The Elusion of Language: An Interview with Translator Jordan Stump

All My Friends, the short story collection by the award-winning French writer Marie NDiaye, strings together five stories bound by a solemn tone, cryptic plots, and the translucent psychological complexes of their leading characters. Each story begins in media res, with characters stripped bare, projecting their feelings too liberally, too obviously, onto the people and things that surround them. NDiaye beautifully examines the effects of the passage of time and of feelings—between friends, family, lovers and places—that have since collapsed into haunting memories and an opaque present that continuously elude our grasp, much like language itself.

I spoke with Jordan Stump, NDiaye’s translator for the collection, via email, eager to learn about his award-winning. We talked about the challenges and joys of translation and why he has been waiting to translate Marie NDiaye’s writing.

—Nicole Casamento

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 INTERVIEWER

What made you want to pursue a career as a literary translator?

STUMP

A wonderful guy called Bill Regier, who was then the head of the University of Nebraska Press, suggested I consider that possibility when I first got to the University. I was tempted but reluctant (I was a brand-new assistant professor, and translation generally doesn’t count toward tenure), until Bill said to me, “Look, you can publish a scholarly study and reach maybe 50 readers, or you can publish a translation and reach 5,000. If you care about literature . . .” He didn’t finish that sentence, but he didn’t have to: I understood, and agreed. I went back to my office and started translating a book I’d recently discovered by Marie Redonnet, and I was hooked from that moment on.

INTERVIEWER

How do you choose which books, or writers, you’d like to translate?

STUMP

I translate books that thrill me so much (in whatever way) that I want to have the experience of writing them. Reading a book is a wonderful thing, but with some books I feel like reading them isn’t enough: I want to get closer to them. Those books I translate.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced when translating a work from French into English, either cultural or linguistic?

STUMP

Every word, every phrase, every sentence is a challenge. Try translating sometime and you’ll see that (unlike with reading) the text is continually, relentlessly resisting you. There is nothing that isn’t a challenge, not even the simplest (perhaps especially) the simplest sort of language.

INTERVIEWER

Something seems to always be lost in even the best translations; what do you have trouble conveying well in English that was originally in French? How do you try to work around this imperfect art?

STUMP

Here’s one example, out of the million I could give you. I’m currently translating a book in which an ant plays an important part. Now, the French word for ant is feminine, so when French people talk about an ant they’ll always call it “she,” where we would say “it” or “he.” In this book it matters (I think) that the ant be a “she,” so what do I do? Simply refer to it as “she” and expect the reader to accept it? Somehow explain why I’m calling it “she”? Or call it “it” or “he” and rewrite any passages where that wouldn’t make sense? All of those are conceivable solutions, and all of them are flawed. The gender of ants is simply a part of the French language and not of English, and there’s no way around it. What to do, then? Just keep trying, keep rethinking, consider every solution a temporary one and keep trying to come up with something that works better.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a different process or experience translating short stories compared to novels?

STUMP

I don’t think so, though it’s true that one often learns to translate a given text only by translating it, so in theory the longer the text the more you learn about how to go about putting it into English. But it’s essentially the same process with a short story: only more compressed.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take to translate a book of this length? Do you rewrite the stories over and over until it feels right? Do you ask for feedback from others to make sure you’re conveying what you intend to?

STUMP

A book of this length generally takes me nine months or so, though not full-time: I have to fit my work as a translator into my job as a professor. I have a very inefficient way of working. I very quickly come up with a rough draft, and then I set about revising it as many times and in as many different ways as I can. By “as many different ways” I mean revising it without looking at the original, revising it while comparing each sentence to the original, revising it from first page to last, revising it from last page to first, revising each page in random order, and so on. And then, once I’ve got a more or less complete draft, my wife very kindly reads the translation to me while I follow along in French. That last step is particularly important: for one thing, I can look for missing sentences (a strangely common occurrence) and places where my revisions have strayed too far from the original; for another, I can hear what it sounds like aloud, which is often a good indication of how well it will read silently. Most of all, I can see how it strikes someone who hasn’t read the original: my wife has an excellent ear, and little taste for obfuscation, and that’s a tremendous help for me.

INTERVIEWER

How do you try to maintain the writer’s voice within your own, within a different language than they speak?

STUMP

This is a really important question, and this is where that very lengthy process of revision is essential. The first draft always sounds too much like my voice; by rethinking it again and again, changing a word here and there, and particularly by breaking the text apart (by revising each page in random order) I eventually come up with a draft that doesn’t sound like me, because it’s the product of a thousand scattered engagements with the text. That slow process of accretion and accumulation is, in my experience, the only way to come up with a voice different from one’s own.

