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Patrick Modiano’s ‘Suspended Sentences’ is not lost in translation


Translating someone’s work is an enormous responsibility, requiring an exceptional grasp of language and sensitivity to the way a writer intended to express themselves. Mark Polizzotti’s translation of three of Patrick Modiano’s novellas, brought together under the umbrella of Suspended Sentences, is a case study of a translator getting right to the heart of the author’s text.

Suspended Sentences is an interesting book because on the surface it seems to be a fairly straightforward story, but a close reading reveals so much more. It has an intriguing structure and I am sure, as a translator, this is something that is very important for you to identify.

In any translation, no matter how straightforward or complex the original might appear on the surface, I always try to put myself into the mind-set of the author and look behind the text. My ideal is to recreate the text as if it had originally been written in English. This means trying to absorb the author’s sensibility and putting myself into what he or she is trying to say, which involves internalizing the structure, plot, characterisation, syntax, rhythm – all the elements that go into the creation of a text. I try to figure out how the text was generated in order to reconstruct it in a different idiom. I look for elements that are culturally or linguistically conditioned, so that I can recreate them in a way that’s understandable to someone reading from a different cultural and linguistic context. To some extent, of course, that’s impossible: given that languages are culturally and historically determined, no one language works the same way as another. So what one is really aiming for is a convincing approximation.

Your introduction to the book certainly shows that you’ve had to read around Patrick Modiano’s writing and as you have just said, you try and get a feel for the author’s work and their background. How much work do you have to do before you go in and start to look at the text?

It depends on the book. In Modiano’s case, it so happened that I’d read several of his books already. In other cases, I’ve discovered the author with the translation project. But there’s almost always some research involved. In the old days, I would go to the library, or if I was working with a living author, send lists of questions by mail. These days much of that research can be done online, but it’s the same basic process. There was one author whose books I’d translated over a number of years, and I noticed that with each new book, I sent him fewer and fewer queries – because more and more, as online resources became more developed, I could answer them myself. I thought he’d appreciate not being pestered as much, but it turned out he’d enjoyed our epistolary question and answers and later told me he missed them.

In the case of Modiano, there are numerous references to French history, especially of the 1930s and 1940s. For example in several of his books he refers to the ‘Rue Lauriston gang’. Rue Lauriston was the address of the ‘Carlingue’, the French arm of the Gestapo during the Occupation. It was run by several criminals from the Paris underworld who had ingratiated themselves with the Nazis and did the Germans’ dirty work, from rounding up Jews for deportation to torturing captured Resistance members. They were murderers and thugs, mostly from poor backgrounds, but because they operated in a very select part of Paris – Rue Lauriston is in the 16th arrondissement, right off Place de l’Etoile – and enjoyed the luxury goods that others had abandoned in fleeing the country (fancy cars, fine wines, spacious apartments), they were accepted as members of high society – at least while the Occupation lasted. (Afterward, of course, they went into hiding, and many were executed.) Modiano never explains this in his books, but when he mentions that someone used to associate with the Rue Lauriston gang, as in the novella ‘Suspended Sentences,’ you can feel the taint of something shameful, something that, after the war, one wouldn’t want known. In that particular case, I learned what I needed partly through my own research and partly from the author.

To take another example, I recently translated a thriller in which the plot revolved around genetics and evolutionary theory, which required some scientific research in order to get the terminology right. To me, this is what makes the work interesting – you’re constantly learning.

Modiano’s writing would appear straightforward and the words relatively uncomplicated, but there is a noticeable rhythm to the flow of the prose. Is this something you picked up as you translated the work?

Absolutely. The rhythm is everything. When I say Modiano’s work is straightforward, I’m talking about the surface effect, but that’s only the surface. There’s great depth to his writing, and a beautiful, subtle music as well. People have expressed surprise at his winning the Nobel Prize. I understand their reaction: so many authors, including so many of the ones shortlisted for the Nobel, seem more overtly ‘relevant’. As if their books were constantly out there lobbying for the prize. Modiano is not like that. There’s a modesty to his writing, but at the same time what he’s saying is no less central to the human experience than what you’ll find in the work of other Nobel laureates or favourites. And for my money, he’s more enjoyable to read than most of them.

