Mark Polizotti, and cat, through skype

Oct. 25th 2011 was a very special moment for the students of Prof. Medin’s EN 2020 and Pr. Hollinshead-Strick’s Paris Through Its Books class CL 4000. The students had the incredible opportunity to talk through Skype with the translator of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, which both classes have studied this semester, extensively and intensively. Mark Polizzotti’s translation is the latest into English to date (2007). He agreed to answer the students’ questions about Bouvard and Pécuchet, as well as about his job as a translator.

When asked to introduce himself, Polizzotti says his day job is working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he is also a writer and a translator. Immediately, his first advice comes (which he will defend all throughout the conversation): “Translate everything you can get your hands on”, he says.  He mentions thrillers, bestsellers, user’s manuals, books of all kinds, including technical texts that may not appeal to a literary-oriented translator.

“What drew you to become a translator?” someone asks. “It happened by accident, like everything”. He was seventeen, living in Paris and taking courses in Nanterre when the author Maurice Roche visited his class. Polizzotti was given a ride home by his professor, along with the Roche. At a loss for words (seventeen year-old vs. published writer), he said “It would be interesting to translate your book”. Amazingly enough, the sentence does not go unnoticed and the writer invites Polizzotti to a party full of the leading lights of the time–among them Roland Barthes–that same night. The project is carried out, and that is how Mark Polizzotti became a translator.

Here Polizzotti warns the students that a guest might join the discussion, namely his cat, who jumps in front of the screen soon afterwards (the Skype discussion allowed for video chat) and remains there, definitely curious about what is happening, for much of the conversation.

The questions then target Bouvard and Pécuchet more precisely. The students are curious about it, since it is such a strange and uncommon novel. Polizzotti confesses that the hardest part of translating it was his ongoing sense of a giant–Flaubert’s ghost– looking over his shoulder. Flaubert is well-known for his care with language, his search for the mot juste, and it is a lot of pressure for a translator to replicate the precision of Flaubert’s original.

When he had earlier advocated the aspiring translator to work from as many kinds of writing as possible, Polizzotti had jokingly mentioned a manual for the extraction of earwax. Now he adds that that manual and Bouvard and Pécuchet have more in common than we may think: both deploy an incredibly technical–and frequently absurd–vocabulary.

Polizzotti reminds students that Flaubert read 1,500 different books (in part or in whole) while preparing to write Bouvard and Pécuchet. He did a lot of research, and so when he depicts the garment worn by one of his protagonists during a particular activity, the translator is obliged to be as exact as Flaubert himself was. Scientific accuracy is entangled with facts of everyday life throughout the book, a tension that it is necessary to respect. The internet aided Polizzotti during his research of the author’s specialized vocabulary.

He then goes back to the idea of technical translation, saying he used to work for a company that required translations of about anything that might require a label. Polizzotti argues that the work was an incredible vocabulary builder, one that established a database of words that he’d never have otherwise encountered. Ultimately, the exercise proved useful for his translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Concerning the importance of precision in writing, Polizzotti tells of the time that Maurice Roche discussed, with a colleague, the latter’s most recent book. Asked about his characters’ names, this colleague claimed that he had not paid too much attention to them. Roche in turn declared that he no longer desired to read said book, since someone who does not care about the names of his characters probably does not care for the rest of his work either. Flaubert would have in all likelihood agreed, having devoted so much time to the naming of his deux cloportes (roughly,  “two stooges” – his original title for the novel). Their names reflect the reality: Bouvard is as round as the sound of his, Pécuchet as tall, thin and dry as the sound of his.

A student asks Polizzotti whether the unfinished state of Bouvard and Pécuchet‘s played a role in his translation. Polizzotti answers that what was complete in the novel was pretty much definitive, as is always the case with Flaubert (he writes chapter after chapter, and only moves from one to another when he feels satisfied enough); thus Polizzotti claims that it was not too different from a complete novel. The fairly complete outline also helps figure out the whole structure of the novel for the translator.

“Since it is an incomplete novel, does the translator sometimes feel that he could improve it, make it more complete, use what he knows about the outline to make the text more explicit?” Polizzotti is interested in this query, which he says is part of an “important debate, not only for unfinished novels, but for all of them”. Modification, he continues, is “always a temptation for the translator. English allows certain opportunities that French does not, the question is always: do you take them or not? Sometimes, things are so beautiful you will never manage to translate them properly, give them all their strength. You can get close, but it will never be the same, so when things can be made better, you do it, even if it means taking a little bit of liberty with the text”.

Asked whether he enjoyed the book or not, Polizzotti remarks that all translation – whether of Flaubert or of a manual about earwax constitutes an exercise, and as such as “opportunity to practice your craft”. The translator is in some ways an ultimate writer: he is spared of having to worry about plot or the characters. His task is to transport the same effects into another language; to copy what has been done and render it with different words. Polizzotti finds this both challenging and fun. He adds that Bouvard and Pécuchet was surprisingly easy to translate (despite the technicality of the vocabulary mentioned earlier), because it was so modern. Contrary to many 19th century novels, it was not flowery, not sentimental. It was an amazingly funny – he confesses to having laughed out loud on numerous occasions – and dark book, in a contemporary manner that reminds him more of 20th century post-modern writers, for example, Jean Echenoz. “It didn’t feel artificial at all”, he remarks; “I didn’t have to re-create an atmosphere from the 19th century. I think Flaubert would have liked being translated in a very 20th century style. He was so modern”. He compares Flaubert’s directness and dryness to Echenoz’s, then adds that translating the memoirs by Christian Louboutin (a fashion designer) proved much harder and foreign to his world that Flaubert ever had.

Polizzotti, asked about rendering the atmosphere of Bouvard and Pécuchet into English, says that the funny parts were the hardest, because his goal was to make English speaking readers laugh as loudly as French readers would, which is hard given that humor works differently in the two languages. He describes his job as “trying to transmit the sense, the associations he has felt to readers of the translation”.

After half an hour of much-appreciated discussion, the students thank him a lot, impressed by how simply and enthusiastically Polizzotti accepted to talk about his work.