We had the privilege of sitting down to talk with Mark Polizzotti, who, among other things, has recently translated a trio of novellas from Nobel Prize–winner Patrick Modiano, Suspended Sentences, which publishes today. In our conversation, we talk about Modiano, the Nobel Prize, the art of translation, and the joy of the written word.
Yale University Press: Patrick Modiano is not at all heavily translated on this side of the Atlantic. Were you surprised in learning of his Nobel Prize win?
Mark Polizzotti: Very surprised for about a nanosecond, and then thoroughly delighted—not only because of Suspended Sentences, though of course that was part of it, but because it recognizes and validates fiction such as Modiano’s, which doesn’t rely on grand effects to make some fundamental points about human existence and responsibility. The fact that the Swedish Academy should have settled on someone relatively unknown here isn’t that much of a surprise—a number of winners, including France’s previous laureate, J. M. G. Le Clézio (not to mention Mo Yan, or Elfriede Jelinek, or Naguib Mahfouz), were hardly more familiar to Americans when they were chosen; and isn’t one great benefit of the Nobel the light it shines on underappreciated writers?—but what does bear noting is the understated quality of Modiano’s writings, which goes against the grain of the more obstreperously “world-class” authors whose names are typically bandied about in October.
YUP: How do you feel about the Swedish Academy’s citation—“the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation”?
MP: For the Western world in general, but especially for France, the Occupation is one of the central traumas of the twentieth century, because it forced thousands of ordinary citizens to confront exactly who they were and to what lengths they would go in extreme situations. Many came away from that test rather disgracefully, which led to the great whitewashing under De Gaulle and the comforting myth that la France entière had joined the Resistance. It’s no coincidence that Modiano published his first book, La Place de l’Etoile (a direct reference to the infamous “yellow star”), in 1968, the year of the student riots and just one year before Marcel Ophüls released The Sorrow and the Pity: by that point, the myth could no longer hold, and young people wanted to know the truth about what had happened to their parents’ generation. Modiano’s work ever since —whether or not it is situated in the war years—has revolved around the troubling questions raised by the Occupation. Many of his characters, in one way or another, are defined by the kinds of ambiguous acts and moral stances into which they, or their real-life prototypes, were forced in order to survive the war years—or again, by the advantage that some of them took of others’ tragedy during that same period.
That said, I think the more interesting phrase in the Academy’s citation is the first one, “the art of memory,” because this is one of the key elements of Modiano’s fiction and the particular atmosphere it so beautifully evokes. One often feels on unstable footing when reading him, as if the plot is constantly crumbling beneath one’s feet. He does this in a very interesting way: by withholding crucial information, dispensing partial, and sometimes contradictory, episodes, so that his readers, like his protagonists, are never entirely sure what the story really is—as if the narrator himself doesn’t really remember. “Lost in the mists of time” is a phrase that pops up more than once in his novels. You see this in “Afterimage,” the first novella in Suspended Sentences, in which the narrator’s attempts to “define” his departed friend, the photographer Jansen, constantly run up against the gaps in his recollections of the man—forcing him to make speculations that might be true, or might just be red herrings. You see it wrenchingly in the title novella, in which the ten-year-old Patoche (heavily based on Modiano’s own childhood) and his younger brother try to understand the household in which they’re being raised—which to them seems a perpetual circus of larger-than-life eccentrics, but which in hindsight turns out to be much more sinister. It’s this ambivalent relationship with memory—one’s own memory and that of society at large—that creates, I think, the distinctive aura of Modiano’s work, and that gives contemporary resonance to his indictments of the Occupation and its legacy.
YUP: You are a prolific translator of French literature with over forty titles to your credit. What in particular stuck out to you about Modiano and this particular project?
MP: Perhaps more than with any other writer I’ve translated, Modiano’s prose is a deceptively tricky mix of surface simplicity and pitch-perfect wording. The lightness of his touch is remarkable, as is his ear for the natural rhythms of speech and language. The biggest challenge was finding an English voice that could convincingly recreate that simplicity and naturalness, while at the same time cluing in the English-language reader to the subtle references and understandings that make his books meaningful to French audiences. On the other hand, I’d also say that, with a few exceptions—Jean Echenoz being the main one—I’ve rarely felt so in tune with an author’s style. So that while I was constantly aware of the need to pare down my English equivalents, make them as spare and seemingly straightforward as the French, I also had the sense of being completely at home in the linguistic space he had created. It helped that I absolutely love all three of these novellas.
YUP: The three novellas included in Suspended Sentences were originally published separately. What are some things that lie in common between the three works and how do they come together in this volume?
MP: Modiano’s world is one of repetitions and almost obsessive recurrences. Episodes and characters reappear from one book to another, sometimes in the same guise, sometimes under a different name, but recognizably similar. For instance, between “Suspended Sentences” and the third novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” there are several figures who appear in different ways, like multiple facets of the same crystal, and who create a web of connections between the books. But again, each time the story is told, it’s told with certain details added and others left out, never the same ones. A perfect example is the story of how Modiano’s father, who was Jewish, was picked up by the Occupation-era police without identity papers—which almost certainly would have landed him in a concentration camp. While awaiting deportation, he was mysteriously freed thanks to an influential black marketeer who had dealings with the Germans. Why was he released? What were his father’s relations with this man? Modiano was never able to find out, and the story haunts many of his books—the three in Suspended Sentences and others besides. But it’s never told quite the same way twice, and never in a way that allows one truly to understand exactly what happened, just as young Modiano never understood it from the bits and pieces his father let slip.
