Outside of Switzerland, Ramuz is not very well-known but in the country he is really and truly considered one of the “fathers” of Swiss literature. This fact explains why the Swiss radio invited me this week to talk about my translation of Beauty on Earth on one of their cultural programs. (I’m a huge fan of this program by the way – every morning from 7 to 9 on Espace 2).
But because this is an English-translation we were talking about (in French) and this book is meant for English-language readers, I thought it might be useful/interesting to write out a transcription & translation of our short conversation.
Two things I learned from writing this out:
- it is difficult to make a transcription like this read like a normal conversation
- introverts (like me) do their best thinking in quiet spaces and not on national radio programs (but there are a few things about Ramuz I’m happy to have said)
Here is the link to the interview, which will only be available for a few more weeks.
Florence Grivel: It is 8h21, hello Michelle Bailat-Jones.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Hello.
FG: You are a Swiss-American writer and you’ve just published a highly-anticipated English translation of CF Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth with Onesuch Press. This is a highly anticipated book because, if what I’ve heard is correct, it has never before been translated except for an unsigned version published just after its French publication, in, I believe, the beginning of the 1930s.
FG: We’re going to come back to this, but first I’d like to ask you something I’m really curious about. You live in Puidoux, in the hills above Lake Geneva, in the very countryside Ramuz speaks so much about. Is this one of the reasons you wanted to translate this author?
MBJ: Yes, exactly. When I first arrived in Switzerland, people gave me a number of Swiss books and Ramuz was obviously one of the first I received (in fact it was my mother-in-law who gave him to me). And I discovered in this book a vision of Switzerland that I didn’t know before, a vision I found extremely beautiful. So I very much wanted to translate Ramuz, to throw myself into his world, to discover his universe.
FG: When you say a beautiful vision of Switzerland, what does that mean more precisely?
MBJ: On the one hand, it’s a pastoral vision – with the lake and the mountains
FG: The background of a painting.
MBJ: Yes, exactly. There is this aspect of his work. And then what I love about Ramuz is how he looks in detail at people, (he has) a very particular way of creating detail… (mumbles about the story taking place in the past and how beautiful the book is – totally lost my train of thought)
FG: The story of Beauty on Earth is the story of Juliette, a young 18 year old orphan who arrives one day in a village in Vaud. She is from Cuba. And she lives at first with her uncle, a café owner, who remains her only family. And her beauty, her difference, will radiate in a way that ends up hurting the village…
MBJ: Yes, her beauty destroys the village,
FG: Exactly, and this novel, published in 1927, remains relevant even today. Maybe this is what fascinates you about this book?
MBJ: Yes, I think that the idea that a foreign person who comes to a new country, someone who is very exotic, who upsets the mores and attitudes of the people (in this new country), this is something that happens even today.
FG: Especially today.
MBJ: Exactly, this is very much a topic that we can still really discuss.
FG: A translation is something anchored in its time period, in the 30s Ramuz was translated into German, for example, and there was a kind of polemic because of its relationship to traditions/customs was something that spoke to the nationalist propaganda of the time. Ramuz translated into English in 2014, what kind of story does that tell?
MBJ: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think the thing that surprises me a lot with Ramuz is that this is an author who is extremely modern. He deals with “modernist” themes in the sense that he is looking at the difficulties between the two wars, for example, the psychology of people between the two wars, and this is something that is still relevant for us today. So then to put this into English, I think this is still meaningful today. Despite the particularities of his French, I believe this is a text that resonates in English.
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, Ramuz’s writing is very particular, as you’ve just said, there is both “plomb and celeste” (NB: a particular way of describing his style, both weight and weightlessness might be one way of translating this) in the way of fashioning the words. What did you discover, as a young woman, when working through this text?
MBJ: For me, what I find in Ramuz’s work is that he has a completely fascinating way of moving the narrative framework between the reader, the narrator, the characters, and even him… because I think that Ramuz himself is also there inside the text. So, there is this frame that is changing all the time, the size of the frame changes between the “we” of the village, and the characters and the people he is describing. I find this to be completely unique. It is only in Ramuz’s texts, in his style, that we find this way of— I don’t know how to say it—this way of maneuvering throughout the story. And this is something I found to be extremely beautiful. While translating this book, and I really wanted to keep this in the English text. It’s destabilizing for (Francophone) readers, and I wanted English readers to be just as…
FG: Immersed in this.
FG: Something interesting, at least something that interested me about this idea of translating Ramuz into English is that English is an efficient language…it has absolutely nothing to do with Ramuz’s French, how did you render this language, beside this idea of a moving framework?
MBJ: I really tried to remain extremely faithful to Ramuz’s French, by doing this I think that I created an English that is not exactly a normal English, and because of this I’m asking the readers of this English translation to keep their minds open to this. I kept faithful to Ramuz’s movement, to his grammar, which means in turn that the English is also changed… and so it’s actually a much less-efficient English.
FG: And what about the regional expressions, the traditional/local words, how do you work those into the text, how do you make them come alive in English?
MBJ: I tried to find the same kind of pastoral, bucolic words, things like that – for the plants, and the flowers, all that, just being very specific, and sometimes I kept a word or certain small expressions in French.
FG: Like what, for example, do you have something in mind?
MBJ: Sorry, not off the top of my head…
FG: Michelle Bailat-Jones, how does one approach Ramuz, how does a translation begin?
MBJ: In reading, for me it is about a deep reading, reading the text over and over. I have to find a way to get Ramuz’s voice into my head. So now I have this little Ramuz voice in my head—I hope it’s really his although I can’t be sure. I think I read this book at least five or six times before even starting the translation, at that point I began to play a little bit with paragraphs and words. Also in re-writing a lot. I think that I re-wrote the beginning, the first three chapters, two or three times, until I found the right narrator, the narrator that worked alongside Ramuz’s narrator but in English… it was a kind of detail work.
FG: This fairly pessimistic vision that moves throughout the book…
MBJ: Yes, it’s sad…
FG: Sad, isn’t it? But is this also something that interested you?
MBJ: Yes, a lot. I really like… in fact, this is what I mean by Ramuz’s modernism. In the sense that everyone in the book is extremely sad, everyone is angry… they have trouble with their neighbors, with the village, their relationships…
FG: Yes, it’s like the lightness or the beauty of this young woman…hmm, I’m not sure how to say it, it’s as if everyone is confronted with their inner darknesses.
MBJ: Exactly, no one can stand the beauty of this woman… and everyone falls apart, everything destroys itself.
FG: Would you like to translate more Ramuz? I know that before Beauty on Earth, you translated a few of his short stories. Would you like to start another Ramuz project?
MBJ: Yes, absolutely. I am currently working on Si le Soleil ne Revenait Pas which is also an exceptional book… but I still need to find a publisher.
FG: (laughs) Ah, so here’s a call out to publishers!
FG: Have you had any commentary coming back from the English reading public?
MBJ: Yes, it’s coming slowly. I’ve heard from people who have read him now in English, who are experiencing him for the first time. This is a real pleasure (for me) to hear people express their surprise that they’ve never heard of him before, and especially someone of his level. So I’m hoping this (translation) will start to have an impact, to make some noise.
FG: Thank you (etc etc) and good luck to this translation.
MBJ: Thank you.