I admit, like many of my fellow translators of foreign literature who work into English, that I have often had doubts. Felt that my efforts were in vain; that apart from a few benighted yet god-sent editors and publishers, no one was reading the books I had translated. They were printed, looked lovely and readable, and then gathered dust on the shelf. Americans are fearful of foreign languages, fearful of subtitles, fearful of translations. Are they afraid to admit their own ignorance? And is it a question of their ignorance, or that of the publishers who presume American readers are resistant to translations? Are they so proud of their own authors (Roth, Oates, Pynchon, Updike, etc etc) that they don’t have time anymore for the successors to Tolstoy and Camus, who, it seems, used to be read, at least…
So when the Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl made his now infamous remarks about Americans being isolated and insular and parochial and resistant to translation, I could only nod my head knowingly, from first-hand experience. In 1997 one of my first serious translations, Onitsha, a novel by a French author well-known in France but largely ignored in the US, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. I had read it in French, loved it, and shopped it to American publishers for three years before it finally found a home at Nebraska. It had been a bestseller in France; but it was, according to the traditional excuse of the declining US (and UK) publishers, “not for us”. And translation was “an increasingly hard sell” — obviously, if you won’t even try. Interestingly, at one point an African-American publisher did nearly buy the rights. In the end Nebraska took a chance. The book did not even get any much-needed reviews, because the major papers had long stopped reviewing translations, particularly from university presses. Perhaps it was perceived as too academic or too difficult.
The author of the book, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, has now won the Nobel Prize for literature. There were still unsold copies of Onitsha to be dusted off in the warehouse (university presses don’t let books go “out of print” i.e. pulp them, as far as I know), but as of this writing, they may be new off the press. I hope so.
My own reaction on learning Le Clézio had been selected was, naturally, one of elation, joy, euphoria. I was visiting another publisher, in Rome, (one who, I might point out, publishes a majority of translations…) and after they gave me the news I walked out into the balmy Indian summer air on Via Camozzi with wings on my feet. It took a while for it all to sink in, to realize that the world, if not the Americans, had been following Le Clézio’s career, that my admiration for the beauty of his work had not been misplaced; simply, American publishers could not bank on his “marketability”…My own perception, as I went on to read other novels by Le Clézio, hoping to find the more “marketable” one, was that he writes, as many Europeans do, in order to convey an idea or an impression, to offer a view of the world, and that language is put to use for this purpose first and foremost, before telling a story or conveying a plot. Alas, most US publishers want the story to sell, most readers want to be entertained, and it is no longer enough for a book to be well-written for it to be read. Quality of writing without plot and likable characters is, even in English from the start, somewhat suspect, like a foreign language in its own right.
Le Clézio’s books are demanding because they ask for the reader to give in not to the story but to the language…to be lulled by its rhythms, to be carried elsewhere in order to experience the fictional world he has created — a fictional world which is always based on the real world of his own life and his own observations — as in Onitsha, which is a fictional adaptation of his journey as a small boy travelling out to Nigeria with his mother to join his father. There is no plot, per se; there is description, memory, experience.
I met Jean-Marie Le Clézio in 1997 when he was awarded the Puterbaugh Prize by the University of Oklahoma. (Another prize, less renowned, but certainly an acknowledgment of his merit and an attempt to make him known to a wider audience — clearly in Oklahoma they are not always isolated or insular, etc…). He had driven there with his wife Jamia; they were living in New Mexico at the time. The University was very hospitable, welcoming, eager to share ideas and intellectual fervour. There were seminars and receptions. This is the way things ought to be everywhere, all the time, I thought, regarding literature. I was hopeful, for the translation, which had just come out, and for my own “budding career” as a translator. I felt an elation similar to the one the other day, and it lasted for several days, as I shared words and ideas with the professors who were invited, with the conference organizers, with local dignitaries and former ambassadors, with the Le Clézios themselves. We gave a bilingual reading. We toured the university library and saw a manuscript annotated by Galileo. We talked about Wilfred Owen. About Mauritius. About the autism of New York publishers. Above all, Jean-Marie Le Clézio said something I will never forget, and which was enough to earn my respect for a lifetime, and fuel my hope that someday he would be justly rewarded.
We had been talking about travel, particularly in the desert, a theme which he has often evoked. And he recalled being somewhere — perhaps New Mexico, perhaps North Africa — totally alone in the desert, on his own, able to open himself to his surroundings without fear. And he said his thoughts turned to the plight of women, and to the fear of deserted places and solitude that a woman’s condition entails, from birth. I cannot recall his exact words, but something to that effect; that a woman can never be utterly alone on the planet — as he had been in the desert — without this element of fear, or risk. For me it was proof of a great empathy — one that I have always found in his work. A consideration of how other people, who are not as fortunate, might perceive their position on earth: that we do not all belong equally, that although we are all equally entitled, some of us have less room on our small planet — women, children, immigrants, gypsies, refugees — the characters who people his novels — to live without fear or hunger.
That, in a nutshell, is for me, at least, the rationale behind the decision to attribute this year’s Nobel prize to JMG Le Clézio. An author’s ability to write exceedingly well and say something exceedingly important, that can change our view of the world. Regardless of nationality, or language, or the need for translation.