Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘translation’

The translator, critic and writer, Patti Marxsen has written a thoughtful and incredibly detailed review of Beauty on Earth in this month’s Asymptote. She situates him, rightly, amidst the other great modernists of the era and shows how his fractured narrative style was his way of addressing modernism’s destabilizations. Marxsen translated Ramuz’s Riversong of the Rhone last year, and it’s stunning, published by Onesuch Press in a bilingual edition. Onesuch is slowly curating a fantastic list of Ramuz’s work, with two more coming this spring (Jean-Luc’s Persecution, tr. Olivia Lola Baes; What if the Sun…, tr. Michelle Bailat-Jones). It’s a honor to be among a group of translators working to bring his unusual work to an English-speaking audience.

Here is a taste of what Marxsen writes:

Ramuz was not born into modernity. Only in the wake of the First World War did he begin to grasp the human dilemmas that would turn him into a writer of stature: the shock of separation, the yearning for peace, and the deep desire for unity in a world inhabited by dark and mysterious forces. Even if Ramuz’s novels of the 1920s and 1930s can be read as romans paysans (“peasant novels”), the shock of modernity rips through his postwar work like shrapnel. The world itself is fragmented and torn as each subject stands alone with his or her unique perspective. Or, as Deleuze has said in another context, “Each subject expresses the world from a different point of view. But the point of view asserts difference itself, absolute internal difference. Each subject therefore expresses a world that is absolutely different.” In other words, many worlds exist simultaneously, which implies that everyone, sooner or later, becomes an other. By the age of forty, Ramuz was hard at work creating tales of destabilization told from multiple vantage points.

You can read the entire review here.


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…


Here is one reason why I absolutely love my job. Last spring, Spolia published my translation of a series of letters written between surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore. These were letters exchanged while the two women were incarcerated on Jersey Island during WWII. I am currently translating an excerpt of a diary (or is it a letter? This is just one of the mysteries of these fantastic handwritten papers) that Cahun wrote about her internment and about the occupation of the island. This second longer translation will also be published by Spolia later this year.

But today, as I am editing my draft of these thirty or so pages, I came across a tiny anecdote that makes me really excited. Cahun writes a considerable amount about a man in a cell near to hers—a German deserter who arrived in the prison a few months before Liberation. He was arrested, along with his lover (a woman from Jersey), and both were sentenced to death. The German was eventually shot about ten days before the islands were liberated, but the woman was pardoned. Cahun writes about his mental state and how he died – in detail – and it is quite sad. But there is one last part that she mentions only briefly. She receives (from one of the guards) a square piece of cardboard covered in careful handwriting. Moore (who could speak and read German) deciphers it while the two are hiding behind a wood shed in the courtyard of the prison. Here’s the best part, Cahun doesn’t write out what was written on the cardboard but only says that she has kept it, is holding it while she writes this story, and that she decided not to give it to the Jerseywoman, that it wouldn’t do that woman any good.

I don’t write historical fiction, but this is exactly the kind of personal historical footnote that would inspire me to do so – the existence of an undelivered letter between two people who were separated under horrible circumstances. I suppose what I find more interesting is coming across this story in the way that I did: from handwritten papers left in an archive that discuss related events, yes, but that are not intended to be about this German soldier and his Jersey lover. And yet they both became more real to me because of the secret letter that Cahun—who did not really “know” either of them—holds between them, refusing to give what might have been an ending to their story (or not – so many ways to consider why she didn’t just pass the note along; her reasons may be good, may be flawed, may be of no matter at all).

I’ll make a mention when the entire excerpt will be published – it’s a wonderful project, and I’m very excited to see it out in English. Cahun was such a thoughtful and prolific writer, and as far as I know, none of her writing has been translated yet into English.


I sat down and read Daniel Albright’s beautiful Evasions yesterday, which is part of the ever-excellent Cahiers Series. Everything from the Cahiers Series is about translation in some way, but they take this notion and let it stretch extremely far. And I love this, I’m so interested in how the idea of translation applies to people and how we use language (and other mediums) for translation, and not just in terms of translating physical texts. In this particular piece, Albright collects together the fragments of writing, thinking, poems, dreams—all the ways in which our interior emotional lives fulfill/translate themselves into writing— that accompanied him for about a three year period after his father passed away. He notes in the introduction that he was dealing with other issues at the same time, and there is a feeling of different types of emotional convergence in his writing.

