« Translating from one writing to another »

Interview with Jean-Pierre Richard, by Taina Tervonen

February 2003
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In the biography of Jean-Pierre Richard – literary translator since 1982 and head of the DESS degree in professional literary translation at Paris VII University – William Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Rudyard Kipling rub shoulders with Alex La Guma, Njabulo Ndebele and Chenjerai Hove. African literature is his « subject of predilection », his « secret garden ». And a flourishing garden at that since he has translated close to 30 African authors, including Adam Shafi Adam, who writes in Swahili. Jean-Pierre Richard is also the translator of numerous black American writers, including John Edgar Wideman. « African literature is translation’s poor relation », he says, insisting that his references in African literature do not open publishers’ doors.

How has translation evolved over the past twenty years?
There have been some changes. I can see it in my own work. Fifteen to twenty years ago, I was prepared to embellish my translations a little. Then I attended a discussion between Ismaël Kadaré and his translator at the Assises de la traduction littéraire conference in Arles. Kadaré explained the how the rustic syntax that he used as an Albanese mountain man worked. It was completely opposed to the « elegant » French style. It was like a kind of awakening for me. Since then I have tried to respect the original text as much as possible, even if this is very disturbing in French.
Some academics talk about the need to « Africanise the discourse » in the target language. How do you operate? Do you try and find references in the works of French-speaking African authors?
I try to assess the relationship between the original text and its audience – its readers. These texts are examples of African writing, that’s true, but they’re also profoundly original – each writing style is distinctly unique. I read African authors because I find they all have a particular approach to language, a certain flamboyancy. But I also find this with American authors, and authors from some other parts of the world. There is a part created by Africanity and a part that is belongs solely to the writer, and trying to distinguish the group and the individual isn’t always easy.
Concretely, how do you assess a text’s relationship with its audience?
In Chenjerai Hove’s case, this meant asking, « Is this English, or Shona, or a translation from Shona? » I had to identify the original text. In my opinion, Hove’s writing is neither the English commonly spoken in Zimbabwe, nor is it Shona translated into English. It’s his writing and it’s unique.
What I find absolutely fascinating about him is his desire to mix the two languages and to write from somewhere between the two, in a space where anything can happen – where anything’s possible. Then the translation doesn’t contain a single accepted idiom, from Africa or elsewhere. It’s a matter of creation, which leaves me more room to move. I think it’s easier to translate this kind of singular writing than to translate something like Pidgin English, for example.
So, you consider yourself a re-creator of the work in a different language.
Yes, it’s creation. I have to find an equivalent dynamic in the target language for Hove’s language, an equivalent that produces the same effect. It’s not a translation from one language to another, but rather from one writing to another.
How you do find this writing – by intuition or by some more analytical method?
Both. There are areas for which instinct (I would tend to say habit) means that the translation senses how to follow the direction of the sentence, like a driver follows a curve in the road. Whether you’re translating Hove or Shakespeare, it’s this movement that you translate. Sometimes you need to perform deeper analyses, like when you’re choosing tenses. This was the case for Hove’s latest novel, Ancestors, which starts by describing a birth that is repeated later in the text. I wondered what the opening scene could have been a repetition of and it occurred to me that it was probably the beginning of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The first text was the repetition of a founding myth, but it was hollow, in the negative. This analysis led me to chose a tense other than that which I would instinctively have chosen. Rather than the passé simple [past perfect]to show narrative in the past, I used a plus-que-parfait [past pluperfect], which had a mythical dimension.
I never imagined this process of analysis when I was reading the text! The reader always has the illusion of the original when reading the translation.
That’s also the aim of translation – to have the reader adhere to what’s proposed, that their imagination works from the proposed metaphors.
How do you get the reader to accept your transmission of a writing that is between two worlds and that could be disturbing?
I try to bring out the writing’s more provocative, gruff characteristics in the French. We introduce « foreignness into the language », to destabilise « words » that are too pure « from the tribe ». We try to disconcert the reader, to disorient them. This also provides an indication of the origin – it comes from somewhere else, let’s take this foreignness into our own language. My wish, and I think it’s also Hove’s wish, is to create possibility. As he himself says, literature explores possibilities. This is also a political and philosophical vision of things, not simply an aesthetical choice. Hove’s commitment can also be seen in his way of situating himself in relation to language – his writing is neither Shona nor English but somewhere else. I try to situate the French elsewhere as well.
I have the same problem with African American writing. Some translators translate the language of the American ghettos by the language of the poor French suburbs and you feel like you’re in the suburbs of Marseille. The original references are completely lost. The problem is recreating a ghetto French rather than standard French – but that is not the language of an existing French ghetto. Finding expressions that never refer to a specifically French context.
What was the most difficult element in Hove’s texts to get across in French?
The foreign rhythm, as always. Respecting repetition, which is far less acceptable in French than in English. In Hove’s writing, there is even more repetition than there is normally in English. I had to transfer this saturation of the text into French. Sometimes I transposed the text word for word, sometimes I modulated it – the objective being at all times to recreate the original effect of the repetition, even if I had to use other means.
At the beginning of our interview you mentioned the temptation to embellish the text. Are you still tempted to do this?
Not any more, but I have been, especially for Adam Shafi Adam’s novel. There was a temptation to render the text more commonplace, to flatten it, to normalise it – to not be daring enough, to be afraid of the foreignness. Translation was for a long time very normative.
Are publishers also afraid of foreignness?
Some are afraid that a lack of readability might scare off their readership. And yet, readers have matured a lot over the past 20 years. Texts from distant cultures have been well accepted and French has been torn apart and renewed by French-speaking authors. Creole identity has also had a part to play in this.
Where African literature is concerned, some academics have a tendency to consider the original text as a translation.
This vision is a little mechanistic. The author should really answer this question. Personally, I see the finished product, which is an English that is far from standard or canonical, which is probably to a certain extent African but which is above all the English of Hove, inlaid with languages that are not necessarily Shona and which are not translated. I wonder if all Zimbabwean readers know those words, or whether he uses them to create an effect of foreignness within his English texts, for English-speaking readers.
Do any translation theories currently take this multiplicity of languages in African or post-colonial works into account?
Yes. There is a lot of talk about the « carnavalisation » of English. Post-colonial literary theory is also used in translation – particularly in Great Britain – due to the contribution of Indian academics. Some Brazilian theorists talk about « anthropophagi »: translators very often slip snippets of Brasilian literature into texts from other cultural zones. It’s a way of placing the foreignness at the centre of the text. Susan Basnett, for example, is working on these issues. She demonstrates how translation and fictional writing are linked in some countries. The translator doesn’t hesitate to transform the text he is given and make it his own object, his own creation. We haven’t got to this point in France – would French publishers accept this? I have sometimes slipped echoes of Rimbaud into Hove’s texts … I find that some of the imagery is the same.

Short bibliography by J.P. Richard :
« La littérature africaine d’expression anglaise en traduction française ». Special report, TransLITTERATURE 2 (December 1991) : 5-41. [Journal for ATLAS and the Association des Traducteurs littéraires de France, 99 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 – Paris]
BASNETT, Susan and TRIVEDI, Harish, eds., POST-COLONIAL TRANSLATION (THEORY and PRACTICE). Londres and New York : Routledge, 1999, 201p. ISBN 0-415-14745-X


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