Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’

Working to finalize a translation this morning, and have finally polished up a short passage that has been giving me trouble. It’s a simple moment in the story, really—a short scene following the death of an old man, a minor character. But what happens in these two paragraphs reflects much of the struggle at the heart of the book. I wanted to get it right. I may still fiddle with this (in fact, I’ve fiddled with it just looking at it here again), but here it is for now:

The woodworker had finished putting in the nails. The woodworker began to paint the coffin black. And the next morning, they left for Lower Saint Martin where the dead are buried in the small cemetery that encircles the church. The frost was still hard; the snow beneath the bearers’ footsteps complained like an ailing child. The road had been opened up with a shovel once again; it was bordered in places by walls over a meter high and it wasn’t very wide; so they raised the coffin as high as they could and the black box rocked backward and forward, looking like a little boat on a little sea amidst the softness of the snow.

Was it to show you the countryside one last time, Métrailler, so vast and beautiful when seen from up here? Was it so that you could see it from above, as if you were soaring, as if you were in the air, like when the bird with his unfurled wings has all that great blue emptiness below him? —but we couldn’t see anything, we kept on not being able to see anything. And the ground at the cemetery was still so frozen that, waiting for it to thaw, they had to put the coffin in a great mound of snow and into that they stuck the cross.



Here is something that happens (often) when I’m checking and re-checking a full draft Ramuz translation. Today it goes like this:

On page 77, Ramuz uses a word I’ve never seen before (other times it’s a word I’ve seen, but he uses it in an odd way). In this case the scene shows two men walking down from a high alpine village to a lower alpine village (the relationship between these two men is one of the funniest and saddest of the whole novel) and one of them stops and points toward the steeply descending valley. He says,

“There, beside the pine tree, do you see it? It’s square, it’s gray, it looks like a large stone. You know what it is? It’s the doctor’s car, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.”

There’s two things about this. First, I’m immediately stopped on that verb dérocher. I’ve never seen it before but it doesn’t look difficult. Rocher is rock. But the second thing is that when I first read this little phrase, I missed something. It would seem – following that comma – that the clause refers to THE CAR. And I nearly translated it like that. But then looking at the whole phrase:

En bien, tu sais ce que c’est? la voiture du docteur, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.

That’s a celui which is masculine, and la voiture is feminine, so they are not connected. That celui is referring to the doctor, which makes dérocher a little more tricky.

It’s the doctor’s car, the one who [s’est déroché] last year.

Dérocher seems simple enough, doesn’t it? When reading the sentence, I just assumed it was a way of saying the car had slipped from the road and fallen down into the ravine. And my first thought was that it might be a Swiss particularity – mountainous country, with a specific verb to explain this kind of accident. But I looked it up to be sure. It wasn’t in my Larousse and it wasn’t in my beloved Robert Historique (if you enjoy reading dictionaries – not saying I might enjoy this, ha ha – this one is wonderful, with detailed etymology and first literary references), so I had to look it up online and ask some mountaineering/rock climbing friends. But in any case, it appears to be a mountaineering term that can be translated either as “falling from rocks” or “to let go” or “lose your grip.”

So now I’m hesitant to make it a common word for a kind of snowy, mountainous car accident (which it could still be), or to give it some notion of the doctor driving his car off the road on purpose. And it’s just one sentence, and the doctor doesn’t exist in the story. It’s a tiny side story… except it isn’t. Because one of the men in this conversation is trying to convince the other man (who is depressed) to give him something. The one man wants the other to wallow in his depression and give up – because it will lead to a financial gain for the first man. What he points out to this man while they walk down the mountain is now very interesting.

And so now, how I translate this single verb (se dérocher… reflexive even!) is suddenly quite important…


I am so excited to be able to announce the publication of my first book-length translation—Beauty on Earth by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz—which has just come out this month from the Australian publisher Onesuch Press. It has been a true pleasure working with Onesuch and I’m honored to have had their support. Also, this English-language edition comes with a forward from the American writer Valerie Trueblood, and I am so grateful for her insight into the novel.

Beauty on Earth was first published in 1927 and it is the story of a Cuban orphan, Juliette, who must come to live with her uncle Milliquet in a small village on the shores of Lake Geneva. He is a local café owner, greedy and inept, and he has a horrid wife; Juliette’s life in this village is doomed from the start. She is so different from these stuffy Swiss villagers, so beautiful, so exotic, that they literally do not know what to do with her. With her beauty.

Unfortunately, the quickest and most common response is an attempt to possess her. And as the story proceeds, a series of men try their hardest (in quite different ways) to do exactly this.

The book is populated with a range of wonderful characters—from Chauvy, the town drunk, to Rouge, the gruff but sweet fisherman; from Ravinet, the malicious Savoyard, to Maurice, the Mayor’s son. And my favorite—Emilie. I won’t tell you about her because I want you to read her for yourself. More than Juliette, I think of her as the novel’s emotional pinpoint. Each scene in which she features broke my heart (several times, as I translated and revised and revised and revised). And while Ramuz has been criticized for keeping his distance (and therefore the readers) from his supposed main-character Juliette, he shows with Emilie exactly how deep he is able to go into one of his creations.

So that distance from Juliette is done on purpose and is there for a reason. I leave it to you to speculate why.

I don’t want to write too much more about the book, for fear that I will unwittingly give away all of its hidden treasures, but I’ll leave you with an excerpt, from one of the story’s quiet moments, when the first difficulties have seemingly fallen away, just before everything falls apart:

As for the girl, she’d gone on fishing with us. She’d gone on having a place among us, when she got into the boat, leaving each morning with us to go raise the nets. She held onto the rudder; Rouge telling her, “Right…left…straight on…” she pulled one of the ropes, or the other, seated on the rear bench. In the beautiful weather that lasted all of the rest of that month and for much of the next, they set out together, the three of them, and this space where she found herself, it belongs to us. It seemed she was right where she should have been: look carefully, beneath the mountain, look carefully, among the stones and the sand, or on this water that is gray at first, then lemon yellow, then orange yellow; then it looks as though we are navigating through a field of clover, upsetting the stems with the oars. She was completely at home here, maybe, for awhile, because there was no one else here; which means that there was no one but her and us; her and us, and these things and us.

The book is available in the UK, the US and Australia. Please take a look at the Onesuch Press website, for even more information.