Some of the pieces are a little inscrutable, but this doesn’t actually detract from the pleasure of reading them. They become a kind of puzzle – a way to look inside a mind and wonder how it is coming up with what it’s producing. I like poetic expression that challenges a bit, and often I don’t want to know the reasons behind a particular poem. If I can find meaning in it for myself, this is enough.

There is a moment when Albright addresses this idea – in a small section called “The Vanita of a Literary Critic.”

The critic can respect the integrity of a work of art, but can he respect its self-concealedness? On a few occasions, as a critic, I have felt, not only that I had solved the technical problem of the means by which a poet had achieved a certain striking effect, but also that I had made the effect itself publicly overt, that I had forced an aperture in the poem through which the most casual schoolchild could behold its beauty – a feeling of desecration, as if I had permanently damaged some part of the poem, injured the lid by which the poem kept some of its secrets half-hidden, lovelier for its shadow.

I absolutely love this idea that a critic can “injure the lid by which the poem kept some of its secrets half-hidden.” I like the fine line here – because I love criticism and what it reveals, but I think critics must also accept the damage or the danger inherent in wanting to get below the surface of a piece of a writing.

Some other moments I stopped and had to re-read, to really think about what Albright was saying:

From a section called “A Character”

Whose strength lies entirely in the purity of her self-knowledge, who does not mind being wretched, frigid, hysterically blind, ideological, devious, as long as her honesty with herself is unimpaired.

Or this one, from “Capillaries”

Watching films of the inside of the body: human life consists of only two states, the excited, which is a spurt and a subsiding, and the calm, which is a trembling.

There is so much more – it isn’t a structured essay at all, but more like a collage of thought and feeling. It creates a complex whole, something to read and read again. It does very much feel like a translation of felt experience – through one simple medium (word), even if the form of that word changes from moment to moment. I think this is very true to how we do try to “translate” ourselves creatively. What Evasions does is give one possibility of what that might look like.

Am reading a ton at the moment, and loving the feel of a brain alive. On the serious side of things, I started reading Susan Sontag’s collection Against Interpretation. I have only read bits and pieces of Sontag over the last ten years or so, I’ve never concentrated on her work in a systematic way and so begins a nice journey through her brilliant and critical mind.

From her essay “On Style” I’ve been highlighting left and right, but the following phrases/sections have stayed with me now for a few days:

“Art is seduction, not rape.”

“A work of art is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit.” (I love this. I have been repeating this to myself over and over.)

“Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, know that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.”

On the sillier side of things, I received a gift in the mail yesterday. Ella Frances Sanders’ Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.

This book, which is both funny and profound, is the way to a translator’s heart.

Here are some I love:

COMMUOVERE (Italian) – v. To be moved in a heartwarming way, usually relating to a story that moved you to tears.

MÅNGATA (Swedish) – n. The road-like reflection of the moon in the water.

KOMOREBI (Japanese) – n. The sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees.

MAMIHLAPINATAPAI (Yaghan). n. A silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people, who are both wishing or thinking the same thing (and both unwilling to initiate).

You can see more about this book here.


Profanes (Actes Sud, 2013) by Jeanne Benameur is a story about long-standing grief, and how it transforms a person, transforms a life. The book involves one very important grief situation and then around that is clustered a raft of smaller ones. Wrapped around and mixed in with this are other smaller stories about how desire works within this context. I think it’s fitting to put these two situations side by side, since grief and desire are essentially forms of longing with vastly different modes of expression.

Structurally, the book is multi-voiced and richly-layered—a favorite of mine. The story opens in the first person voice of a 90 year old man, Octave Lassalle, a retired surgeon, and all we learn is that he has assembled four people to “assist” him in an unspecified project. We are then introduced to the four people—three women and one man. Each person is given a room in Lassalle’s house and a portion of the day: Marc will come in the morning and work in the garden, Hélène (painter) will come in the afternoon to complete a painting at Lassalle’s request, Yolande will come in the early evening to prepare supper and sort through the house’s many rooms and attic, and Béatrice (who is a young nursing student) will come to sleep, to be a presence in the house if Lassalle needs someone in the night.

This premise of strangers coming together in quest of an unspecified goal is one that I really enjoyed. There is something slightly unbelievable about it (especially in today’s world, I think) but then it all felt very old-fashioned and natural. It makes sense that an elderly man of his position would need help to maintain his estate and house, and Lassalle is presented with a certain benevolent (and quiet) eccentricity that makes it easy to accept that he would prefer to create the situation on his own terms instead of finding himself in a medicalized and sterile environment.

