‘Life beyond the périphérique beltway’ – Louise Rogers Lalaurie on Translating Lean on Me
“Joncour has that quintessentially French capacity to combine poetry, argot and a character’s individual voice in his writing, elements I hope will come across in English.”
Louise Rogers Lalaurie, co-translator of Lean on Me gives an insight into the unique experience of translating Joncour’s award-winning novel from French into English.
Can you give us a short overview of your experience as a translator?
I worked in fine art and magazine publishing in the UK before moving to France thirty years ago, where I’m still based. I carried both careers across with me, and began translating art monographs as well as writing for UK publications, notably Time Out Paris. Often, art translations include chunks from literature, and gradually I began to consider that as something I’d love to explore further. I translated over 30 art and lifestyle books for Flammarion, including a collection of short stories commissioned to accompany an album of erotic postcards from the Belle Epoque – my first published literary translation! After that, I submitted a text by travel-writer and ‘psychogeographer’ Jean Rolin for the French Voices awards, administered by the French Book Offices in London and New York. It’s an account of the narrator’s journey to the Congo, taking a battered Audi to a friend’s family and new life as a taxi in Kinshasa – a rambling, hugely entertaining and deeply thought-provoking book, crammed with literary references to Conrad (inevitably), Proust, Sebald… The book was picked up by Dalkey Archive Press in 2011 and published as The Explosion of the Radiator Hose – my second literary translation. Since then, I’ve translated and published another eleven novels, everything from historical and mid-20th-century crime to contemporary social satire and literary fiction. My ‘commercial’ translation practice continues in parallel – art monographs, exhibition catalogues, gallery texts and more, for museums, art publishers, cultural institutions…
Lean on Me is translated from French. Are there any quirks or challenges that come from translating French in particular, as opposed to other languages?
I think ‘register’ and tone are the biggest challenge when translating from French: things that sound natural or everyday in French can come out rather heavy-handed or high-flown in English, while at the other end of the scale, French has a whole second tier of vocabulary – ‘argot’ – which isn’t necessarily slang, but which people use among friends to establish a kind of irreverent, scurrilous, intimate feel. That can be challenging to convey in English, too! It takes a few trials and errors to (hopefully) get it right.
Serge Joncour is a prize-winning bestseller in his native France, and his debut Wild Dog was published in English in 2020. Had you read any of Joncour’s work in either English or French before embarking on this project?
In fact, Serge Joncour was one of the writers in the collection of erotic short stories I translated back in 2009 – he contributed a light-hearted magical-realist tale about tumbling into the world of a saucy sepia postcard! And I was already translating Joncour’s novel Human Nature for Gallic (out in September 2022), when Jane Aitken asked me to join her in translating Lean On Me. The 2009 short story came with a wry, old-fashioned subtitle: ‘…In which we encounter women, words, and the danger inherent in leaning over one’s own shoulder.’ I think it rings surprisingly true for Lean On Me, and Human Nature – seduction, women characters and the power of words are all so important: Joncour has that quintessentially French capacity to combine poetry, argot and a character’s individual voice in his writing, elements I hope will come across in English. As to the ‘danger’ in leaning over one’s own shoulder – Joncour has deep roots in rural, SW France, something he shares with each of his male heroes (though in Wild Dog, those roots are deliberately put down rather than inherited). As a ‘townie’ from an old farming family, Joncour has a profound sense of France’s simultaneous love affair with and divorce from nature and life on the land. It’s easy to see how the families, plots, characters and situations in his books may have been spun from his own life. A form of potentially dangerous self-exposure, but Joncour engages fearlessly with it, to his readers’ delight.
“Sometimes, if the schedule permits, I set the second draft to look as much as possible like a book, then print it out and read it/mark it up in a different room from my office. That can help to take me away from the coal-face of the text”
What were your initial thoughts of Lean on Me? Was there anything that excited you about the project?
I loved the sweep of Parisian and rural society that Joncour captures in the book. The hero, Ludovic, is an exiled ex-rugby pro from SW France, working as a debt collector – a job that takes him into the lives of the capital’s ‘little people’, working-class and lower-middle class folk existing just beyond the périphérique beltway, small-time swindlers, pensioners down on their luck, single mothers struggling to survive… With Aurore and her wheeler-dealer American husband, who live in the smart, refurbished wing of the old Paris mansion block they all share, Ludovic discovers a different world. On his trips home to the farm he’s been forced to disinherit, we discover rural life through his own, multi-generational family. The narrative alternates between Ludovic’s and Aurore’s voices, and their story is underpinned by a wonderful network of (often natural) imagery that conveys a powerful sense of greater forces at work. When they meet, Ludovic is rescuing a couple of cats from a dense shrubbery in the courtyard of their Paris building. The creatures are yowling and scratching, but he loves them, he says, because they’re ‘full of life’ – just like Joncour’s writing. His rendering of his character’s emotional and working lives, their physicality, and their innermost thoughts and dreams is remarkable. The book’s also very funny in places.
What does your process look like when you’re translating?
I try to think myself into the right tone/register, then dive in and hope to achieve a clean-as-possible first draft, checking references, looking things up as I go along. (Joncour has a fascination for the nuts and bolts of people’s working lives, and Lean On Me includes technical vocabulary related to Aurore’s work as a fashion designer, for example. Terms relating to finance are scattered about too. Thankfully, my co-translator Jane Aitken is a qualified accountant!). Next, I read my first draft through and edit it as a text in its own right (the second draft), then revisit any tricky or sticky passages, reading them against the French and re-crafting them where necessary, to create my third and (usually) final draft, which goes – mercifully – for copy editing! Sometimes, if the schedule permits, I set the second draft to look as much as possible like a book, then print it out and read it/mark it up in a different room from my office. That can help to take me away from the coal-face of the text and get a broader perspective on the structure and pacing of the book as a whole.
“I loved the sweep of Parisian and rural society that Joncour captures in the book. His rendering of his character’s emotional and working lives, their physicality, and their innermost thoughts and dreams is remarkable.”
Did everything go to plan while translating Lean on Me? Were there any challenges?
One particular challenge involved the frightening, feathered characters in the early chapters – crows or ravens? In French, corbeau can cover both, and Aurore mis-identifies them, it seems… But Ludovic is a son of the soil, who knows his birds.
What are you currently reading?
Like many people who make books (and tweet), I find leisure reading very hard to fit in. I’m definitely not in the “look at this giant stack of reading I got through last month!” club… But thanks to my lovely anglophone book-club here in Fontainebleau, I’m two-thirds through Anna Burns’ Milkman, which has blown me away.
What’s your next translation project? What’s your dream translation project?
Soon I’ll be reading proofs of my translation of Serge Joncour’s Human Nature, which is out with Gallic in September, and after that I’m very excited to be working on a new co-translation with Jane Aitken – a novel by Antoine Laurain, author of The President’s Hat (which we co-translated, with Emily Boyce), The Red Notebook and many more. I’d love to translate more work by Gabrielle Wittkop, whose dark, gorgeously-written Venetian poison-fest Murder Most Serene was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book award in my translation a few years ago. And I have a few pet projects that I continue to pitch when I have time – including a shortish piece of narrative non-fiction by Jean Rolin, also gorgeously written – in hopes that someone will snap them up! One dream is to launch my own tiny press one day, and find out what life is like on the other side…
Louise Rogers Lalaurie is a translator from the French and the author of Matisse: The Books. Her translations have been shortlisted for the CWA Daggers and Best Translated Book Awards. She is @llalaurie on Twitter and blogs at https://louiserogers.blog/
Posted on 28/02/2022 by Isabelle Flynn in