Interview with Jordan Stump, Translator

Jordan Stump is Antoine Volodine’s translator.  He’s many other things – professor at the University of Nebraska, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the author of numerous articles… today he’s a guest of this blog.  I’m both honored and grateful to him for taking time out of his busy semester to answer my questions.

Jordan, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview.  My first question is:  how did you first come to read Volodine (and company)?  Was it as a translator or as a reader, or as both?  What interested you in the author and which is your favorite novel?

I was in Paris, looking over the new arrivals in my favorite bookstore (Compagnie), and my eye was caught by Des anges mineurs.  It was published as part of the Editions du Seuil’s “Fiction et Cie” series, which is always a good sign, and I liked the odd look of the very short chapters and the strange names that served as their titles.  I bought it, went off to a bench in the Luxembourg gardens and started reading, and I was immediately enthralled.  I’m always reading as a translator—I can’t read a book without wondering if I want to translate it, and how I might do it—but when a book really grabs me I forget that, of course, and approach it simply as a fervent reader.  I loved the strangeness of that book, the very peculiar blend of “sci-fi” (for want of a better term) and Tibetan ritual and the grim realities of existence at its most banal.  And I loved the humor, of course, and the deep sadness.  By the time I finished it I’d decided it would be my next translation project.  That book—Minor Angels, in English—remains one of my favorites, but I also love Bardo or not Bardo and Nos animaux préférés; those latter two haven’t yet been translated into English, but perhaps their time will come.

Have you had the opportunity to consult Antoine Volodine during the translation process or do you have to resort to other sources?  From what I’ve read on the internet (and of course, if it’s on the internet it must be true!) Volodine is one of the author’s many pseudonyms – which makes me wonder if he’s trying to retain a certain amount of anonymity.  I realize that it’s common for translators to work without the author’s input (for example if he/she is dead), but I would think it can be particularly difficult if the author is alive but unavailable.

Oh, he’s very available, and extraordinarily helpful.  He’s a very open, unassuming guy, funny, enthusiastic, fond of extremely modest Chinese restaurants: nothing of the enigmatic loner about him.  I always try to work with the authors I translate (in part because I’m a big fan, and meeting an author whose work I love is a real thrill for me), but I think Volodine has been the most helpful of the bunch: always eager to hear my questions, and intent on coming up with concrete answers.

I’ve read that Volodine is also a Russian translator (though some readers believe the author he “translates” is just another pseudonym). Do you detect a Russian influence in his writing?  And if so is it something you consider while working on your translations?

It’s hard for me to say that there’s a strong specifically Russian influence, but it is most certainly true that there is a very strong influence of a kind of non-specific foreignness.  Somewhere he says something to the effect that his books read (or should read) as though they were translations from another language.  There is still, in France, a certain notion of “literary style,” and that’s absolutely what he avoids, which isn’t to say that he writes in some authentic vernacular, either: he writes in a language that is entirely approachable but at the same time marked by certain quirks.  That’s what you have to think about when you’re translating him: you don’t want to turn him into poetry, and you don’t want to flatten out his writing so that it reads effortlessly.   As I remember, I asked him if he had any thoughts about what the general tone of Minor Angels should sound like (that’s a question I always ask writers); he answered, “Tired.”  I see exactly what he means, but try getting that across in a translation!

Are you ever concerned about how the book you’re working on functions in relationship to Volodine’s other books – or do you approach every book as an individual, stand-alone project?

I look on them as stand-alone works.  His output is vast and varied, and any scholar of his writing should be interested in the whole of it, and how each part functions with respect to the others.  But they work perfectly well on their own—you don’t need to know anything about Volodine or post-exoticism or anything to fall in love with his books—and that’s how I prefer to think of them.

Speaking of post-exoticism – is there a seminal text that provides the key to this movement?  For example, Le post-exotisme en dix leçons  is the one title I keep coming across again and again.   Is it a mistake to believe that all his work is concerned with/falls under the category of post-exoticism or does he also write stand-alone novels?

I’m not sure there really is a seminal text.  Le post-exotisme en dix leçons is a wonderful book, and a useful addition, but (predictably, I suppose) it doesn’t answer many questions, or give many explicit lessons.  Post-exoticism is (to my mind at least) a genre that defies explicit definition.  Some readers will want to see all his works in that context, but it would be terrible if you had to know all about post-exoticism to appreciate his books.  Thankfully, that’s not how it is at all: any one of his books can be read, can fully signify, can offer an extraordinarily rich and haunting experience, for anyone at all, whether they’ve ever heard of post-exoticism or not.

Are you working on a new project at the moment that you would like to talk about?  What other French authors do you read for pleasure and/or recommend?

 I’m working on a new project that I’m finding so difficult I prefer not to think about it, much less talk about it!  In my opinion, the three great French writers of the early twenty-first century are Volodine, Eric Chevillard, and Marie NDiaye.  There are a great many others, of course, but those are the three I would strongly urge people to read more of.  NDiaye is a particularly underrated writer here: she’s got a little more attention on our shores recently, but she wrote a lot of fantastic books before Three Strong Women, and for the most part those have gone untranslated.  I’m hoping to do my small part in remedying that.

