A GOOD DEAL of the world’s greatest writers owe a substantial debt to their translators. Clarice Lispector’s Anglophone recognition relies on the work of Katrina Dodson, Alison Entrekin, Idra Novey, Giovanni Pontiero, and Magdalena Edwards. García Márquez might be virtually unknown outside Latin America if it weren’t for Gregory Rabassa. And what’s more, many influential authors — Hölderlin, Stefan George, Nabokov — are remembered as much for their translations as they are for their original work.
Translation, after all, entails its own set of artistic demands. Defined by both fidelity and freedom, it must offer transparency while remaining a touch inaccessible and foreign. “The task of the translator,” as it were, is rooted in creative limitation-as-inclination, in a need not only to communicate what escapes language but also to communicate it artfully.
But what if a translator judges the original text to be artistically inadequate? What if he argues that its narrative trails are begging for stronger connections, that its story exhibits glaring archetypal deficiencies, that its author is much too pretentious?
The narrator of Brice Matthieussent’s Revenge of the Translator — “Trad” (short for Traducteur) — is just such a translator. Driven by egotism and libidinal fantasies, his translation of a novel from English into French spirals into an outright distortion of its original text. Not only do his efforts pervert the story, they also devolve into a Frankensteinian confrontation with the very characters he conjures up.
Awarded the Prix du Style upon its original French publication in 2009, Revenge has made its English debut thanks to Emma Ramadan, who is best known for her highly acclaimed 2015 translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. But while Sphinx is the literary equivalent of an art-house film, Revenge is a big-budget action feature. Its pulsating pyrotechnic narrative, though hard to keep up with at times, delivers an array of amusing twists and turns.
The story begins in the footnotes of a novel-in-translation titled Translator’s Revenge, whose progression we can only decipher through our narrator Trad’s commentary. This setup gives way to profound confusions that spawn countless others. We learn, for example, that this novel-in-translation is itself about a translator, named David Grey, who is translating a novel titled (N.d.T.) — the abbreviation for Note du traducteur, or “translator’s note” — from French into English.
To be clear, what readers encounter in Revenge of the Translator is a corrupted version of Translator’s Revenge that uses its existing characters. The distinctions between the untouched and reimagined narratives are blurred from the get-go, as Trad literally raises the bar that separates his footnotes from the original text, usurping the latter’s place on the page. This initial incursion triggers a chain of vengeful acts within the text itself. The first occurs after David receives a request from his French writer, Abel Prote, to update the geography of (N.d.T.) from Paris to New York. It’s a “minimal adaptation,” Prote assures him, that “merely” entails the changing of street names and accounting for the distances that characters travel, the Americanization of locales such as supermarkets and banks, and the adaptation of “recipes and restaurant menus, the jargon of taxi drivers, and other minor details.” “Traduttore, traditore!” the Italians might accuse: “Translator, traitor.”
That David is given carte blanche to alter the text’s cultural backdrop poses an interesting question: just how inextricable are culture and language? But David couldn’t care less. To free himself from such a tedious task, he installs a virus on Prote’s computer that causes sporadic suppressions of words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs from (N.d.T.). Subsequently, Prote seeks revenge against David, and a mutual distrust develops.
From afar, Prote lures David into a tunnel beneath his Parisian maisonette, where he discovers a secret passage from Prote’s novel. Soon after, Doris, Prote’s secretary, reveals her affair with David. The two team up against Prote and are constantly on the defense against his apparent omnipresence.
Time and space quickly merge. Characters are in two places at the same time and even begin to cross metafictional lines between the three — or is it four? — different novels. David becomes a character in (N.d.T.) and must expose himself as the text’s treasonous translator. Discovering that David and Doris are not just fictional characters in the novel he’s translating but his actual contemporaries, Trad helps them escape from Prote. The various levels of narrative fuse together, and, in turn, reality dissolves entirely.
If there’s an underlying theme amid this chaos, it’s perhaps the persistence of the literary libido — or the “erotic implications” of translation, as Prote sees it. In fact, a great deal of the story’s action involves sexual relations between Doris and her pursuers — first Prote, then David, and then, finally, our narrator Trad — all lewdly described in detail by Doris herself: “[Y]our penis gets wet, I lead you inside my port again […] my secret cupboard upholstered in violet velvet […] see the thickets still soaked with rain at the edges of me […] stained with sperm, oh yes, like that, keep going like that.”
Afforded a cramped amount of minute details, these scenes speak volumes about our male figures’ relentless machismo. And of course they are all refracted through the prism of our translator’s contorted imagination.