YUP: What should readers make of the recursive nature of Modiano’s body of work—namely his extensive focus on the years leading up to and after the Nazi Occupation of France?
MP: I sometimes think that if one were to collate the recurring stories in Modiano’s books, piece together the scraps of information from each telling, it would finally form a complete tale—but no doubt that’s an illusion, and the story would remain as elusive as ever. (The narrator of “Afterimage” alludes to that same process and frustration.) The first thing is that this recursive nature involves not just the Occupation, but numerous episodes from the author’s life—or, let’s say, the narrator’s life. Time and again, over various books, the reader will find certain stories reemerging like obsessive knots that can never be untangled, and which the writer can never reconcile. As for the Occupation itself, as I mentioned above, I think it’s the central knot of modern French history, which the nation as a whole has been unable to untangle or reconcile. The fact that it also happens to intersect with Modiano’s family history, notably through his father’s ambiguous activities during the war—which themselves dovetail with the very ambiguous, and heartbreaking, relations between father and son later on—lends these nodal points particular emotional impact when Modiano writes about them.
YUP: Does the Paris as depicted in Modiano’s works differ from your own experiences living in the city?
MP: Well, I imagine that anyone’s experience of living in a place differs from someone else’s, but I’d say the main difference is that Modiano’s version of Paris, whether his story is set in the 40s, the 60s, or the 90s, always carries an atmosphere of the war years, of fog and gauzy, black-and-white streets, and always on the outskirts of town. It doesn’t matter if he’s describing a scene in the heart of the city in bright sunlight, somehow the text still conveys that aura. One constantly expects Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan to come around the corner, trailing mist from the port. It’s very seductive and very powerful, but unfortunately also very hard to find in real life. The city has just changed too much, more’s the pity. There have been moments, scenes I recall from my own time in Paris that suggest some of that atmosphere; but for all the precision of detail in Modiano’s books, the specific references to streets and restaurants and neighborhoods, the reader is still walking through a landscape that exists largely in the author’s mind. All the more so in that, as he often notes, the places he’s describing have since been demolished or turned into something else—making these books, on one level, a kind of ode to a Paris gone by.
YUP: Modiano is known to be of a reclusive and publicity-shy personality. What is your relationship with him like: has the translation been a collaborative process?
MP: Modiano wasn’t really involved in the translation, but he did send me a long, detailed letter in response to a few questions, which was very useful for my introduction. I’d also had a brief exchange of correspondence with him some years ago. My sense, from his letters and from what some friends who know him have told me, is that he is very gracious and, yes, very reclusive. But you can see that in his writing. His protagonists always seem overwhelmed by the world, in need of a protector or a father figure, and often falling (usually to their misfortune) for women who keep dangerous secrets—but how much of that reflects Modiano’s own life, I couldn’t say.
YUP: You are currently Publisher & Editor in Chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and formerly Director of Publications at the Boston MFA. Has your intimate knowledge of the art world informed your translations in any way?
MP: More than with the art world, I’d say it was my involvement with publishing in general (I was in trade publishing for fifteen years before joining the MFA) that has informed both my translations and my writing. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that it taught me to step back from the text, and at the same time, conversely, to put myself in the other person’s mind, to try to understand what the author—whether it’s an author I’m publishing or myself—wishes to convey and to recognize those places where it doesn’t work, as well as how to fix them. The trick is always to maintain the balance between the identification that allows you to remain true to an author’s voice and meaning, and the distance that lets you see where it goes off the rails, where the reader might disconnect—because the text is unclear, or overly detailed, etc.
It’s not that different with translation, even though the content is basically established. When translating, I always try to imagine what a reader, who presumably can’t access the original, will make of the version I produce. Will she understand the passage in the same way that her Francophone counterpart would? Does the English rendering convey the same emotion, information, humor, horror? And if not, how can I phrase it better, how can I arrange the words and sounds to bring all of that across? (As you know, the root of the word translation means “to bear across”—that is, originally, to carry a saint to Heaven.) A common misperception is that one needs to transpose the source text as literally as possible in order to remain “faithful” to the author’s intention; but the reality is, one constantly needs to interrogate the text, try to get behind it, and adapt when necessary, in order to bring forth the life of what the author said. In other words, it’s all about editing.
YUP: What brought you into the world of translation?
