Wednesday, May 6, 2009

That Mad Ache, Francoise Sagan

That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan; trans. by Douglas Hofstadter.

Published with Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation by Douglas Hofstadter.

Amidst all the gloom and doom afflicting the publishing industry these days, it’s easy to overlook the more hopeful trends. Here’s one: after enduring years and years of a “literature in translation” imbalance that rivals any trade imbalance, there are signs of renewed domestic interest in what the rest of the world is writing about. The steps are tentative, but unmistakable. The great independent literary presses that have single-handedly carried the torch for translation (including New Directions, Dalkey Archive, the New York Review of Books Classics, David Godine) have recently been joined by some exciting newcomers who are opening the world to American readers. These include the fantastic Archipelago Books series, Yale University Press’ Margellos World Republic of Letters books, and the irrepressible Chad Post’s excellent Open Letter Books out of the University of Rochester. Whether this perfect literature in translation storm is a function of the re-alignment of the political zeitgeist, or just a coincidence, it’s a gift to American book-lovers who have long been deprived of access to some of the best writing being done on the planet.

One of the more unusual translations I’ve come across for awhile is Douglas Hofstadter’s witty, elegant rendition of Francoise Sagan’s sixties novel La Chamade. Sagan, who died a few years ago, was best known for Bonjour Tristesse in the fifties, and went on to become a sort of spokes-novelist for a particular brand of French upper middle-class ennui. There’s a suggestion of John Cheever. Her style and story (as channeled by Hofstadter of course) seems a little like Jules and Jim only written and directed by Anita Brookner. (That’s a good thing!)

Set mainly in Paris in the mid-sixties, Sagan gets inside a complicated three-way relationship involving Lucile, a self-involved, immature, somewhat bratty twenty-something; Charles, her fifty-year old sugar daddy; and Antoine, a passionate thirty-year old hottie to whom Lucile is (surprise!) irresistibly drawn. Against the backdrop of the affair(s), a juicy cast of high-class posers and back-biters form a kind of Greek chorus, though they never really steal the stage from Lucile. There are passages of great beauty and great fun, though Sagan is mainly interested in exploring profound philosophical questions as they are played out in human relationships.

This would be an excellent book even if the story simply ended there, but it does not. Most translators these days are lucky to be acknowledged on the title page, and in a brief biographical blurb. (Not that long ago even this small courtesy was sometimes withheld, perhaps based on the idea that the word “translated” would kill sales.) But Basic Books has done something very clever with this translation by giving Hofstadter 100 pages for an extended essay about what it was like to transform La Chamade into That Mad Ache. (How he handled the translation of that title itself is a key to his overall sensibility.) It’s one of those strokes of publishing genius that immediately makes the reader think “why hasn’t someone thought of that before?”

Perhaps they have. But in truth, it helps to have a translator with the stature and imagination of Hofstadter. The author of the classic Gödel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and many other books, this is not his first stab at exploring the paradoxes of translation. One of the most charming books of all time is his amazing investigation of a small jewel of a poem by the sixteenth-century French poet, Clement Marot. In Le Ton Beau de Marot, he demonstrated that there is no such thing as a simple, straight-forward translation, and I guarantee that you will never take a translation for granted after reading that book, or this one.

For the Sagan project, over which Hofstadter obsessed for many years, he lays out the many knotty issues that need to be addressed by anyone hoping to translate accurately. Scratch that, there is no “accurately!” There are seemingly mundane decisions about how to treat very localized words, or how to solve the “vous/tu” problem when English can only offer an egalitarian “you.” (His elegant solution is “You/you”). And there are bigger philosophical thickets involving transculturation that at times make it seem as if translation is really about something much bigger than itself.

I recently watched the first season of the sixties series Mission Impossible on DVD, and it struck me that whenever the team was in another country, they all spoke a heavily accented English. Why? We’re watching it in English, and we are suspending the knowledge that everyone we see would actually be speaking Slovenian. This is the type of paradox Hofstadter addresses.

As he was well into this project, Hofstadter came across the one prior English translation of the book, done in the sixties by Robert Westhoff. He forces himself not to look until he’s finished with his own translation (hard to believe, but I do believe him), and then he goes on to share with us the often utterly different choices the two translators made for the same passages. It’s sometimes like reading two different books. That is to say, three different books!

He’s incredibly whimsical, personal and playful. My only complaint is that I was left with one nagging curiosity: what was it about La Chamade that spoke to him so profoundly in the first place?

This is a wonderful marriage of great author, great translator, and great editorial vision―a much more compatible three-way than Lucile, Charles, and Antoine. To see these classic literary ingredients transformed into something so totally new and fresh makes me hopeful for books. It’s a breathtaking amount of entertainment and erudition packed into a $14.95 paperback.

Reviewed by John Eklund

That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan; trans. by Douglas Hofstadter.
Basic Books, 2009
Paper, 320 pp., $14.95
ISBN-10: 0465010989

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