In March, Lorin Stein, Editor of The Paris Review participated in a panel discussion entitled “Translating Houellebecq”, together with Russell Williams (AUP) and Nelly Kaprièlian, (Les Inrockuptibles). Nathalie Neubert was among the students who attended the event and reports back here:
I arrived at the event ten minutes early because I always tend to arrive at these kinds of things early. I saw Professor Williams walking around, talking to some of the guests, and he was wearing a suit.
The panel began around 18h05, which made me happy because I like when my early arrival pays off and they start pretty much on time. Williams began by introducing Lorin Stein and Nelly Kaprièlian, who they are, and what they do. Stein is the editor of The Paris Review, and he translated Houellebecq’s Soumission into English. Kaprièlian is a literary critic, a novelist and an editor as Les Inrockuptibles, and she’s interviewed Houellebecq numerous times and reviewed his work. Williams gave a bit of a summary of Submission for those of us who hadn’t read it.
Williams talked about the reception of the novel in France. It was published the same day as the Hebdo attacks, last January. He said that there were three kinds of critics commenting on the novel from three different angles: one, French critics who read the novel before the attacks, two, French critics who read the novel after the attacks and, three, critics abroad, mostly from the U.S.. The novel is set in 2022, and imagines France as a Muslim state. The novel is told through the point of view of François, a forty-one year old literature professor at a French university. A lot of critics and readers of the novel claimed that it was Islamophobic, Manuel Valls even saying that, “France is not Michel Houellebecq.”
On the other hand, a large number of other critics claimed that the novel wasn’t Islamophobic, but that it was Francophobic: the novel as a critique of the French political system. Then, Kaprièlian weighed into the conversation. She described Houellebecq’s writing as nihilist, that it was both disturbing and pleasant, saying that he, “puts his hand on the most painful part of society and pushes it.” The topic then came up: should the writer be held responsible for the reader’s opinions and reactions? Stein said that, in interviewing Houellebecq, he claimed that he wasn’t writing for the now, but he was writing for the future: that his work will endure for one hundred years. Stein claimed that, in order to see this novel as racist propaganda, the reader would actually have to identify with the protagonist, who, he says, is someone we shouldn’t really identify with. Stein then said that, if we’re going to publish, we cannot publish for the reader.
Stein then talked a little bit about translating the novel into English. Stein started by saying that Houellebecq has had many different translators, which is atypical for a writer in the U.S.. He said that translating a novel into another language is much easier than editing a translated version of a novel. This struck me as bizarre. I would think it would be the other way around. When discussing the translation of the novel, Stein said that he wanted to preserve the comical tone that the novel has in French. He said that, in French, Houellebecq uses “punishingly gray language,” and the language moves at a slower pace than a novel in English. After watching the film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, it helped him in speeding up the pace of the language. What he found funny in the French version of the novel, he had to make “boring” in the language of the English translation; he said he had to “try and un-English, un-sparkle, the translation.”
As they were bringing the panel discussion to a close, they discussed how sections of Houellebecq’s work can be boring, but Kaprièlian said that what they find boring in the English version of his work may be considered modern in the French version. When they opened up to the audience for questions, I wanted to ask about Stein’s comment on editing translated work versus translating work, and why he finds the latter easier. I didn’t ask, though, and that always happens, and I always regret it.
Stein ended on an anecdote in response to a question about how often he was in contact with Houellebecq while translating his novel. Stein responded by saying that he emailed him about one thing in the novel: it was a sex scene and, in it, François is describing how this girl looks like a “poulet rôti” when she gives a blowjob. Stein wasn’t sure if the literal translation of “roasted chicken” would give the same kind of image that was achieved in the French, poulet rôti. So he thought over it, the different kinds of animals he could translate the section into, so the image would remain the same, and emailed Houellebecq about it. Then, when Houellebecq responded, he said, “Cher Monsieur Stein, when I say ‘poulet rôti,’ I mean ‘poulet rôti.’” The discussion ended on that note, and I thought it was perfect, because it reminded me to get dinner for myself before I went home.