MP: I’ve told the full story elsewhere, but the bottom line is that it was a complete accident. I spent a year in Paris when I was seventeen, and by chance I found myself introduced to the novelist Maurice Roche, who was involved with the Tel Quel group (this was in the mid seventies). I’d recently read Roche’s latest novel, CodeX —a post-Finnegans Wake concatenation of puns, portmanteau words, musical notations, pictograms, obscure political references, and so on—making of it what I could, and now suddenly here I was in front of the author. And not finding anything else to say, I offered to translate the book, even though I’d never translated anything before in my life. To my simultaneous delight and horror, he enthusiastically agreed, and over the remaining months of my time in France I dutifully scratched out an English approximation. The important outcome was not the translation itself, which was worthless (though I did later translate and publish another of his novels, somewhat more successfully), but a friendship that lasted until Maurice’s death in 1997, along with the discovery that translation was something I truly loved doing, and haven’t stopped doing since.
YUP: How does your relationship with a work evolve as you go through the process of translation?
MP: It’s a commonplace to say it, but my appreciation of the work usually deepens—first, because no reading is as careful and attentive as the one I can give it when translating; second, because there are certain beauties in the work that only fully come to light when I’ve been involved in recreating them in another language. There’s also the enjoyment that comes with increased familiarity, just as certain pieces of music become more compelling with additional listenings. And of course, there’s the pleasure of slowly honing the English version from raw matter to polished work. But more than anything, it has to do with what I mentioned above, getting inside the text, and to some extent inside the author’s mind, which can’t help but foster a kind of identification with the work and heighten my appreciation of it. I’m also lucky in that I can turn down projects for which I simply feel no affinity.
YUP: Do you have any future translation projects in mind? If you could be the first to translate any one work, what would it be and why?
MP: Your director and I are discussing the possibility of more Modiano, which would be my first choice. As for my ideal translation project, for years I’ve dreamed of tackling Louis Wolfson’s memoir Le Schizo et les langues, which was published in 1970, and which I discovered a few years later. Wolfson was—or is, since I believe he’s still alive—a New Yorker who couldn’t bear the sound of his mother tongue. Rather than being driven into a frenzy whenever he heard it, which was pretty much unavoidable, the self-described “demented student of languages” devised a system of translation into a mix of French, Hebrew, German, and Russian—which he taught himself for that purpose—in which the offending English sentence had to be instantly transposed in his head into a corresponding sentence made up of one or more of the four foreign languages. But here’s the thing: the translated sentence had to not only mean but sound the same as the English. It’s one of the most mind-bending books I’ve ever come across, right up there with Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, on top of which it’s a very moving, and at time hilariously funny, memoir. Not to mention a remarkable meditation on the art of translation itself—and a brilliant challenge to any translator. (The fact that I came across Wolfson’s book while I was grappling with the translation of Maurice Roche’s CodeX, which poses similar linguistic conundrums, might help account for my lifelong fascination with it.) Unfortunately, Wolfson has made it an ironclad condition that the book, which he wrote in French, never be translated into English, so I don’t know that I’ll ever have the opportunity.
YUP: As a published poet, what do you find most beautiful about the written word?
MP: What’s not to find beautiful? Words, written or spoken, are the vessels that convey our thoughts, our impressions, our sensations and emotions, not only to others but also to ourselves. It doesn’t matter how rational or surreal, how precise or inchoate, our attempts to grasp them usually pass through language. To me, writing and translating, the effort of honing and shaping language, burnishing it, smoothing out the rough edges (or roughening them, if that’s what it takes), finding exactly the words and nuances to express every shade and contour of what you want someone else to understand—or, again, as a way of trying to understand it yourself—is one of the most miraculous activities of which the human mind is capable. I know it makes me sound like an utter geek, which I suppose I am, but there really are few things in life that give me as deep a satisfaction.
YUP: You have also authored a good number of detailed monographs on the lives and works of such artists as André Breton, Luis Buñuel, and Bob Dylan. Do you apply a similar approach to the authors whose works you are translating?
MP: It depends on the author, of course, but by and large the answer is yes, in the sense that both the monographs and the translations require a certain amount of research and reflection. In Modiano’s case, there were a number of references to historical events, places, cultural moments, and so on, that required looking-up so that I could be sure to translate them correctly (thank goodness for the Internet!). In the case of someone like Franck Thilliez, the author of two thrillers that I’ve translated for Viking, I needed to do extensive research because his novels weave in science, political conspiracies, psychiatric experiments, and the like, sometimes mixing the real with the invented—so you have to know which is which to produce a viable English version. In addition to which, and as with the figures I’ve written about, I’m interested in the life behind the text that I’m translating. When I worked on Bouvard and Pécuchet, I read Flaubert’s letters and other documents from the time, to get a sense of who he was while writing that novel. When Modiano mentions a specific Paris street or square, I’ll look it up on my Paris map to see how it fits into the neighborhood or call up images of it online. As much as time allows, I try to read other works by the same author to gain a broader sense of context. When I translated Duras’s Yann Andréa Steiner, about her relationship with a much younger man, I also read Yann Andréa’s own memoir to get his side of the story, as a counterpoint. It stems from a deep-seated conviction that translation is not simply a matter of replacing words with words. The translator has to assimilate the text, and as much of what surrounds it as possible, in order to produce a version that credibly represents what the original author had written.
Mark Polizzotti has translated more than forty books from the French and is director of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. His latest translation is Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano.