Les Faits by Roth and other French translations

Translating literature into French, portrait of publisher Gaston Gallimard
Portrait of Gaston Gallimard
Translating literature into French: Philip Roth again

After a long period of paralysis, the French publishing industry started printing and translating literature by foreign authors again, including  a new translation of The Facts by Philip Roth. This book has already been published in the United States in 1988. And it was published in France by Gallimard in 1990. In this book, Roth tries to write an autobiography which does not respect the norms of classical biographies. To understand his strategy, readers just need to keep in mind that these pages are addressed to one of his characters, Nathan Zucherman. In these circumstances, the author sets out his vision of the autobiography: “As he spoke, I told myself: this practice with people have to rewrite the history of their lives, these lives of everybody which make a story.” And also an afterthought of his literary experience.

It is a work of value that reveals the particular, tortuous but fascinating path of his way of understanding literature. But, when you carefully read this renovation project, you understand that his method is used to say intimate things that go a little beyond what an author can reveal about himself. Two years after his death, Gallimard decided to publish Les Faits by Philip Roth and translated by Josée Kamoun. It’s hard to figure out why. But the recent French publishing world shows that it is a common and even obsessive practice.

Let’s take some famous examples. First,the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri of which there have been numerous translations in history. Among others, the one by Lamennais, the author of Paroles d’un croyant (1834);the one by Professor André Pezard in old French in 1965. Recently, there have been three versions: one by Jacqueline Risset (Editions du Seuil), who attempted to transcribe Dante in a modern poetic language. Then, the edition by Vegliante, certainly the most accurate (Editions Imprimerie Nationale) and one by Didier-Marc Garin (Editions de la Différence) of a great mediocrity. You could write a book only on these different versions in verse or prose.

Thousand and one translations

We could also take into consideration the various French translations of the Thousand and One Nights. The first was the writer and Orientalist Antoine Galland (1646-1715), a librarian who has traveled extensively in the East to search for valuable books for the king’s library. Galland discovered a 14th-century Arabic manuscript and translated the first stories which were published in 1704. Six other volumes come out until 1709. Then, after meeting a wise Maronite priest in Aleppo, he wrote four more volumes between 1712 and 1717.

All European editions, starting with the English ones, are the result of his fine work. It is a literary masterpiece which has the credit for making known this work of Arabic-Persian literature around the world. Less beautiful, the translation by Dr. Joseph-Charles Madrus (1868-1949), great scholar and expert of Eastern civilization, who has succeeded in making the complete edition, released in various volumes since 1900.

The most recent, in 2006, was born from the collaboration of André Miquel and Jamel Eddine Benchelikh and appears in the prestigious book series of La Pléiade. There is no doubt that the two professors worked on complete and authentic texts with great care, but this scientific research has completely destroyed the poetic qualities of this collection. Moreover, they decided to use the current way of transcribing Arabic names, which does not allow the reader to understand what it is. It is an illegible monster, reserved only for specialists.

But, unfortunately, the famous Bibliothèque de La Pléiade has stopped at this strange adventure. We can mention many works that have suffered from a similar fate.

More classics

Moving on about translating literature by foreign authors into French, Franz Kafka‘s complete work has been known in France since 1962 thanks to Marthe Robert (author of an important book, Seoul comme Kafka). From 1976 to 1989, La Pléiade published four volumes with his correspondence and his intimate diary with translations by Marthe Robert, Alexandre Vialatte (writer, author of Mon Kafka) and Claude Durand (professor, author of a  Kafka’s biography). This edition made Kafka famous, known only thanks to a few books. But the management of this series has decided to make a new edition under the direction of Jean-Pierre Lefebvre: all novels would have been translated by him and the stories by various college students, such as Bernard Lortholary, who edited another edition for Flammarion. Since then, for better or for worse, many publishing houses have been publishing Kafka texts. Academics have been making money at the expensive of Kafka.

Don Quichotte was translated into the same series under the direction of Claude Alaigre, Jean Canavaggio and Michel Moner in 2001. But Les Editions du Seuil wanted to make a two-volume version of the same book under the direction of Aline Shulman. The result was  a worse translation.

The last known event about translating foreign literature into Freench: the Bibliothèque de La Pléiade publishes six volumes of Dostoïevski ‘s work between 1950 and 1956, to which were added Récits, chroniques et polémiques in 1969 and an out-of-market “Album”. Les Editions Actes-Sud published the whole novel works of the Russian writer in the three-volume “Thesaurus” series between 2015 and 2016. The press has generally considered this translation to be better than the previous one. Any lover of Dostoïevski‘s prose can get lost: it’s not bad, but it could be better.

He could also talk about Herman Melville and his Moby Dyck, all the work by Henry James and many others.

Tasteless monomania?

It would be more advantageous to release translations of foreign literature by authors that are still unknown, or not reprinted for a long time. Instead, this practice of re-translate book is a grotesque farce with greater mercantile subtexts. But above all, a kind of monomania that Sigmund Freud did not study. It is a devastating infernal machine, because you often lose the value of the French text which remains, at the same time, the closest to the original. But, in France, there is a translator’s union, which has some power. Finally, I want to tell you one last anecdote. The Pléiade wanted to translate again all its books. The result? A disaster. All the subtle spirit of the Czech language got lost. The French is correct, of course, but it’s like a plate without salt. Perhaps it would have been better to correct the translations made by valid professionals, who perhaps made some errors, in the first editions, first attempts of translating foreign literature.