Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Something very interesting happened last night at my French book club. We are accustomed to small differences in opinion; this is probably what makes us all come back month after month, the idea that we will discuss and debate a work of fiction, not simply admire it. But last night went far beyond a small difference in opinion. I was especially looking forward to our discussion yesterday evening because I had suggested the book – Robert Pagani’s Mon roi, mon amour (The Princess, the King and the Anarchist, tr. Helen Marx) and was eagerly waiting to hear how much everyone loved it. But last night we got settled in to our seats at the carnotzet at one of our local wine bars, pulled the book out of either a purse or other bag, placed it on the table, and before I could say, “Wasn’t it fantastic?” four other women had torn it to pieces. They didn’t just not like it: they called it worthless, they said it was badly written, there was eye rolling and a symbolic tossing of the book away in disgust.

I was speechless, which is rare for me. And we hadn’t even yet received our wine so there was nothing for me to do but take an imaginary gulp and then charge forward to defend what I considered a lovely, unique work of fiction. I suggested it was not supposed to be read as historical fiction, I brought up theories of monarchy/anti-monarchy conflict and mythology, I said Pagani wasn’t writing stereotypes but ironic caricatures, I argued that it was laugh-out-loud funny. I even tried to read passages aloud in a meaningful voice. Nothing uprooted their disdain.

Now these are intelligent women – clever, articulate, worldly, multi-lingual, fantastically well-read. In short, absolutely entitled to their opinion, however greatly it varied from my own.

So why this huge difference in judgment? I was particularly unsettled by the charge of “badly-written” and so started to think back over my experience reading the book. Which reminded me that by a very strange twist of fate,* I had actually read the English translation of Pagani’s book and not the French original.

My memory of the English text is its delightful simplicity. It reads much like a fable. On the surface there is a lot to laugh at – the narrator very gently mocks each of the characters. But is it possible the English version was better written than the French? Is it possible that Helen Marx, an extremely accomplished translator, might have smoothed any awkwardness out of Pagani’s prose? I cannot say until I’ve read the French. I started last night and in all honesty, I do not find his writing flawed at all. Like the English, it is playful and simple.

But there is another difference between the French version and the English version – a thoughtful introduction opens the English version. And contrary to what I usually do, I actually read the introduction before reading the book. So before I even started, I had some notion of Pagani having deeper but subtly portrayed intentions. I firmly believe the book has a lot to it, as I wrote in my review at The Quarterly Conversation, but I can’t help wondering how influenced I may have been by the introduction. And also by the fact that I had just finished reading Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy, which brought me to this idea of literature being a more useful and beautiful copy of life’s first rough draft, an idea which applied so wonderfully to Pagani’s novel as he takes an historical event and then creates a vibrant fictional tale around it.

On the whole I’m amused by our disagreement last night and sometimes this just happens, so there may be no reason behind it, but as a translator I am now very curious how the French version and the English version might be wholly compared, not just in terms of the faithfulness of the English version, but in their aesthetic and textual presentation.

Recently, at Necessary Fiction, in a review of Lily Hoang’s unique story collection Unfinished, one of our regular reviewers, Jess Stoner, wrote about the importance of the paratexts that surround a piece of literature and how this information influences our reception of the text. Just a quick comparison of Mon roi, mon amour with The Princess, the King and the Anarchist brings an easy list of possibly significant differences: title, cover art, font choice, introduction, back cover text. All of this peripheral data sets the reader up for a certain aesthetic experience of the book. I could argue that the English version book with its black and white fairytale wedding photo gave me a sense of romance (like an independent arthouse film) that the French version with its stark white background and tiny wedding carriage (almost cartoonish) did not.

But this is just guessing, with a tiny measure of self-justification. Unfortunately, I cannot go backward and experience Mon roi, mon amour with fresh eyes so I’ll never really be able to resolve this question. But it will continue to fascinate me.

*I had requested the translation from the American publisher for a reviewer who was interested in reviewing it for Necessary Fiction, but once I had it in my possession I just couldn’t resist reading it quickly before passing it along. I fully intended to read the original before meeting with my book group but, as it happens, sadly never found the time.

8 Responses to “an unexpected disagreement”

  1. mitch61

    “You can’t tell a book from it’s cover,” isn’t completely true. Sometimes the cover sets a tone you can’t shake when reading. I noticed this years ago when we lived in Japan. Often I’d get either American books from a British publisher or the reverse. Then I’d get the book the other way around and have two copies, one American, one British. Usually the covers, illustrations etc were different, sometimes there were even textual differences as the publisher tried to make American English and British English differences not so apparent. I am told that the Harry Potter books are different between the American Edition and the British edition. I’ve noticed that my response to the same book (both in English) presented differently sometimes made a difference how I accepted the book and to this day I prefer some of these books in one or the other presentation. I don’t have any where near the translation ability you have but I do work in several different languages and with several different translations of the same text. It reminds me that translation is an art form as much as authorship is an art form.

    • Michelle

      I recently had a look at the two different covers for Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, which just came out in the UK and which will come out in the US in January. The covers are extremely different, and the UK version really plays into the metatextual aspect of Houellebecq’s writing, while the US version is a lot more vague. I think it would be easy to argue that these covers are setting the reader up for different experiences.

  2. Biblibio

    I started reading The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist in a bookstore a few months ago and though I was tempted to finish the book off in the store, I ultimately set it aside and furthermore decided not to buy it (I think my excuse was that it was needlessly expensive for such a slim volume…). I did, however, make a note of the lovely (and yes, playful) writing from the first few pages – it was enough to make me want to read the entire book (which I fully intend to do next time I’m in the US). So because I haven’t actually finished the book, I can’t tell you whether or not I’ll ultimately enjoy the book or also find it worthless. The glimpse of it I encountered was quite good… but of course that doesn’t necessarily mean much!

    As for the original versus the translation… I’d be fascinated to hear your comparison of the two once you get around the reading the original. You’re right that you won’t be able to undo your original assessment, but you may still be able to better understand where the differences lie. Who knows… perhaps it’s just the typical matter of taste?

    • Michelle

      Yes, hooray! I knew I was not the only one who finds this book delightful. I’ll wait for your final assessment of the ending, because this is where, I believe, some people will quibble with Pagani. Fair enough – even if I thought it worked just fine.

      I am almost finished reading the French and will hopefully post some thoughts in a few days…

  3. びっくり

    I could handle the eye-rolling, but “symbolic tossing of the book away in disgust” just goes too far. 🙂

    I wonder if there were cultural lines of difference which would also effect the response. I find this often occurs with Japanese and English. I can say something in Japanese intending a certain impact, but it is received very differently because a native wanting to express that feeling would use different words. Reading someone’s novel this often happens. Also, when I was working in England little differences would pop up even though we all spoke English.

    I hope this turns into one of those, “Wasn’t that funny” stories later.

  4. smithereens

    Sorry to hear about the bad experience! Do you think it possible that a pleasant, creative translation has redeemed an otherwise not-so-great book? I wouldn’t quite know what to make of it, because most times I’m confronted with the opposite problem, an hurried or careless translation that spoils a good original version. I’ll be reading your diagnostic.

    • Michelle

      I’ve now finished the original and I don’t think the translation made it better. The original is still really good. I’m not sure what caused the big difference in opinion, except maybe the introduction – so I was reading with an eye on hidden meanings.

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