Translator Linda Coverdale on Revisiting Sébastien Japrisot

Rider on the Rain by Sébastien Japrisot is out July 22 from Gallic Books.

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“Japrisot’s eye for detail is expert, his plotting amazing, his way with words deft and compelling, and his books are both a challenge and a dream to translate.”

I translated Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement in 1993, and in 1998, his Rider on the Rain, now republished in the Gallic Noir Series. After going over my translation with Gallic Books, I reread A Very Long Engagement and noticed that both these works, strangely enough, had epigraphs by Lewis Carroll: Rider from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the other from Through the Looking-Glass.

Infinitely sui generis, the Alice saga is an ur-text, the very model of language and events that plunge down the rabbit-hole, in Carroll’s immortal image:

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.

This passage turns subtly ominous in its evocation of obscurity and confusion, as Alice worries she might drop a marmalade jar, “killing somebody underneath,” for Wonderland is a violent place, where appearances happily deceive, creatures do die, and Alice, caught in a maelstrom of nonsense, winds up on trial for her life. Similar dangers close in out of the pelting rain on Mélancolie Mau, shoving her down a horrific rabbit-hole of rape into a twilight jungle of illusions where she is both desperate hunter and quarry at bay. Japrisot’s grittily disturbing plots often launch a young heroine into a mystery stripped of drawing-room niceties, played out on shifting and perilous ground, where everything becomes “curioser and curioser” and nothing is certain, really, until the very end. And even then . . .

As for A Very Long Engagement,

‘I see nobody on the road,’ said Alice.

‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ The King remarked in a fretful tone. ‘To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!’  Through the Looking-Glass

The unsettling pun in this epigraph presages another waking nightmare of intrigue and uncertainty, haring off in all directions in the epic tale of a crippled young woman’s seemingly hopeless quest to discover exactly what happened to her childhood fiancé, lost in the meatgrinder of WWI. Strange characters come and go in this inventively tangled story of Mathilde Donnay’s stubborn search for an elusive ghost.

In both books, Japrisot’s main characters investigate crimes that profoundly affect the heroine, while grim contests of rival narratives oblige them—and us—to change sides with disorienting frequency. But while Mathilde’s despair fuels her search for her beloved, “Mellie” Mau is herself a victim of physical and emotional abuse.

Sébastien Japrisot—author, translator, screenwriter, film director—co-wrote a script for the 1970 thriller movie, Rider in the Rain, and later shaped this screenplay into the suspense novel, with stage directions that make Mellie’s abject terror especially moving. Like Alice, she is constantly transformed: cowering at times, then standing tall; weeping, then fighting back. Her spirited duel with the ruthless Harry Dobbs is foolhardy, yet persuasive, and tracked with strategic precision, even via Hobbs’s bizarre walnut-throwing habit, which lures unwary players into breaking a “looking-glass” to confront their impossible desires. Japrisot writes so skillfully that despite some truly weird plot twists, we can feel the stern logic and, increasingly, the tender emotions fueling this story that ends in both triumph and heartbreak.

Japrisot’s eye for detail is expert, his plotting amazing, his way with words deft and compelling, and his books are both a challenge and a dream to translate. Translation is writing, and endless rewriting, but first it is reading, an informed analysis of the foreign text that comprehends a deep understanding of that language, along with the ability to recreate as much as possible of the original’s contextual significance in one’s own linguistic voice.

Familiarity with the denotations, connotations, and implications of words, a keen sense of style and structure, sensitivity to mood and emotional impact, the rhythm and tone of a text, the subtle sonorities we savor in our minds as we turn the pages, all this and more should inform a translation, assuring fidelity in the new text as a whole. I always read aloud the previous day’s work to find rough spots, and before handing in the text, I compare it with the original French to look for flaws. As it happens, only a few things were adjusted in this new edition of Rider in the Rain, because the French text was so well crafted that it had been a pleasure to rise to its challenge.



Linda Coverdale has a Ph.D. in French Studies and has translated
over eighty books, including Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement and
works by Marguerite Duras, Jean Echenoz, Emmanuel Carrère,
Patrick Chamoiseau, Georges Simenon and Roland Barthes. A
Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, she has won many
awards, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
and several Scott Moncrieff and French–American Foundation
Translation Prizes. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Posted on 20/07/2021 by Isabelle Flynn in

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