But there’s a Freudian tinge to all this pornographic profusion. David vindictively lusts after Doris because she’s the secretary to the author of the original text. It’s David’s way of refusing artistic submission to Prote. As the paternal originator of (N.d.T.), Prote — his name evokes the Greek protos, meaning first — is the novel’s de facto father. On the other hand, the “father” of Trad’s text is absent from the narrative. We never encounter the person responsible for the totality of Revenge’s drama. His hand remains far out of sight, at the “origin of languages,” like that of the God in Derrida’s “Des tours de Babel” who damns humanity to linguistic confusion as punishment for the theft of his name.
As Prote deftly stalks David and Doris, it becomes clear that bitterness drives the plot forward. He sends them letters and videos, he ransacks David’s New York apartment, and he even sets up traps in his bathroom. A French theory fanatic may be dismayed by such privileging of entertainment over intellectualism, but the approach discloses some brutal truths about the human — or rather, male — psyche. Early on, Trad remarks on the alluring symmetry between the asterisks above and below the text’s footnote-barrier. It allows him to envision his voice within the novel’s actual story through a literary evocation of Lacan’s mirror stage. But Prote’s taunting of David reminds us of the translator’s requisite restrictions: “Here you are, as in a mirror, confronted with your own face, masked but designed for another, the author, me.”
References to canonical figures deepen the story’s erudite hue. The name of Prote’s father’s mistress summons Nabokov’s Lolita. Works by Hugo, Joyce, and E. T. A. Hoffman are mentioned. And Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts four women laughing at a masked doll they blanket-toss into the air, reappears throughout as an allegory for female domination — such as Doris’s — of men.
As the only female lead, Doris is the ensemble’s most enigmatic cast member. Although she and David are characters in Translator’s Revenge, they eventually meet Trad, the text’s “real-life” translator, who is able to foretell David’s fate but not Doris’s — and, in that respect, she wields power over him. Even then, it’s unclear if she triumphs over her suitors’ lascivious whims. How much of Matthieussent’s own fantasy life seeps into the tale? Does Doris subvert or reinforce the femme-fatale archetype? We don’t know, perhaps because our narrator doesn’t care.
But the novel’s execution makes up for much of its seemingly false promises. For readers intimately familiar with French literature, Matthieussent’s style falls markedly closer to that of Perec on a spectrum that stretches to Proustian floridity. The French author, who’s translated many English-language novels, such as Less Than Zero, into French, boasts a meticulous but pragmatic approach, and Ramadan remains faithful to his clarity.
The translation gets most amusing in Ramadan’s renditions of the endless puns that cap the ends of Trad’s footnotes. Pote du Traducteur, a riff on Note du Traducteur that means “translator’s buddy,” becomes “Translator’s Rote,” while Non de Trébucheur is rendered as “Translator’s No.” These details, while subtle, are at the core of why translation can be so exacting, since it requires sacrifices of meaning to maintain the play of wit in the target language.
Even more amusing is how Ramadan takes on the voice of our masculine narrator and willfully reproduces the text’s rampant chauvinism. At the time of the English publication of Sphinx, a love story about two genderless characters, Americans were debating the legalization of same-sex marriage. The English-language release of Revenge is no less timely in a country openly talking about sexual harassment within creative industries where divisions of power are often gendered.
More to the point, the English translation asks us to reassess cultural progress. It relays to an American readership marked by its own psychosexual baggage a work written by a Frenchman 40 years Ramadan’s senior, although, to be sure, not many of the text’s gendered tropes will seem foreign or outré. But coming from a woman, the translation constitutes a barefaced gesture of subversion. As Derrida reminds us in “Des tours de Babel,” the task of the translator is addressed to the traducteur and never the traductrice. Perhaps Ramadan’s translation is her own form of revenge against a discourse that, riddled with sexism, has little concern for not only the female writer but the female reader, as well.
By the end of Revenge, Trad’s rework becomes its own distinct novel set to be translated into English. Here, Ramadan seizes the opportunity to insert herself directly into the text. Trad mentions that he fears that his American translator, “this Emma Ramadan,” will “be like me, that she will not remain humble, enthusiastic and zealous, modest and rigorous.” And sure enough, this very insertion signals that this will indeed be the case. She will partake in a practice traditionally reserved for men and toy with the linguistic power her task affords her.
But could even this power be emanating from the work of another writer? Perhaps Ramadan, too, is a character in a more expansive novel. And perhaps we readers are puppets in an even greater work whose author will never reveal him- or herself. Even so, perhaps at least some problems plaguing literature can be tackled from within this endless set of metaphysical nesting dolls.
For Ramadan, those problems involve deep-seated assumptions about sex and gender as well as the distinction between writing and performance. In her appropriation of the voice of our rapacious male narrator, she transforms the text’s dramaturge into its principal actor — and in her own image, no less. Refusing to settle for reverence, Ramadan opts for unabashed provocation, uprooting the text from its cultural stasis and holding it up to the piercing scrutiny of today’s most inflammatory concerns. It’s a work that amounts to a critical reinvention that aspires not to a spot among the translated literary canon, but to the unraveling of the very standards by which that canon is praised.