When people are first learning to write, they are told to write about what they know. Modiano seems to have done this and extended the concept in a way that has created a seamless join between fact and fiction. As you were translating could you pick out where this join was or were you only aware of it because of your background research?

He covers his tracks pretty well. It’s not easy to take a given event in his books and know whether it really happened or not. On the one hand, he frequently revisits certain episodes, suggesting that they were formative moments in his life; on the other, the story is rarely the same in each retelling – suggesting that while the broad lines are biographically true, the details have been rearranged for the purposes of a particular novel (which is what a writer does, after all). A fascinating book in this regard is Modiano’s memoir A Pedigree, which I’m now translating. When I first read it, while working on Suspended Sentences, I was surprised to see how closely some plot lines in the three novellas paralleled events in the memoir. For example, the house where he lived as a child, which provides the setting for the novella ‘Suspended Sentences’, was a real house, inhabited by real people who corresponded to the characters in the fictional book, and who committed a real crime – but, again, with differences of detail. And sometimes, certain characters recur as a leitmotif from one book to the next, but not necessarily in the same way. If you were to collate all the references over the totality of his writings, you wouldn’t necessarily get a consistent story.

I think the key, as Modiano says in the memoir, is that aside from his brother and his family, no one else is real to him. All the people he uses in his fiction are real people or facets of real people, but repurposed for the needs of the story. He uses them like notes of music, which can be recombined and reconfigured depending on the sonata. Which means that a character in one book may look very like a character from another book, even have the same name and description, but still might not entirely ‘match’ the version of that character from the other book. It’s very different from a novelist like Balzac, for instance, who created a great cast of characters that flit in and out of his oeuvre with greater or lesser degrees of prominence, but are always the same person.

The difference, as I read it, is that Balzac’s characters were real people to him, whereas for Modiano they’re more like attributes – a haircut, a smile, a name. And so when you, as reader, try to make sense of these different manifestations of an ‘Annie’, a ‘Roger Vincent’, you feel the ground pulling away from under you. Just like Modiano’s characters and just like his narrators, you’re never quite sure what’s really happening in these books, because you’re never sure what identity means. If there’s a central theme to his work, I would say that’s it: in various ways, he’s constantly questioning the fallibility of memory and identity, telling us that we can’t trust what we think we remember.

Of course, that leads back to the great historical moment with which he’s been identified, the Occupation. The same question applies: if an entire nation remembers, for a whole generation, that it had resisted the German presence, what does it mean when that collective memory is challenged and found wanting, as it was by the following generation – Modiano’s generation, and the generation of filmmakers like Marcel Ophüls and Louis Malle, the first generation to question what Mom and Dad really had done during the war?

His writing does leave you with a sense of feeling as if you’re an outsider and not quite knowing what’s going to happen and as, as you say, as if the ground is constantly shifting under you. It certain makes for an interesting reading experience.

For all the uncertainty shown by Modiano the narrator, I’m convinced that Modiano the writer knows exactly what he’s doing. All the vagueness that he manages to layer into his books creates an effect. It’s an effect created by the sentences, by their rhythm, by the fact that his narrative might shift abruptly from one topic to another, as if he were reminded of an association that he had to follow. You think you’re heading down one road and suddenly you find yourself going in a completely different direction.