Lassalle doesn’t really explain what he is really after—mostly because he doesn’t know it himself. He’s selected Marc, Hélène, Yolande and Béatrice quite carefully, this he makes very clear. But the only part of the project that is concrete is the painting that Hélène is meant to create, a portrait of the daughter that Lassalle lost about forty years before. It becomes very clear that the daughter’s death (and all that happened just after) is a situation that Lassalle cannot seem to move away from, despite how many years have passed. He has gone on living and working, but his life has essentially been an empty one. He doesn’t even really have any memories of this time. Forty years is a long time to efface oneself, and this becomes the central question of Profanes—how did this happen, and can it be undone?

That makes it sound like the book is about trying to “live” again when one has lost the verve for life, but that isn’t right at all. Benameur doesn’t work the reader toward any grand epiphany or attempt to “unefface” Lassalle – except in a very gentle, sideways kind of way. There are subtle evolutions as Lassalle’s story evolves and connects with the individual stories of the four, and there is a general (although muted) movement toward a kind of closure. As the situation deepens (with a kind of mystery at its center—although I think some readers will find the mystery a little superflous), Benameur wrestles with questions of grief and desire more than she propels the reader toward any answers. It is carefully done.

The book’s title is an interesting one: Profanes. This word—and what it means in the context of the novel—has a double meaning. As in English, profane describes something that is outside the realm of religion (opposite to sacred). But here it is being used as in a person who is uninitiated to something. You can say in French, un profane en philosophie, meaning that you haven’t studied it, know nothing of the subject, have not yet experienced it. I am fascinated by this title because within the context of the story, it essentially refers to the idea of being un profane de la mort, a person who does not yet know death. And Benameur plays with this idea (while brushing up against its other meaning of religious/nonreligious) again and again—confirming it, rejecting it, subverting it.

Finally, there is a lot of poetry in Profanes. Lassalle is a great admirer of Haiku and he attributes one of his favorite verses to each of the people who come to the house. These verses change sometimes, or become images that Benameur plays with as we learn more about each character. One of my favorite passages about the meaning and importance of poetry is here:

A l’intérieur de lui, une terre arasée. Il a besoin de poésie, c’est tout. Il a besoin à nouveau du calme des haïkus. Tout ce blanc entre les mots, tout ce vide qu’on ne comblera jamais. Et puis un mot, un seul, et le monde qui bat, fragile, éphémère, tenu par un seul mot.

I’ve made two different translations of these lines—one that plays with the rhythm of the words in English and a couple word choices. I can’t decide between the two.

Within him, a flattened terrain. He needs poetry, that’s all. He needs again the calm of a haiku. All that white space between the words, all that emptiness that can never be filled. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

A razed landscape inside of him. What he needs is poetry. What he needs now is the calm of a haiku. All that whitespace between the words, all that emptiness that can never be made full. And then a word, a single word, and the beating, fragile, ephemeral world, held by a single word.

I’m not happy with the word order of that last sentence – putting all the adjectives together isn’t as pretty as the French original, but to keep it more literal (and the world that beats) doesn’t show that the “bat” here is like wingbeats or heartbeats. So I fear I’d have to do something like: …and the beating world—fragile and ephemeral—held by a single word. Maybe that’s the best solution.

Benameur is a new discovery for me (and I can’t see that any of her work has been translated into English) and I’m eager to read more.

I read Ingrid Winterbach’s To Hell With Cronjé (Open Letter Books, 2010) at some point over the end-of-year holidays, staying up late to finish it despite the ongoing problems I am having with my eyes (a frustrating kind of eye fatigue). I bring this up only because the book is printed in a lovely but very small typeface called Bembo that, while pretty, made me want to throw the book across the room on several occasions as I squinted in the light of my reading lamp and rubbed at my smarting eyelids.

Eyes are very important to this book, or rather, “seeing” is important. There is a lot of scanning the landscape, watching other people to guess at their decisions and motives, studying the natural world, examining faces, being a witness to both words and acts, and even—in one special instance—the experience of a ghostly vision, a visitation.

Even the narrative perspective that Winterbach uses becomes a kind of “seeing.” The story is told through a close focus on one character, Reitz—he is the only man whose thoughts we are given. But he is watching the others so closely it often feels like an omniscient perspective. What Reitz notices and evaluates and worries at, so the reader does too.

