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A Conversation Between Patrick Modiano Translators Mark Polizzotti and Damion Searls

On the heels of our publication of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Such Fine Boys and Sundays in August in English, two of his esteemed translators sat down to discuss Modiano’s idiosyncratic and impressive body of work and the distinct nuances of translating it. It is with great pleasure that we present this exclusive conversation (edited for concision) between Mark Polizzotti, the translator of more than forty books from the French and the publisher and editor in chief of the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Damion Searls, an award-winning writer and translator of thirty books from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.

Damion Searls: You’ve now translated seven Modiano books. What do you think of the critique that’s often leveled at his books—that they’re “all the same”?

Mark Polizzotti: I tend to think more in terms of another frequent characterization, which is that his books are “variations on a theme.” There are certain elements you can pretty much count on finding in virtually any of his fictions, or even his memoir, Pedigree: shady but charismatic adults engaged in murky pursuits, a slightly older woman who keeps the protagonist anchored to this milieu and emotionally off-balance (but contentedly so), the sense that more is going on than meets the eye… But each time, he plays the piece differently, like a jazz improvisation.

In that regard, this new book, Such Fine Boys, acts as a kind of summation of Modiano’s entire oeuvre. It’s a series of interconnected stories, all of them based on boys the narrator knew in boarding school when he was a teenager. In each story, the narrator (usually named Patrick, like the author) encounters someone from his school days, years later, and becomes somehow embroiled in that person’s life. Needless to say, none of these fine boys turned out particularly well. But what’s remarkable to me is how much variety he’s able to derive from this one trope. And also the cumulative effect: the way the book shades darker and darker as it progresses, starting with pathetic and ending on distinctly chilling.

What about you, do you find them all the same?

DS: I do, but not in the sense of being repetitive, more in the sense of forming a genre. When you read a thriller, you basically know what you’re going to get—thrillers are “all the same”—but not in a bad way. That’s what Modiano novels are like for me, a genre by one person. You could say that about any author with a distinctive style, but I mean it about him in a stronger sense. About a year ago I read one or two of the new ones in English—including your translation of The Black Notebook—and got started on a kick, reading or rereading… it must have been fifteen or sixteen of his books in a row. They were addictive, like mysteries.

MP: “Mysteries” is a good word for it, and Sundays in August is interesting because it puts that “noirish” quality front and center. I was interested to see, for instance, that Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review in their crime fiction section, rather than in general fiction, which is where he usually gets reviewed. At the same time, you can say that these books constantly walk the fine line between roman noir and roman tout court, with that kind of existential downward spiral you often find in someone like James M. Cain. The reviewer’s comments about Sundays having an “atmosphere of tension and dread” could be applied to any number of Modiano’s books. What’s interesting to me is how seamlessly he has pulled that tension and dread into the realm of so-called literary fiction.

DS: Yes, the two I’ve translated certainly share that quality. They actually are pretty similar to each other, but a bit unlike the archetypal Modiano you just described. From a strange combination of circumstances, I ended up translating two of his books from the ’80s—1981 and 1986—neither his first books nor his newest. Young Once is the first Modiano novel I read, many years ago before he won the Nobel Prize, because I knew Peter Handke had translated it into German in the ’80s and I was curious about it from the Handke side; Sundays in August I found at a quayside bookstall in Paris, and I just fell for it. They are two of his plottiest, most obviously noirish books. Young Once has a co-equal female main character, which is a nice break from the sometimes schematic love objects in his other books—it’s not the story of a male narrator’s love, loss, and obsession, but the story of Louis and Odile coming together. Sundays in August has his more typical main relationship from the male’s point of view—but no slightly older female initiator character—and more explicit thriller trappings than usual: fake identities, a stolen diamond, kidnappings. It takes place in the bright sun and dark shadows of Nice instead of Paris. These two books are more like each other than like any of his other novels, I think.

MP: I wanted to ask you about the translation of the new one. What kinds of challenges did you come across, and were they different from translating Young Once?

DS: On the whole I’m more of an intuitive translator, which doesn’t (I hope) mean thoughtless, just that the biggest decisions—about voice and syntax and register—are made on the basis of what “sounds right,” not a more logical analysis. That said, there are always puzzles on a smaller scale—what to do about a certain phrase in French, or aspects of the language that don’t exactly match up with anything in English. For instance, there’s Modiano’s very heavy use of ellipses in dialogue and narration. It’s too much in English, but you don’t want to lose it altogether, so you have to just compromise.