The other thing is that he uses precision of detail to keep things vague, the way some people use politeness to keep you at a distance. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect: the more precise he is, the less you actually know. As someone who’s tried to follow in the books’ footsteps, I can attest that many of the places he describes so lovingly and so precisely simply can’t be found anymore, either because they no longer exist or because the lens through which he views them is so particularly his own. I was in Paris recently, having finished Suspended Sentences, and I thought I’d check out some of those out-of-the-way corners of the city that he writes about. I was especially curious because I’d lived in Paris for several years and was unfamiliar with many of them. I knew that some of these places were already gone (he often ends his evocation with something along the lines of, ‘But that was before they built the new opera house and this area was demolished’). But what I soon realised was that even those places that still do exist don’t look the way he makes you think they look. That he’s seeing these neighbourhoods as if it were decades in the past. Even when his books take place in the present day, or in the 1960s, when he was becoming a young adult, they always feel as if they’re happening during the 1940s. They have the feel of a wartime movie. What’s curious is that very few of his novels actually take place during that period, but they all feel as if they do.

That is really interesting you say that because I had a real sense that the characters would not have been out of place in the film ‘Casablanca’.

Absolutely. When we were picking an image for the cover, one idea was to use a photo of a German soldier in Paris during the Occupation. This is not what these stories are about, but I understand the impulse. There’s such a strong atmosphere of that period, which is such a traumatic knot in French history, and a personal knot in Modiano’s history. That said, I think the misty street we ended up using says it perfectly: it has the old-Paris feel, but is also of no time in particular.

I would think, as a translator, you get very immersed the work because you have to examine it in close detail. This detailed way of reading has, according to people who read in a language that is not their own, had an influence on their own writing. Has this happened to you and how has this influence manifested in your own writing?

It’s a wonderful apprenticeship, because to translate effectively you have put yourself in the mental ‘shoes’ of the writer you’re translating. If one is lucky, as I’ve often been, one translates writers who write well. As far as I’m concerned, no form of reading is closer than the re-creative reading a translator has to perform. So when you’re working on a well-written book, it allows you to exercise your best skills as a manipulator of English. On the other hand, it can be enormously frustrating to work on something that’s badly written, riddled with clichés, poorly constructed sentences, awkward phrasings. You always want to make it better, and to some extent you can, but to a large extent you can’t without completely denaturing the original. It’s maddening.

That’s why translating someone like Modiano is pure pleasure, because I feel so much more comfortable inhabiting the verbal space he creates. I’d say the same of certain other writers I’ve had the good fortune to translate, like Jean Echenoz or Flaubert. The way they write makes visceral sense to me. It’s not that one can’t effectively translate a text with which one doesn’t instinctively connect – being a good chameleon is part of the job. But when I do have that connection, it feels so much more natural to ponder how the sentences would sound in English.

As far as my own writing is concerned, my work as both a translator and a book editor for over thirty years has taught me, first, the value of craft (which is a given) and, just as crucial, the importance of standing back from what I’m doing. I always try to keep in mind that, no matter how earth-shattering I might think my little bit of prose is, it needs to speak to someone else, to convince a potential reader that what I’m saying is interesting, and to remember that the reader will not simply take that interest for granted. You need to look at your own work as if through someone else’s eyes – before it actually gets to someone else’s eyes.

How long did it take to translate the three novellas of Suspended Sentences?

About six months, all told. Because I work full-time during the week, I translate mainly on weekends and evenings. I’ve learned to work on trains and planes, while sitting in airports and doctor’s waiting rooms, even standing in the subway if it isn’t too crowded (which is rare). By a strange quirk of memory, I can recall exactly where I was when I was working on certain scenes of a given book, what plane I was waiting to catch or who I was waiting to see. If I’m at home, I prefer to work directly on the computer, with the French text on one half of the screen and the English running parallel on the other; but when I’m out or in transit, I might just as easily write longhand on a steno pad, with the original balanced on my knee. You use the time you have. Of course, the best is having a full weekend ahead of you with nothing to do but sit at the laptop and translate – for me, that’s like being on vacation.

When you translate are you also like a writer in the sense that you must do more than one draft?

