Tuesday; see thebookerprizes.com for details