Thank you so much Jordan!  And, dear readers, there’s exciting news on the horizon.  This May the second book to be released by Two Lines Press is Marie NDiaye’s collection of 5 short stories All My Friends, translated by none other than Jordan Stump.

_____________

Jordan Stump, Professor (Ph.D. Illinois, 1992), is the author of articles on the Marquis de Sade, Georges Perec, Marie Redonnet, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, among others, and of Naming and Unnaming: On Raymond Queneau (University of Nebraska Press, 1998). He has also published translations of novels by Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Patrick Modiano, Christian Oster, Antoine Volodine, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Jules Verne, and Honoré de Balzac. His translation of Claude Simon’s The Jardin des Plantes (Northwestern University Press, 2001) was awarded the French-American Foundation’s annual translation prize in 2001, and in the fall of 2006 he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His interests include literary theory, the contemporary novel, the ontology of fiction, and literary translation.  –  courtesy of the University of Nebraska’s online directory.

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Four Questions For Victoria Cribb

Victoria Cribb is a translator, one of the few who specializes in Icelandic literature.  She’s translated the novels of Sjón, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gyrðir Elíasson into English – receiving praise from the likes of A.S. Byatt.  Victoria was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding her work on From the Mouth of the Whale (which was shortlisted for this years Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

BSR:  Victoria, first, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I read in an interview Sjón gave to Fabulous Iceland that the main character of From the Mouth of the Whale was an actual man – Jón the Learned – who lived in the 17th century . Yet, it seems to me that Jón is a foundation onto which the author has layered a multitude of ideas and elements: Icelandic mythology, Jonah and the whale, alchemy, even a little Paradise Lost. There’s so much going on… did the density of ideas and influences make it a particularly challenging novel to translate?

VC:  It certainly did, and invariably there will be many influences that I have failed to pick up. But, for me, part of the pleasure of translating Sjón’s work has always been immersing myself in his sources, learning about the background to his texts and marvelling at what he has done with them. In this case, I was already familiar with seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and the medieval works referred to. And any English speaker brought up on Shakespeare has some sense of the early modern world. When I read the book for the first time, I kept thinking of the furiously polemical 1590s author Thomas Nashe and turned to him for stylistic inspiration, only to discover that Sjón does in fact quote Nashe at one point in the story. And of course Google is an invaluable resource for tracking down the more obscure references – bezoar, boramez and so on, often redirecting one to online editions of original works. When my own research fails, I can always go to the fount of all wisdom and ask Sjón himself for help, but that is cheating and part of the fun is trying to find out the answers for myself.

BSR:  I’ve been told Sjón speaks excellent English.  Does that put any additional pressure on you as his translator?  What do you feel your collaboration brings to the table?

VC:  Far from regarding it as an additional pressure, I find it a huge advantage that Sjón’s English is so good – unusually good, even by Icelandic standards. Most Icelandic authors are sufficiently competent in English to review and criticise translations of their work, so I have come to rely on a certain degree of collaboration. Since this is the fifth book I have translated for Sjón, he trusted me to do my best rather than reading over every word of the manuscript, though I think he also felt it would make him anxious if he found too many mistakes. I sent him lists of queries, as usual, sometimes providing him with alternatives so that he could choose the one that best reflected his meaning, and we discussed various possible translations of problematic words and phrases, so I can’t always remember whose suggestion was adopted in the end. I’m strictly a prose translator, so I tend to go wailing to him with the verses, especially if they require rhyme. In previous books, Sjón has polished my feeble efforts or even translated the verse himself; in this case, my partner came to my aid as Sjón was busy!

BSR:  Speaking of verses, some of my readers may not know that Sjón is also a poet.  Did you read or translate any of his poetry in preparation for translating From the Mouth of the Whale? Do you see similarities between his poetry and prose fiction?

VC:  I have to claim ignorance here. Back when I was a student I read some of Sjón’s poetry from his earlier surrealist days but I have mainly been engaged in translating his prose. As mentioned above, we’ve now collaborated on five novels, all of them historical works, their settings ranging from the ancient world to the recent past. The surrealist vein is still palpably present in these novels, however, for example in Jónas’ meditations in part IV of From the Mouth of the Whale, which I think brilliantly evoke a seventeenth-century mind grappling with ideas about the connectedness of all things, which anticipate modern scientific discoveries.

BSR:  Finally, for readers who love From the Mouth of the Whale and want to further explore Icelandic fiction, are there any authors you personally enjoy and can recommend?

VC:  There are so many Icelandic authors who deserve a larger audience, but I would feel awkward having to single out any one writer from among those I know and translate. To be safe, I’ll opt for one who’s no longer with us – Halldór Laxness, an obvious choice as he’s the country’s Nobel laureate. Readers who enjoyed From the Mouth of the Whale might appreciate The Bell of Iceland, translated by Phil Roughton. I am shamefully out of date when it comes to the current Icelandic literary scene, having spent the last few years immersed in medieval sagas for my PhD. From what I hear, though, there are a number of exciting young authors emerging, and Amazon’s publishing arm is planning to bring out a long list of Icelandic titles, both old and new, in the near future. Given the presence of Icelandic books on the lists of several established publishers in the UK and US, there should be plenty of opportunities for English-speaking readers to become better acquainted with the country’s extraordinarily vibrant literary culture.

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