Friday, July 6, 2007

Yvain Dewaele on French and English books

I got an e-mail from YD, a reader in Rouen, and wrote back saying how much I liked the savage austerity of formal French prose, which has no equivalent in English — English texts show such a terrible anxiety to please. This, I thought, was why Beckett was drawn to writing in French. YD's English is very good, but I urged him to write in French if he preferred. He sent back a reply which I thought everyone would want to see -- except that, of course, all readers of the blog do not know French, and I am a very bad translator.

One thing this shows, of course, is why we do need e-books if fiction is to be everything it is capable of being. I have texts I have never bothered to try to publish, because they include a quotation from Vasari in Italian, from Spinoza in Latin, from Adorno in German -- and the texture of the piece depends on moving from one language to another. In an electronic medium it would be easy to let the reader either click on passages s/he did not understand to bring up a translation, or even to set the text from the start for English -- this is no different from what we do all the time with DVDs. That is quite different from having wall-to-wall English published as the official version. It's also quite different from cluttering up the text with translations every time another language is brought on the page -- if you do that you spoil the thing that made the text interesting in the first place.

One way to publish such a text, of course, would be in a blog like Wordpress, where translations could be included under the fold. It's a clunky workaround, but it does also mean images can be included. The good thing about these blogs with their prefab templates and features is that they bring out into the open constraints that operate on books without being visible: one can see the extent to which formal possibilities are opened up or closed off by technical decisions made off-stage. Books don't lay bare the things they make it impossible for us to do.

After YD wrote back about French and English books he then wrote another e-mail about Serbian writers. I don't know Serbian writers at all, and I felt even more that readers of the blog should see this, while being even more conscious that non-francophone readers of the blog would be even more at sea.

Several readers have proposed ways of introducing code to Blogger so that posts can be continued on a separate page, and I have done nothing whatseover about it. So I am going for the clunky workaround: the first paragraph of each of these wonderful e-mails is posted here, and the whole text posted on the sister blog,

YD writes:

Oui, la France a ses bons cotés, particulièrement en ce qui concerne les librairies (même si, depuis que je me suis installé à Rouen avec mon ami, je n’arrive pas à trouver de travail dans ce secteur, ce qui me déprime grandement et me force à me reconvertir temporairement en vendeur de popcorn dans un cinéma…). Je suis d’accord avec vous sur l’austérité de la prose française classique, d’autant plus étonnante qu’elle se conjuguait bien souvent avec un sens de la description interminable. Je me rappele avoir lu “La peau de chagrin” de Balzac alors que je n’avais que onze ans et avoir été très impressioné par le fait que la plupart des phrases faisaient une vingtaine de lignes en moyenne, une ou deux pages pour certaines… Je ne savais pas à l’époque que la plupart des grands auteurs dit classiques écrivaient par épisodes pour les journeaux, et étaient donc payés à la ligne… Qu’auraient donné les flamboyantes descriptions de 50 pages des égouts de Paris par Victor Hugo dans les Misérables si les salaires d’écrivains de l’époque avaient été calculé autrement? C’est un mystère insondable, mais assez plaisant.

(the rest here)

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