Of course, this does not mean that the entire source text has been turned into italics. Other quintessentially French elements had to be addressed by exegetic translation. Houellebecq’s work is peppered with references to contemporary France which leave the indigenous reader in stitches but can perplex the uninitiated foreigner. So ‘Claire Chazal avait l’air inquiet’ becomes ‘the presenter Claire Chazal looked worried’. Philippe de Villiers becomes ‘the Catholic right’winger Philippe de Villiers’ so that the reader could understand why on earth radical and secular huntsmen from the south-east of France would desert Frédéric Nihous’s Chasse Pêche Nature et Traditions party when an alliance was formed with de Villiers.
Another challenge was posed by the various kinds of technical vocabulary used: painting and photography for the work of Jed Martin; pretentious gastronomical menus; and, when the novel turns into a gruesome police procedural, finding workable English equivalents for juge d’instruction, brigade criminelle, commissaire, etc. In the latter case, I preferred ‘Inspector’ to the technically more correct ‘police superintendent’: ‘Inspector Jasselin’ places him in a tradition of literary policemen, including Maigret and Clouseau.
We had much more trouble with Jasselin’s partner Hélène. When we are introduced to Jasselin, we learn that his parents’ acrimonious divorce had made him resolve never to get married. Yet, a few pages later, Hélène begins to be referred to as ‘sa femme’. Perhaps this error is deliberate, suggesting that, at the end of the day, all live-in relationships end up resembling marriage. But we decided to avoid confusion by using ‘she’ or ‘Hélène’ instead of ‘sa femme’. One error was retained in the text: Jed Martin remembers as his first experience of political propaganda the ‘Force Tranquille’ poster of François Mitterrand, which enabled him to be ‘re-elected’ in the Presidential elections of 1988 (sic): this famous poster campaign dates, of course, from 1981 and Mitterrand’s first triumph. But it was not our job to correct the political knowledge of Martin/Houellebecq. However, for legal reasons, we were obliged to suppress the reference to the Dignitas euthanasia clinic and the name of the street in Zurich where it is found: the clinic is re-named ‘Koestler’, in homage to the suicide enthusiast Arthur.
Occasionally, while translating this, there were solutions which in some way were more satisfying than the original. After Jed Martin visits the Dignitas clinic where his father has been euthanised, the narrator remarks that ‘sur un marché en pleine expansion, où la Suisse était en situation de quasi-monopole, ils devaient, en effet, se faire des couilles en or’. I translated this with ‘they were going to make a killing’. When the crime squad learns that the cutting-up of Houellebecq and his dog with state-of-the-art surgical equipment is unique in the world history of murder, Lartigue makes the lame joke that ‘pour une fois, la France est en pointe’. In English this works more nicely as ‘for once, France is on the cutting edge’.
But you may have noticed that I am also using the pronoun ‘we’. The translation could not have been completed without the suggestions of friends with a passion for photography and cuisine. More importantly, there was the tenacious green ink of editor Gary Fisketjon, the ‘King of Knopf’ and man who discovered one of Houellebecq’s inspirations and admirers, Brett Easton Ellis. Of course, there was much transatlantic transfer of ‘shit’ to ‘shitty’, ‘bloody’ to ‘damned’ and ‘arsehole’ to ‘asshole’, which went smoothly, except for hypermarché, which Gary refused to have translated as ‘hypermarket’: apparently, this would be meaningless to an American reader. Although I don’t agree with this (and the ‘hypermarket’ is a key concept in the world of Houellebecq), as a good and docile employee I acquiesced. But, more radically, there was editorial intervention at a sentential level. Houellebecq has recently tended to use the comma as a stock punctuation mark, often creating long, layered sentences. It was felt that, in many cases, there was much to be gained, and little to be lost, by either cutting the sentences into smaller ones, or introducing semi-colons and colons. This obviously raises issues of style. In my translation of Houellebecq’s previous novel, The Possibility of an Island, my editor and I decided to keep the long, comma-strewn sentences as they fitted the garrulous personality of the stand-up comedian narrator. The translation was criticised by Village Voice for its ‘run-on sentences’. The new translation has been upbraided in the London Review of Books for cutting down on the commas. Houellebecq may have told me that I am ‘[s]on meilleur traducteur dans la langue de Donald Duck’, but there are times when it seems you just can’t win.
Dr Gavin Bowd