By the time I’ve finished correcting the last set of galleys, I’ll usually have gone through 10 or 15 drafts. The first draft is about getting as close an approximation as I can down on paper or screen, but it’s very awkward as English goes. Then the real work begins – continually smoothing the text out, draft by draft, stroke by stroke. Every single time, even when I think there can’t possibly be one word left to change, I’ll find something that could use a bit more polishing. And it never ends, not even when the book is published. I gave a reading last week, and as I was reading to the audience a little back part of my brain was going, ‘You could have done that word a little better. You might have changed that a little bit’. It sounds awful to admit, but I’m sure it’s a phenomenon that every translator – every writer – has experienced. Wasn’t it Leonardo Da Vinci who said ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’?

Is translating rather like putting a puzzle together?

Yes and no. Where I would hesitate about the puzzle analogy is that it reinforces the common notion that translation is about substituting one word for another – taking the French word and replacing it with an English word, simple as that. But it’s not as simple as that at all. If anything, the puzzle involves looking behind the writing, understanding what effect a sentence is trying to create, and then figuring out how to create that same effect in the target language.

I say ‘sentences’ and not ‘words’ intentionally: sometimes – surprisingly often – one has to be ‘unfaithful’ to the original words, veer off to the side of them, in order to create the desired effect on the sentence level. The question I always ask myself is, how would a French reader react to this passage, and how can I make an English-speaking reader react in the same way? – understanding that part of this reaction is based not only on the meaning of the words being used but also on their sound. Something might be screeching funny in French but fall flat in English, even if the meaning is preserved – simply because the given French word sounds funny and the English doesn’t. So at that point, if humour is the key element of that moment in the text, and if the driver of that humour is sound, then finding the right sonority becomes essential to preserving the greater effect, even if it means sacrificing a little of the meaning.

There’s a book that was published several decades ago, which I consider something of a Holy Grail of translation. It’s called Le Schizo et les Langues and it was written by Louis Wolfson, a New Yorker, who wrote it in French because he couldn’t abide the sound of English. In order not to be driven mad by the sounds around him, Wolfson taught himself French, Hebrew, Russian and German, then devised a peculiar system of simultaneous translation: whenever he heard an English sentence, he would recreate it by piecing together bits of words from those other four languages, to form a parallel sentence that had not only the same meaning as the offending English (more or less) but also the same sound. This allowed him to respond appropriately and without mental distress, by convincing himself that what he had really heard was a kind of gobbledegook – but a meaningful gobbledegook – composed of the four foreign languages. It’s an amazing book, and it gets to the heart of what translation is really about – inventing a gobbledegook that nonetheless makes sense. That’s the real puzzle.

That explains why some translations seem so clunky. Certainly in French there are some words that have an instant meaning for someone seeing them who understands French and yet if asked to translate that word it might take a whole sentence to convey the concept.

Or you have to think how to get round it and retain the economy of language. You’re right, some words work so much better in French, and yet a translator still has to find a way to render them in English. I think one of the great pitfalls is being too conscious of how the source language works; it can lead you down a very bad path. Of course you need to understand the French accurately, but I maintain that first and foremost you need to know your way around English. More than anything, a translator has to know how to manipulate the target language. If I don’t know what a French word means, I can always look it up, research its usage and connotations, ask a native speaker if I’m really stuck. But knowing every nuance of the French will not teach me how to craft a good English sentence. It might help me understand the effect I’m trying to convey, but without a feel for English expression, I won’t necessarily know how to convey it – which often results in that clunkiness you mentioned.

And again, sometimes it means having to weigh what needs to be retained against what has to be sacrificed. Sometimes the original has little nuances encoded in it that give the sentence a particular resonance, but that just don’t travel – so as a translator, you figure out how at least to convey 90 percent, or 80 percent. It’s not ideal by any stretch – and of course you try for 100 percent – but I think 90 percent is better than weighing the translation down with so many extra bits of information that it becomes leaden, more an academic crib than a piece of writing. Ultimately, if you’re translating literature, your goal is to create a work of literature in its own right, and it has to give pleasure. Otherwise, why should anyone care?


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