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Museum Visits: A Conversation with Daniel Levin Becker

Museum Visits presents the daring, mischievous micro-essays of award-winning French humorist Éric Chevillard. In this Q&A, we with talk with translator Daniel Levin Becker about the process of translation, the magic of Chevillard’s style, and more.

In addition to authoring multiple books and articles, you are also a member of the Parisian literary collective Oulipo. How does your writing career and literary circle inform your work in translation?

DLB: They’re all on a continuum. My writing career and literary circle obviously draw a great deal from one another, and have much to do with the texts I choose or get invited to translate. For instance, because I write with and about the Oulipo, I’m called in often to translate texts that happen to be marked by this or that organizing principle, this or that strange effect or texture. (I’d guess my affiliation with the group wasn’t too far from my coeditor Daniel Medin’s mind the first time he asked me to translate Chevillard, even though his writing isn’t what you’d call oulipian.) And of course translating, whether of a constrained text or a simple narrative—or of a screenplay or a museum catalog, etc.—awakens me to new intricacies and bizarreries of both French and English, which I often want to either discuss with my literary circle or explore in my own writing.

Your first piece of translation for Eric Chevillard included “autofiction,” what Daniel Medin calls short prose. Have you witnessed any major changes in Chevillard’s style or voice since your first encounter with it?

DLB: No, though that’s probably on me. The deeper I get into his bibliography—which is respectably deep, I think, but still shallow given how prolific an author he is—the more I appreciate the degree to which his style and voice are in perpetual evolution. That said, there are aspects of his work that do feel like constants, which maybe the style and voice are always subtly reinventing themselves in order to better serve: his triumphantly cockeyed way of looking at the world, his ability to conjure these comparisons and figurations that are somehow both utterly unexpected and completely sound, his veneer of learned pompousness that never quite manages to conceal a bottomless reservoir of earnest curiosity.

Museum Visits makes a vital wing of French literature and humor newly accessible in English. Was there a particular story or humorous phrase in Museum Visits that was most complicated to translate? If yes, how so?

DLB: Jeez, they were all complicated in different ways. As a rule—especially in these short and funny meditative pieces—Chevillard digs so deep into French, into its unique resources and affordances and contradictions, that no matter what he’s actually talking about you could argue that his real theme is the language itself. As such, it can be hellishly difficult to find English equivalents for his nth-degree language games—hellishly difficult but still fun, because I’m a glutton for that specific kind of punishment. But there’s one piece in Museum Visits, “An Encounter,” a rangy ode to getting punched in the face, that moves in a slightly different way: it’s much less concerned with wordplay than it is with rhythm and musicality. It’s jazzy, almost, which isn’t something I’d say for most of his prose. Translating it was a distinct kind of challenge, more about finding felicitous alliterations and sonorities and less about making sure the jokes didn’t get lost on the transatlantic crossing.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, you write: “I feel like if the quarantine occurred and Chevillard did not exist, we would have been obliged to invent him.” How has Chevillard’s voice provided an escape or refuge for fellow writers, translators, and admirers?

DLB: I suspect each writer or translator or admirer would answer that question differently, but for my money it’s something to do with that way of looking at the world I described before. It can be really liberating to learn to not take what’s around you at face value—whether it’s something as consequential as climate change or as ostensibly mundane as a chair—and to let a combination of instinct and inspiration replace the traditional orthodoxies of description and function. And I think it’s inspiring to see someone model that departure for you, someone who in addition to being almost sociopathically imaginative is an extraordinarily talented, thoughtful, witty writer. A good example is Chevillard’s quarantine journal, some installments of which I translated back in 2020, which defamiliarizes everything from housework to masks to humor itself with an infectious (sorry) spirit of mischief that, personally, made the walls around me feel a little bit farther apart.

Daniel Levin Becker is the author of Many Subtle Channels and What’s Good and a member of the Parisian literary collective Oulipo. Éric Chevillard (b. 1964) is an award-winning French writer. His many books include The Valiant Little TailorPrehistoric Times, and Palafox.

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