We spoke with Julian Barnes, author of Staring at the Sun, The Porcupine, Flaubert’s Parrot, Talking it over, England, England, Love etc and Something to Declare, among others, just after he translated Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain.
Peter Wild (PW): Reading In the Land of Pain I was actually struck by just how much more than a translation the book is, what with the introduction and the endnote and the footnotes. It came to seem that this was very much a labour of love. Curious that a book about “illness, dying and death” should provoke such strong feelings. What was it that fascinated you enough to want to translate and has that particular itch been scratched or can we expect to see a rather darker Julian Barnes novel at some point in the future?
Julian Barnes (JB): Well, it goes back quite a long way. I first read it when I was researching for my novel Flaubert’s Parrot. I thought that it was a remarkable book. Its honesty and its directness and its lack of either sentimentality or self-dramatisation. Flaubert said at one point that it’s only by looking down at the black pit at our feet we can remain calm, ie you’re more likely to panic if you don’t look at it, and the only way to look at it is to look at it with a straightforward stare. That’s what Daudet does. I don’t think I’ve translated it now because I’ve suddenly got gloomier and started becoming obsessed by death. I’ve always been obsessed with death. It’s been a constant thing. I think I just re-read it and thought, hang on, another 20 years has passed and this book has never been translated into English. And then once I started it became clear that just a translation was not going to be adequate. You needed a lot of notes and a certain amount of background material. I actually enjoyed the pleasures of scholarship perhaps for the first time and, as a result, spent far more time on it than probably justified in publishing terms. But I had a lot of fun with it, if fun is the right word. Serious pleasure at any rate.
PW: Translation seems to arouse very strong feelings. On the one hand you have Shelley’s famous quote about the violet and the crucible (“…it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principles of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet”), or Dante (“Nothing which is harmonized by the bond of the Muses can be changed from its own language without having all its sweetness destroyed”). At the other extreme you have someone like, say, Borges (“Perhaps…the translator’s work is more subtle, more civilized than that of the writer: the translator clearly comes after the writer. Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization”). What are your feelings on the art of translation?
JB: Having been translated myself quite a lot I know that you always lose something. It’s always a question of minimising your losses. You’re bound to lose maybe five percent, maybe more – depends on the writer, depends on the translator. I think that’s inevitable. I still think that works in translation are obviously well worth reading. I still think that the person who can only read English can get a lot out of foreign literature. I don’t think that the translator is higher than the writer. I think that the translator can be a parallel writer. It’s an odd mixture of creativity and subservience at the same time. Every so often you have to rein yourself back, as a translator, from being too obviously there on the page. I think it was okay for me because I knew I was going to be there on the page in all of the footnotes. I did feel, when I was translating Daudet’s own words, I did feel a strong sense of service. I felt that it was my duty to represent this man as closely as possible in tone and weight of words to what he wrote.
PW: In a Salon interview round about the time of Cross Channel, you said that “if you read something in translation, you should feel as if there isn’t any barrier between you and the author . . .”
JB: I suppose that this is a rather different kind of translation because it can only really work with a lot of annotation. After all he didn’t write it to be read by a reader. I supose I want the reader to hear Daudet’s voice as clearly as possible in the text, and then hear my voice, helping to explain what his voice is saying, in the notes.
PW: Would you like to see Daudet receive more interest on the back of your translation?
JB: I don’t really know. He has had a strange posthumous reputation in that he’s known for his lighter and comic work and he did write one or two novels that are quite serious although very much of their time. I think it’s really up to publishers. The torch I have carried has always been for this particular book rather than Daudet as a generally undervalued writer. He was well valued in his time. I don’t think that, apart from this book, there’s a hidden masterpiece waiting to be unearthed. If you’ve read all Flaubert, and you’ve read quite a lot of Zola and you’ve read some Goncourt novels, then Daudet is worth reading.
PW: Are there any other books that you are tempted to translate in the future?
JB: Not at the moment, no. This took longer than I thought it would. I mean, it was extremely pleasant work – well, unpleasant sometimes, but always fascinating. I haven’t really got a list of things that need translating. I wouldn’t be interested in re-translating something. Every so often someone says will do a new translation of Madame Bovary – well, yes if I didn’t have any of my own books to write and I could put five years aside. Something may come along in the future but at the moment this is not a new career path.
PW: The central character of The Porcupine was inspired by Bulgaria’s deposed Communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, and the book was first published in Bulgarian. Did you write the Bulgarian version or did the translated version exist prior to your own?