INTERVIEWER

Why were you interested in Marie NDiaye as a writer in general, or this new collection of short stories, in particular?

STUMP

I’ve been reading and marveling at NDiaye’s novels since the early nineties. No one writes like her, and no one tells such sad, funny, strange stories. I realized long ago that I wanted to translate her, and in fact I tried several times, but I was always so disappointed with the results that I gave up trying. When I came across this book, I told myself I was going to translate it whatever it took. Eventually, simply by keeping at it, I learned how to translate it.

INTERVIEWER

What is unique about NDiaye as a writer—her voice, her stories?

STUMP

I love her long, twisting sentences, at once perfectly precise and at the same time able to slip out of the reader’s grasp and leave us asking, “Wait, what?” I love the very recognizable but slightly alien world she always shows us. I love the teasing hints of the supernatural. I love the way she never quite tells us everything we need to know. Contemporary French literature is full of astonishingly inventive storytellers (Antoine Volodine, for example, or Eric Chevillard), but her work is moving and unsettling in a way I’ve never seen before.

INTERVIEWER

Which is your favorite story from All My Friends? Why?

STUMP

“Brulard’s Day,” because I’m not sure I understand it, even as I entirely understand the despair and disintegration that underlies it.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the stories are somber; did any of these stories haunt you after reading them as much of the characters are haunted within the book?

STUMP

In all honesty, I’m more haunted by the language of the stories than by the stories themselves. NDiaye isn’t the first writer whose work has done this to me, but this book got to me in a way few others have. Often, while I was revising it, I would go to bed and find my half-asleep mind reflecting on the sentences of the text, expanding them, spinning them off in different directions, for hours and hours, with no way to put a stop to them. That, I think, is the sign of an extraordinarily forceful style.

INTERVIEWER

Which story was the most difficult to translate? Why?

STUMP

“Revelation,” because it’s the plainest, and so the one most likely to turn banal—or, on the other hand, overly poetic—if it’s not carefully translated.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel as if you must get into the character’s heads as a translator, the same way a writer might?

STUMP

Not so much the characters as the narrators: you have to be continually asking yourself, “Why does this person describe this scene or event in this particular way? Why this word and not that one?”

INTERVIEWER

Did you try to get into NDiaye’s head while translating?

STUMP

Again, not so much NDiaye’s as her narrators’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel differently about a work after translating it than you do upon reading it first in its original language? Did you feel that way in particular about All My Friends?

STUMP

I don’t think I do: I’ve often taught (in French) books that I’ve translated, and I think I can read them more or less as if hadn’t. Authors often say that once they’ve finished a book they half forget about it, and I think that’s true of translation as well.

INTERVIEWER

What did translating the book teach you about the language in it or the things that elude language that language tries to capture? What has translating taught you about language, meaning and communication in general?

STUMP

Not to go all professorial on you, but see chapter three of my book The Other Book (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). Here’s the short answer: translation teaches you, again and again, that there is only one way to express a given idea, and that there are thousands. Both of those statements are absolutely and irremediably true: there’s one way to say a thing, and there are countless ways. There is in each of those statements, and particularly in their impossible coexistence, enough to drive any translator to despair. As always, the answer is to accept the impossibility and keep trying.

INTERVIEWER

If you had an opportunity to interview one of the characters in the book, who would you choose, and why?

STUMP

Interesting question. Brulard, I guess, because she seems the most tortured and the most difficult to grasp.

INTERVIEWER

How would you compare this work to NDiaye’s other stories, especially as short stories compared to her novels?

STUMP

In one sense, there’s a great deal of coherence in NDiaye’s work: the theme of abandonment, of a desperate and doomed need to control the world around one even as that world relentlessly scatters and drifts away, is a constant. On the other hand, these stories are elliptical in a way that’s not always true of her writing. Her novels are often somewhat baroque (and I say that admiringly); here there’s a stripped-down quality.

INTERVIEWER

If you could ask NDiaye one question about this book after translating it, what would it be?

STUMP

The same thing I’d way to any writer I’ve translated: please reassure me that I haven’t done too much harm to your book with my translation.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about how you go about translating each story, first by ensuring the basic plot elements are accurately presented, and then what I assume is more difficult, how the prose, which is often poetic and much less concrete and more influenced by cultural and linguistic context?

STUMP

Sorry to repeat myself, but there’s only one answer: rethink, revise, recast, again and again, and then again and again again.

INTERVIEWER

Who are some other French writers, or what are some specific French books, that haven’t been translated into English yet, that you’d like to work on or see someone else work on soon?

STUMP

I’ve learned from other translators never to answer this question: I don’t want anyone snatching a potential project away from me!

 

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