Dancing to the music of translation

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I’ve been translating Alain Mabanckou’s fiction into English for fifteen years. By now I feel almost like an accompanist working with a familiar soloist. I’ve lived in his sound landscape for so long that I know where the weight lies in a sentence, the rhythm, the metre and the flow, the intention behind the phrasing.

The majority of Alain’s readers read his novels in French, but after that the US readership is probably the largest. Though he’s lived in LA for 15 years, he still writes in French and passes the results on to a white, female translator who lives in Britain. A few years ago, he gave a lecture at the British Library. I hadn’t told him I was coming, and slipped in at the back at the last moment – translators are used to being invisible, it’s part of the job. When someone raised a question about translation in the Q&A, I felt a lurch of the stomach, like someone in a railway carriage in a 19th-century story who suddenly realises the gossip among the travellers is about them. Didn’t Alain feel the translations of his novels were a little too – British? Fortunately Alain said No, he didn’t. Had I been bolder I would have stood up and pointed out that all his fiction that – up to that point – I had translated, was set in the Republic of the Congo. He has often acknowledged the influence of the rigorous, almost classical French system in which he was educated, and I have always sought to reflect the elegance of his written and spoken French in my Anglo-European translations.

In Mon cousin d’Amérique, the narrator is staying in the Renaissance hotel. The encounter between narrator and the man on the street, whose descent is less genealogical than historic – that is, evidenced by story and myth – takes place on Carondelet Street, named after the original Creole quarter of the city. The drama of their meeting revolves round a question of exchange – should the narrator give him euros or dollars? But it’s also about the encounter of narrator and a character who is both archetype and singular voice, representative of history and something more …

Alain, as he has often emphasised, is a migratory bird, balancing on one leg, here one season, elsewhere the next. What interests him is the meeting of languages across borders, the ways in which they travel, the echoes that reach us across history through books and life, the voices and texts and stories we absorb and rework and recreate.

The marmite in which Afro-African, Afro-American and Afro-European voices meet is a symbol of community as well as a constantly brewing source of nourishment. His novels contain a multitude of narrators and voices. To capture his voice I need to capture a thousand others. Alain quotes his own work, in fragments, as easily as he quotes other writers, Senegalese, Nigerian, American, French. I am aware, as I translate, of how certain phrases emerge from the text like old stones when the vegetation is worn away in a dry season. It makes the task of translation over time as endlessly fascinating as it is demanding, even, occasionally, exasperating. I never tire of it.



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