To Hell With Cronjé is a historical novel set during the Boer War in South Africa. While the book is very much about this moment in history, I found myself much more drawn to the elements of the novel that spoke far beyond this particular setting and time. Not that I wasn’t curious to learn about it, but I think the success of the book is particularly related to how much the story operates outside its historical anchor. It is a book of wandering and of friendship forged in war, a book of longing, of fragile and fleeting connections. It is about the dangerous tension between belief and knowledge, and how people navigate that tension when they stand at opposite ends of that spectrum.

While reading To Hell With Cronjé, I found myself thinking often of Cormac McCarthy. The journey that Winterbach lays out for her two main characters—Reitz and Ben—felt very similar to the one experienced by McCarthy’s young hero in All the Pretty Horses. This comes, I think, from the juxtaposition of human-centered violence with a deep study of natural beauty and solitary thought. In many ways the book felt very masculine (perhaps I only noticed this because Winterbach is a woman?), and I know this comes from its focus on war, and on these men living out in the camps and in nature. So I am curious to read her other novels—only one other is translated into English, The Book of Happenstance—to see if she repeats this aesthetic or does something else entirely.

I haven’t said much about the story itself: the basic premise is that Reitz and Ben (and two other soldiers) leave their commando unit in order to return a traumatized young soldier to his mother. These men, some more consciously than others, are flirting with desertion. They end up getting picked up/captured by another commando unit, a band of wounded men and misfits left to survey a small area, and are in danger of being killed for having left their unit. They must prove (to the others and themselves) that they were not deserting.

Behind all of this are the little stories that make the book into such a quietly intense read: the war tales the men share around the campfire at night, Reitz’s attempts to commune with the ghost of his dead wife, Ben and Reitz’s scientific studies of the natural world, the power relationships between the men, the lack/loss of women because of the war, the variations and struggles with racism… the list goes on – with everything interconnected and related. It is neatly done.

Perhaps what I loved best about the book (and how it differed the most from, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel) was how it resisted any grand heroics and how quietly it resolved itself. Its resolution is not neat, nor was it without very serious complications. But it is very human. It asks the reader to be satisfied with something rather messy and a situation that feels both fitting but also quite sad. On top of all of this, the last line is pure genius.

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My review of the Icelandic novel The Greenhouse (by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is published this week at Necessary Fiction. This was an intriguing book – the kind of writing and story that grows on you as you work through its pages and story. By the end, I loved it. Here is a little of what I had to say about it:

As signaled to the reader in the very first pages when Lobbi and his father, in the midst of preparing his farewell dinner, go back and forth about his leaving, about his accidental fatherhood and what it means to be going away from his child and the child’s mother, and with the subtext of Lobbi’s mother’s death between them at every moment, the biggest question in The Greenhouse revolves around the possibility of meaning in coincidence:

Dad doesn’t believe in coincidences, or at least not when it comes to major events in life such as birth and death. A life doesn’t start or end out of pure chance, he says. […] Dad looks on these things differently; the world is a cluster of numbers that hang together, making up the innermost core of creation, and the interpretation of dates can yield profound truths and beauty.

Words like coincidence and accident fill the book, as do the possible examples of each: Lobbi’s mother dies in a car accident, Lobbi’s child is conceived accidentally after a party, and even the least important story, of Lobbi’s damaged twin brother, gently re-phrases this same question of the coincidence or destiny of someone’s birth.

Interestingly, Ólafsdóttir works these questions through the narrative while keeping the reader in the shadow of the monastery. There are no overt religious discussions—no direct wondering at God’s hand in all these accidents—but instead there is place, there is the infrequent glimpse of a monk in his robes, there are moments of wonder inside a church.

You can read the rest of my review of The Greenhouse here.

Ólafsdóttir has a more recent book out in English translation, Butterflies in November, (this time with Pushkin Press), that sounds very good as well.

Thinking about it, she might be the first Icelandic author that I’ve read – is that possible? It seems I should have read something Icelandic somewhere along the way… There were a few things I wanted to write in my review about how the language felt, but without having read more examples of Icelandic in English translation, I didn’t feel confident making any real statements.  Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that I would like to read Sjón, since so many people whose reading tastes I trust have spoken so highly of his work. But who else should I be adding to my list?

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.

MBJ: 1929

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.

MBJ: Yes.

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!

MGJ: Yes!

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.