‘Revenge of the Translator’ by Brice Matthieussent (Review)

Regular readers will be aware of my preference for fiction in translation, and the subject of today’s post is no exception in that regard.  However, this is a book taking an even closer look at the art of the translator, and examining what happens when the literal approach gives way to something a little more radical.  You see, translators, hard-working people all, are usually forced to work within the constraints imposed by the author of the source text – but what would happen if they decided to slip out of these shackles and go a little off-piste?

You’re about to find out 😉

Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator (translated by Emma Ramadan, review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing) features a translator called Trad. (short for traducteur, the French word for translator) working on the American novel Translator’s Revenge.  This work features an American translator, David Grey, and the issues he faces when working on a French novel, N.d.T., by the enigmatic French writer Abel Prote.  Grey gets involved with Prote’s beautiful secretary (and lover), Doris, and this is the catalyst for a chain of events in which the poor translator must pit his wits against the sadistic author.

Except that our friend Trad. doesn’t think much of the novel, and in a fairly major break with convention, he decides to rewrite it, letting us in on the plan.  Tired of being confined to brief explanatory notes below the line separating the translator’s comments from the real text, he decides that enough’s enough and rebels, cutting, adding and generally doing whatever he wants with the book.  It’s when he takes the final step, though, and soars above the line that the confusion really starts, with his work now taking on a life of its own.

According to his Wikipedia page, Matthieussent is a prolific and well-renowned translator, with over two-hundred works translated from French to English to his name.  Bret Easton Ellis is the most familiar name there, to me, at least, but if you sneak a peek at the French version, you can also find a couple of books by the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, and even a Hitomi Kanehara novel brought into French from the English translation.  It’s little surprise, then, that his first novel features translation so heavily, and makes the translator, often languishing in the shadows, the star of the show.

From the start, Trad.’s voice is prominent, warning us that this will be no ordinary text:

* I reside here below this thin black bar.  This is my place, my living room, my den.  The walls are painted white and covered with several lines of thick black characters, like an uneven frieze, a changing wallpaper.  Welcome to you, dear reader, who has crossed the threshold of my lair.  It’s not quite as spacious as that of my upstairs neighbour, but in his absence I welcome his visitors who have been rerouted by his inexplicable desertion.  I know it’s him that you came to see, and you’ve stumbled upon me instead.  You will have to make do.
p.3 (Deep Vellum, 2018)

Led to his lair by the asterisks above the line, the reader is now at his mercy, having to sit through his many complaints, resigned to following the agenda of an embittered factotum.  However, in this particular work, the decision has been taken to leave the back seat behind, with our bitter friend ready to make changes and insert more of himself into the story.

The beauty of Revenge of the Translator is the interplay between Trad.’s story and the ‘real’ novel.  Where the first chapters are merely an excuse for our shadowy narrator’s laments, these acidic comments on the uneasy relationship between the author and the translator gradually blend into an actual story, as Trad. temporarily cedes the stage to his fictional counterpart.  This is skilfully done, with the translator seamlessly pulling us into the narrative, before suddenly yanking us back out with one of his many footnotes, each labelled differently (a series of puns on the usual ‘Translator’s Note’).

Eventually, then, we learn more about Translator’s Revenge itself, a clever satire on American pulp novels.  It features the almost cartoonishly evil Prote, the handsome (but slightly dim) hero Grey and, of course, Doris, the femme fatale who is seemingly a step ahead of everyone else, including (surprisingly) the translator.  There are twists aplenty, not least of which are the many meta-fictional aspects, such as the mention of Prote’s earlier novel, Fragments épars (Scattered Figments), a book that isn’t exactly what it seems.

Revenge of the Translator is a clever, intriguing book, and entertaining for the most part, even if the liberties Trad. takes with his work may just confirm many readers’ fears about translation:

…and violently I throw a large part of my cargo to the roadside and it crashes there with a roar, in order to transport to safe harbor a few paltry residues, scraps, trash, mismatched specimens, delivering them haphazardly to the mercy of my readers who are frustrated or naïve, in any event duped, tricked, for they are unaware of all the perils of the voyage and the risks of the trade. (p.27)

Caveat lector, indeed!  It’s not always perfect, though.  I’d say that it’s probably a little long for what it is, with the middle sections dragging a little, and when the story is played straight, with Trad. knocking out his version of Translator’s Revenge, it’s at its weakest.  Here we are witness to the games Prote plays with David and Doris, some gratuitous sex scenes and several childish puns on ‘secret passage’ that get old fairly quickly.

However, the more Trad. is involved, the more interesting the book becomes.  His frustrations culminate in the moment when he takes a leap of faith, freeing himself from his prison below the line, and having read the novel, knowing what happens, he is now the puppet-master and can control the other characters – except that he must also live with the consequences of what he’s been doing.  This is particularly true in the case of Doris, where his earlier work on her character has had unexpected results.  In many ways she has become the epitome of the translated text, not a mere copy, but an entity of its own, which means that there’ll be a few surprises in store, even for the supposedly all-powerful translator.

A book like this demands that the reviewer mention the translator, and Ramadan’s work is excellent.  Of course, she’s no stranger to unusual literary constraints (c.f. her work on Anne Garréta’s Sphinx), but there’s a lot to keep tabs on here.  That includes the meta-fictional elements, the similar-sounding books and the distinction between the writer-as-writer and writer-as-character, not to mention all the clever titles for the translator’s notes.  No, she’s certainly done sterling work in sticking faithfully to such a confused, confusing text…

…or has she?  I have to say that I’m beginning to have my doubts.  Matthieussent is a rather odd name (another Abel Prote?), and two-hundred translated novels sounds a tad exaggerated.  Hmm. Let’s face it, anybody can knock up a Wikipedia page these days, faking a few web-pages along the way for extra authenticity.  What if this is all a huge con, and Ramadan has been stringing us along the whole time?  Never mind flights between Paris and New York to consult the writer – if I were Trad., I think a trip to Rhode Island would be in order…

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