JB: I have a few Bulgarian friends, one of whom was particularly helpful with the book who happens to be my Bulgarian publisher and translator. I sent her a late draft of The Porcupine and didn’t hear for a while and then about six weeks later I got a letter that said I have now finished the translation. I said hang on, look, I sent you this for comment not translation. She said no,no, we’ll do it soon, it will be very good to have it out at the time that Zhikov is to be put on trial, as indeed it was. Because I had this close affection with my friend, publisher, translator she wanted to get it out as soon as possible and it takes nine months to produce a book in England and I just thought it would be a rather good bibliographical note. It makes it a curiousity. Some people think it is one of my jokes.
PW: Has the problem with Professor Mark Hogarth (academic who registered the names of many writers – including Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson – and demanded financial compensation to return them) been resolved?
JB: Yes it has. Eventually there was an action by the Society of Authors on behalf of me and I think three or four other writers and we certainly got our domain names back. I don’t know what happened with the other people whose name he stole. I think as I understand it that it was not possible to bring a class action on behalf of everyone and each case does not naturally set a precedent which is sort of srange and not very good law it seems to me. It was something I felt very strongly about because as a writer your name is one thing that you’re really close to. I’m not saying that anyone isn’t close to their name it’s just that your name is associated so closely with what you do and the idea of somebody setting up a website without my permission to sell books for a profit or whatever the original plans were.
PW: I think he wanted one third of the money earned from the sales of books in that particular year.
JB: He asked me for something like – it sounded less at first. Three percent of the cover price of every book sold throughout the world that year as if you could work it out yourself. That works out, given that average royalty is ten percent, he was asking for a third, in effect, of one’s income. I’m afraid that rather hardens me and my position. I now have a website www.julianbarnes.com
PW: I read an interview a few years ago in which you said you were slightly hesitant regarding all of this new technology . . .
JB: Did I say that? I’m up to speed on email and shopping on the web. I don’t write on my computer yet. I don’t know whether I’m going to. I work on an electric typewriter and that is still going strong. I have this website which I occasionally visit. The guy that runs it is very diligent. Sometimes if I want to know what I’m doing in the next few months, I look at my website.
PW: I was wondering how you felt about all of this talk surrounding the Man Booker prize. Do you think it would be a good or bad thing to introduce American books into the mix?
JB: I’m against (introducing American authors). I think that the prize has been defined as a prize for British and Commonwealth writers. I don’t expect to be put in for a prize for American books. I don’t see why they should be put in for ours. I think it’s an exaggeration by Ian McEwan to say that Philip Roth would have won the prize four times in a row. I judged The Guardian first book award a bit ago, two years ago when Zadie Smith won it, and in the final five or six books I think that she was the only British author. There were four American books, maybe, and one Canadian book. It seems to me that sort of ridiculous that a first book award run by a British newspaper – the one thing you think it should do is encourage local talent. It’s not quite the same with the Booker which is obviously for more – finished writers. I think that it would lose its individuality.
PW: Do you think that it is inevitable?
JB: I think the thing will be corporate-lead won’t it? It will become much less of a book prize and more of an advertisement.
PW: I think you can already see that in the choice of people selected as judges, people like David Baddiel.
JB: That’s right. For a start, they don’t need five judges. I think they’d get on much better with three. And I think that the judges should be much more literary. One year it was judged by Cyril Connolly, Mary McCarthy and George Steiner. Now we’re getting clowns from politics chairing the judges. Without mentioning any names.
PW: What are you reading at the moment? What have you read recently that is worth recommending?
JB: Funny that we’ve been talking about translation, really. At the moment, I’m reading what is in fact a very poor translation but it’s the only one ever of the German writer Fontane’s late great novel Der Stechlin – I was told this was his late great novel by my German publisher when I was over there earlier this year. I got a copy and I’m ploughing through but it is one of the most toiling translations that I have ever come across. It is like looking through a window that hasn’t been cleaned in years and is full of cobwebs. It’s terrible, but I’m ploughing on because I admire Fontane greatly.
PW: Are you one of these people who can stop reading a book if it’s terrible or must you plough on to the end regardless?
JB: No, I do stop if I don’t like it. This I’m not going to stop because I know that – even peering through this dim glass – I can see something. The last Fontane I read was a short novel called L’Adultera which is a sort of lighter version of Effie Briest which is a great masterpiece, one of the great nineteenth century novels. I’d urge people to read Effie Briest if they haven’t already.
PW: What are you working on at the moment? Can we expect a new novel in a year, or two years?
JB: You can expect a novel in two years. I’ve started scratching around, but I haven’t made a proper start yet.
PW: What is your favourite part of the writing process?
JB: I think that the favourite point is when you about a quarter of the way into the first draft and you think – yes. Yes, there is a novel here, and yes, I have got a pretty rough idea of where it’s going, and how long it will be and how long it will take and I’ve got his rich and wonderful period of work ahead of me. Then you get to the end of the first draft and that’s when the real work has to begin.
In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet is available now through Jonathan Cape priced £10.00