UNC/Duke professor Tyler Curtain has an avid interest in literary sf and fantasy translations, and introduced me to Duke ecology PhD student Matthew Ross, whose translation from the French of Pierre Grimbert’s bestselling and award-winning The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs was about to be published by AmazonCrossing (Publishers Weekly review) and Brilliance Audio (SFFAudio review). Ross talked a bit about this process at the recent NC Speculative Fiction Night in April, where he also gave a reading from the book, and here writes about the difficulties of translating the untranslatable.
By Matthew Ross:
At the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s career as a poet, Ezra Pound told the aspiring writer that he couldn’t possibly have enough experience to write about anything at the age of 18. So Pound told Merwin to learn a language and translate. The translation would be the way to learn your own language and practice. And so it has been in our translation of Pierre Grimbert’s Le Secret de Ji.
I say “our” because my translation partner, Eric Lamb, and I equally contributed to the work and it was a completely shared experience. Eric and I have been friends since early college. At the time of our first meeting in 2006, he spoke French fluently, and I had never taken a class. A year later he became my mentor as I began French lessons. Three years later, Eric helped me work through some of the trickier parts of a few Baudelaire translations from Les Fleurs du Mal. Four years later, we were both teaching English in France. The jobs entailed only about 20 hours a week, so Eric took on a translation project of his own, and I followed my friend and mentor by starting a translation of Le Secret de Ji. Finally, when the project solidified, I knew I would need help finishing such a large project, so I asked Eric to join and we have been translating together for two years now. But this partnership isn’t the hardest part, it may be the easiest.
Instead our difficulties translating stem from the growing pains of learning our own language, as Pound noted to Merwin. Of course, there are other difficulties in translating a French fantasy novel, especially French-specific concepts, such as dividing time into periods of tens. A ten-day work week, a ten “hour” day, a hundred “minutes” in an hour, etc. . . In essence these concepts of décade, décan, décille are untranslatable.
They stem from a brief period in France’s history right after the French Revolution when the revolutionaries wanted to abandon all Christian concepts, so they created the time system based on base tens. Of course, in English, we have no concept of this time system, so the concept requires a lot of introduction or abandonment. We went with the former, and many readers have found it alienating and difficult. But this part of the translation is quite exciting and fun. The oulipo, a group of primarily French writers who write with ridiculous constraints such as no e’s in an entire novel, knows the joy and freedom writing within strict constraints can provide. Translating a fantasy novel provides some of these strict constraints, given how important it is to recreate the original author’s world-building effort. So these “untranslatable” terms were not the hardest part.
Rather it was most difficult to work on recreating a tone, pacing, and feeling in English. This difficulty has nothing to do with our abilities in French, but rather our experience as writers in English. Since my background is primarily in science writing, and Eric had done a very literary translation prior to The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs, we both had a formal, sometimes stilted tone that pervaded much of our initial translations.
I found this stilted part of my writing particularly difficult to fix because it was so embedded in who I am. I have spent the last six years focusing on being a better science writer, and though many of the skills cross over to fiction writing, creating the proper tone for storytelling is not one of them. Furthermore (see that sciencey formalism?), unlike the untranslatable terms, tone cannot be precisely extracted, identified, and reworked to some satisfactory state. It permeates every aspect of the novel and every moment of translation. How do you fix that?
For us, we really worked hard in editing each other’s work, but we still have a lot more to learn and have opened up our second translation of The Secret of Ji (it’s a series!) to more comments and edits from outsiders, namely our partners, Nicole and Cassidy, and our editor Joel Bahr. They see subtle, but easily fixable, moments that create a stilted tone. Like changing “the details were finalized,” to “Together, they finalized the last details.” Though this little change seems minor at first, compounded with hundreds of others it was quite difficult to extract and perfect these kinds of simple moments where we failed to keep an active, exciting tone.
As Merwin has, I hope to use translation as a way to work on my knowledge, not of French, but of English. But this part of writing, for us at least, was one of the hardest and we hope we keep improving as the next Ji book comes out.
About Matthew Ross:
Born in 1987 in Colorado, Matthew Ross grew up in the rapidly suburbanizing rangelands outside of Monument, CO. The youngest member of the family, he first fell in love with the speculative fiction genre when he read Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea on a trip to his parents’ native home of Amarillo, Texas. His mom, a school teacher, always encouraged his sometimes distracting obsession with books, while his dad, a salesman, made sure he got outside and learned something about the actual world we live in. His brother, an avid cyclist and sports enthusiast, still tries to keep him in shape and well-rounded.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which left him yearning for some non-science conversation. He tried to add a major in English, but after an English professor strongly encouraged him to major in some language other than English, he began taking French. From there, he fell in love with the language, moved to France for a year, and began a search for an excellent French Fantasy author. He found Pierre Grimbert and tentatively began translating his novel. After sending out samples to a few publishing companies, he heard nothing back and moved ahead with his plans to start his PhD in ecology at Duke University.
Two months before he started at Duke, Amazon Crossing contacted him and asked if he wanted to translate The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs. Knowing he might need help, he called his close friend and French mentor, Eric Lamb and asked if he wanted to join the project. They have been translating together since. Eric has been speaking French for ten years and has lived in France for two of those years. Now he is a high-school French teacher, who lives in Carbondale, CO with his fiancée, Cassidy. Ross lives in the Braggtown neighborhood of Durham with his wife, Nicole.