His titles, I’ve noticed, are strangely hard to translate though. Une Jeunesse is, literally, “A Youth” but not in the English sense of that phrase (“a young person”). You might call it “Youth,” but there’s a tradition of Major Books with that title—Tolstoy, Conrad, Coetzee—and the key to Modiano’s title is that he softens it, relativizes it: this is just one version of youth. It’s “A Case of Youth” or “A Time of Youth”; you can’t call it “My Youth” because it’s two people’s, Louis’s and Odile’s. “This Is Our Youth” sounds too BBC; “When We Were Young” too A. A. Milne. You suggested what would have been the best title, “Just Kids,” but Patti Smith had taken it! I eventually found something with an analogous double edge: “Young Once,” which can sound nostalgic or dismissive, like “oh back then we were foolish, but still it was kind of the best wasn’t it?” And at least in my own mind the “Once” keeps the singularity of Une, subliminally maybe.

Compared to that, Dimanches d’août is easy, except I wanted to call it “August Sundays.” For some reason, no one else liked that.

MP: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I thought “Sundays in August” sounded better, more enticing as a title, more rhythmic.

DS: Hey, it was good enough for Beckett: in Molloy there’s “that memorable August Sunday”!

MP: But not as a title! You’re right, though, about Modiano’s titles being deceptively difficult. For the three novellas of Suspended Sentences, I had to adapt as much as translate, and one of the titles, “Afterimage,” was a complete fabrication. The French title was “Chien de printemps,” meaning (roughly, if we want to keep the dog image) “bitch of a spring,” which would have been silly. Maybe I should have called it “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.” Anyway, though this is hardly true of many foreign authors, Modiano finds titles that sound great in French but would fall flat in direct English translation. Another one was L’Herbe des nuits, which I ended up calling The Black Notebook—although as he told me later, that had been his original title all along, which he’d had to drop because in French it was the same as Lawrence Durrell’s The Black Book.

Such Fine Boys presented a similar case, but with a twist. The original, De si braves garçons, is a line from Turgenev, which Modiano uses as his epigraph. As you know, I played around with a number of possibilities, including the word “lads” (which you hated). My point was to retain the mix of paternalistic encomium and sarcasm—encomium on Turgenev’s part and, by implication, the teachers at the boarding school; sarcasm on Modiano’s part as he relates case after case of these boys not ending up so fine at all. In the end—ironically, given what we just said—I think the more straightforward “Such Fine Boys” works on both registers, without calling as much needless attention to itself as “lads” would have.

DS: How about other translation challenges in this new book?

MP: I’m like you, I work by intuition rather than a set of rules. Gregory Rabassa used to say, “I leave strategy to the theorists as I confine myself to tactics.” With Modiano, the tactics (at least to my mind) have to do mainly with tone and concision—especially the latter, as it largely accounts for the former. I don’t know if you’ve found this as well, but Modiano is one of the most economical writers I’ve ever come across, not a wasted word. The only other novelist I’ve translated with a similar sense of economy is Jean Echenoz—with both of them, it’s like translating poetry. Blanchot is sometimes like that too. So part of the challenge was to keep it as brief as possible. I even maintained a running word count against the original, to make sure the English total stayed lower—and in fact, my first draft ran longer than the French, so several rounds of revision were spent paring excess words.

The other challenge, of course, was maintaining that crucial balance between plain(ish), almost affectless prose, and the strong emotions that always seem to be coursing just under the surface.

DS: Running word counts? Sorry, that’s a strategy! I wish I’d thought of it myself.

MP: How is that a strategy? It’s a practical approach to a given problem, and a good discipline that I’ve also found useful in my own writing.

DS: It’s a methodical, systematic practice, not just winging it like I do. In any case, I don’t think of Modiano as a terse writer, maybe because I’m too English-biased and English is a more economical language than French, so I never think of French writers as terse. Think of our noun strings: we have flight plan storage systems, not services of dépôt of the plans of the vols… When I used to work in medical translation, we knew that French was typically ten to fifteen percent longer than the matching English. But the other factoid is that languages expand in translation in both directions: translating English into French makes it longer, but translating French into English makes it longer too. Any translation needs workarounds to do what the original does effortlessly.

MP: I’m not sure that’s entirely true. First of all, I don’t know that it is especially effortless, though it might seem that way. Second, with most other writers I translate it’s rare that my English is longer than their French, even on first pass. Which is why someone like Modiano really stands out, even among younger French authors who might take their cues more from Raymond Carver than Marcel Proust. It’s also, I think, one of the reasons why Modiano adapts so well into English, and why many people who discovered him through the Nobel are still reading him several years later. There’s great pleasure in simplicity, especially deceptive simplicity. As you said, it’s addictive.

Mark Polizzotti is the translator of more than forty books from the French, including seven by Modiano. He directs the publications program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Damion Searls has translated thirty books from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch, including Patrick Modiano’s Sundays in August.

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