We are delighted to release an interview with Jody Gladding, translator (with Elizabeth Deshays) of Pierre Michon’s Rimbaud the Son, now available through the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. In the interview, Gladding discusses Michon’s groundbreaking book and addresses questions of translation.
Yale University Press: Although Rimbaud the Son is something approaching a biography of Rimbaud, much of the book seems to assume that the reader already knows a fair amount about his life. For example, pages after Verlaine’s introduction, Michon begins a sentence with, “It is also said—to explain the herring and the six-shooter…” Who is the audience for this book? Do you think that sentence requires the reader to already know the story of Verlaine’s shooting Rimbaud, or is there a kind of surreal delight in reading a sentence that begins this way without preparation?
Jody Gladding: There may be a kind of surreal delight in coming upon that sentence unprepared, but I think there’s greater delight in recognizing the reference, even if only faintly The best audience for this book would be those readers as intrigued with Rimbaud’s myth as Michon is, although the writing is so beautiful, I think anyone who appreciates virtuosic prose, Rimbaud enthusiast or not, would enjoy it.
YUP: In your introduction, you say that a “Michon sentence is an architectural feat,” made of stacks of phrases that are set to topple if a single semicolon is out of place. He also seems to create his own language of metaphor which the reader must learn to understand the work—an example that comes to mind is his use of June to represent some kind of poetic beauty or authenticity. What effect does his writing style have on you, and do you think it has an increasingly small place in the literary world?
JG: By calling Michon’s sentences “architectural feats,” I mean that he constructs them with incredible skill, and their intricacies become even more apparent–and awe-inspiring–when, as a translator, I try to tamper with them. Michon’s writing is dense and poetic and I think it will always have a select, passionate audience, even more so among English readers than French ones. Personally, I find his prose really gratifying to translate. This is the third Michon book I’ve translated with my good friend Elizabeth Deshays and, since I’m also a poet, it was an especially enjoyable experience.
YUP: Rimbaud and Michon both grew up in rural communes speaking something close to a patois. They both loved Victor Hugo, and both had sisters who died as infants and fathers who left when they were young children. How do these parallel childhoods shape the way Michon writes about Rimbaud? Do you think Rimbaud the Son is unique among Michon’s work because of this relationship?
JG: Yes, there’s definitely an autobiographical strain running through Rimbaud…. The absent father, the smothering mother, the backwater upbringing and how they shape the artist: these are Michon’s recurring themes. The author’s own experiences, obsessions, and aspirations inform his fictions, and to my mind, bring them to life. Rimbaud… is no exception.
YUP: You write in your introduction that Michon’s “imagination is visual,” that he sees Rimbaud’s life through photographs. For example, the penultimate chapter of Rimbaud the Son is devoted to describing a single photograph of Rimbaud in intense and emotional detail. Was the visual and dramatic nature of the text a particular challenge of the translation?
JG: In fact, Michon’s attention to photographs throughout was a great aid in translating. The images of Rimbaud that Michon draws upon, especially the iconic photograph of him with the crooked tie, are all easily available. So we could view the photos in conjunction with the French text and come up with a more precise translation. I love the visual imagination at work in Rimbaud….
YUP: I noticed while comparing the translation of Rimbaud the Son to the French how carefully you have preserved the original writing, down to the sentence structure. In your opinion, which is more important: avoiding the risk of reminding the reader that they are reading a translation, or creating the illusion of an untranslated work?
JG: I think the best translations constantly remind readers that they are in the presense of the unfamiliar, expressed in languages not their own. I think it’s very important that readers, especially US readers, are mindful that they’re reading translations. Whatever discomfort or resistance such reading experiences prompt can be transformative, and can begin to open whole new worlds.
YUP: Only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations, and the number is even smaller for literary works. What do you think is the future of translation, and translation into English?
JG: With some newer publishers specializing in translation, like Archipelago Books, and university presses creating translation series, like Yale’s Margellos Series, the future of translation looks brighter. That figure of 3% is abysmal when you compare it to European publishing: in Germany, 8% of all books published are translations, in France, 14%. For literary presses, the numbers are even higher: 40% of all novels published in France are translated from English. By making the works of major writers like Michon available to US and UK readers, publishers like Yale UP are helping to correct that imbalance. Their contribution to literary culture is invaluable.