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Smelling Flaubert

Rebecca Loxton

An Interview with Adam Thorpe


Photo: Daniel Thorpe

Adam Thorpe is a poet, playwright, novelist, and translator. His poetry collections include Meeting Montaigne (1990), Nine Lessons from the Dark (2004), Bird with a Broken Wing (2007), and Voluntary (2012). He is the author of two short story collections, Shifts (2000) and Is This the Way You Said? (2006), and 10 novels, including Pieces of Light (1998), The Rules of Perspective (2005) and Flight (2012). His drama includes The Fen Story (1991) and An Envied Place (2002). Upon publication of Thorpe’s first novel Ulverton in 1992, John Fowles wrote: “Suddenly English lives again!”

Thorpe is also a distinguished translator, and has recently translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2011) and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (forthcoming). He lives in France, and he currently teaches at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Nîmes and at the University of Nîmes. He was the guest judge for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize [1] 2013.

When and why did you first decide to become a translator, and specifically a literary translator?

The decision was made for me; after writing three novels in as many years, I was creatively spent, exhausted. Then out of the blue, a letter came from my paperback editor at Vintage offering me the chance to translate either Madame Bovary or Thérèse Raquin for the Vintage Classics list. I thought to myself: “This’ll be a nice break. No more blank pages.” And I love those two novels—Flaubert’s has been a great inspiration for my own work. Of course it turned out to be the hardest job I’d ever done.

What do you find most challenging, and also most satisfying, about your profession?

I don’t think of myself as a literary translator by profession. I’m a writer who has temporarily wandered through the translation wood and all its dragons, and survived (just). Real pro translators are heroic, they bring us new or neglected works that otherwise would remain locked away for most of us. What I have done is, I hope, revealed something fresh about two classics, bringing to them my experience as a poet and novelist, my fascination with the music and texture of language.

But to answer your question: the hardest part is getting precisely to the author’s intent phrase by phrase and carrying that delicate thing into its new home. This assumes that the author knew what he/she was doing: sometimes you are burrowing into the author’s unconscious. The satisfaction comes when the “click” happens and you’ve found a way of saying it that’s as vivid as the original. I was lucky in that I was working on two masterpieces: translating a poor text (and I’ve done some really poor, pretentious, non-literary texts in my time) is soul-destroying. And the rhythm thing, of course, is fiendish: how to transpose, in my case, French rhythm to English? How to find the equivalent without painful shoe-horning?

Which work have you most enjoyed translating so far?

Enjoyment is so entangled with suffering when it comes to translating a work like Madame Bovary, that I hesitate to answer. I felt completely voided by the end. But being so close to a great and daring and slightly mad work was an amazing experience; I could smell Flaubert in every sentence, so he wasn’t absent at all—pace Roland Barthes. Thérèse Raquin is so dark, claustrophobic, and somehow lonely that the final effect on me was pretty negative: I had psychosomatic symptoms matching Thérèse’s and Laurent’s! But I now feel happy that I managed it, especially as it’s a novel that is very far from my own approach or practice. It’s good to be stretched, to avoid the comfort zone as a default position.

Which work have you found most difficult to render faithfully in English, and why?

Madame Bovary is so rich, so varied, so replete with irony, nuance, pastiche, that it has to be among the hardest works to translate. For instance, in this anti-romantic, realist novel there are gorgeously lyrical, romantic passages of description. This is because Flaubert was, at heart, a romantic. Part of the writing of this novel was about self-flaying, self-denial, even self-hatred. “We love what tortures us”, as he put it. So how to render those passages in English? Well, as lyrically as possible, with just the most microscopic hint of mockery. I enjoyed those passages and I’m sure Flaubert did, too. I think he forgot himself in them, gave himself up to the trance with the excuse that they were pastiche. His opening description of Yonville is different: it’s an imitation of a typical travel guide as written by the ghastly chemist Homais: it ends on his gilded name in a fantastic swooping shot worthy of Dickens.

Do you find language acquisition and translation an addictive process?

Yes. That’s why I accepted Thérèse Raquin before I had recovered from the Bovary bout. Hair of the dog that bit you. But I’m not a good linguist, which is a drag. Or at least, I am lousy at learning languages other than English, with which I am passionately in love. Life circumstances gave me reasonable fluency in French, but it doesn’t come easily.

How do you decide which texts to translate next?

I’m not translating anything else for some time. I’ve kicked the habit for now.

How does translating compare to composing your own poetry or prose?

No blank page. If you’re on form, the blank page is exhilarating. If you’re not on form, it’s a white-out and you’re lost in it. You’re making all the decisions. It requires this very particular, slightly crazy confidence to compose, and a trust. A trust that you can fall without being hurt. Poetry is different, though, because I compose poems only when the muse is around: a certain presence, an encouragement to play with the language while inhabited by strong, often poignant feelings that go right back and down. You don’t want those while translating. There’s quite a bit of sort of mathematical problem-solving in translation, a clear-eyed aspect that keeps you on the track. Poetry is about wandering off the track and finding new valleys.

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize was awarded to Philip Boehm for his translation of Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel (Portobello, 2012). The full text of Adam Thorpe’s speech at the ceremony, held at St Anne’s College, Oxford on 6 June 2013, can be read here [2].

Rebecca Loxton is reading for an MPhil in French at Keble College, Oxford. She is a copy editor at the Oxonian Review.