Sophie Lewis is a London-born writer, editor, and translator from French and Portuguese. Her recent translations include Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc (Salammbô), The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé (Pushkin), and The Earth Turned Upside Down by Jules Verne (Hesperus). She is editor-at-large at And Other Stories press, and she has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2011. An excerpt from her translation of Thérèse and Isabelle appeared in the July 2014 issue of Asymptote.
When did you first encounter Violette Leduc’s work?
I was lucky to be let loose on Dalkey Archive Press’s backlist in 2007, when I started working for them as manager of their London office. They had published Leduc’s La Bâtarde with an afterword by Deborah Levy. As we were promoting Levy’s work in the UK just then, I started to read everything by her, including that piece—and then I was launched on Leduc.
What attracted you to Thérèse and Isabelle in particular?
It’s all about Thérèse’s voice—her heartbreaking but fierce and rebarbative attempts to be true in every sense, to her feelings and perceptions, to what she understands of others, to what she doesn’t understand but is trying to reach. There is also the attraction of the underdog—I feel strongly that groundbreaking women’s writing like this should be more widely available, but also particularly that the voice of a schoolgirl in a convent school, that of a person systematically repressed from a young age, should be allowed to speak.
Would you talk about Leduc’s place in French literature? There’s a sense, to me at least, with this new film about her life out now (Violette, starring Emmanuelle Devos as Leduc) that she is becoming a bit more widely read.
I don’t know about more widely read—I hope so! Leduc is in the difficult position of belatedly, posthumously indeed, coming out from the shadow of Simone de Beauvoir’s championing of her. De Beauvoir did what she could to help Leduc towards independence as a writer, but Leduc remains in the shadow of a hugely celebrated, dominant feminist icon. In her lifetime she also struggled with a mental breakdown, so as a writer appeared to be silent for several years at a time. And she was refused publication by some of the male editors at Gallimard who were equally celebrated as avant-garde writers, so her story as a writer is one of suppression and blocking at many points, including by an avant-garde that rapidly moved to exclude her in favour of establishment standards. If people are now returning to what Leduc actually wrote, then she may at last overcome this and it could even be turned to her advantage.
Was your experience translating Leduc, who has her own distinctive style, different from your previous translation work?
I was translating much of Thérèse and Isabelle alongside Marcel Aymé’s short story collection The Man Who Walked Through Walls. While my translation of Aymé just bounced along, my work on Leduc was very slow. I felt that I needed to make decisions about tense, about tone, about degree of disclosure for almost every sentence. There seemed to me to be an oscillation between an almost forensic, dispassionate detailing of thought and feeling, and a lyricism that aimed to paint feeling more passionately—yet Leduc would never intentionally sacrifice clarity or exactness. So I somehow had to marry the two impulses all the way. It was tough work.
Did you do any research to understand the peculiar environment of the novel?
Yes. I already mentioned my major concern: keeping an eye on plain accuracy; that is, being sure not to flinch myself, knowing that Leduc was determined not to, even in passages of great delicacy or intimacy, over which the English language is much better at flinching than being honest. I researched writing on sex between women from a range of different sources, just trying to gather resources to draw on.
More concretely, I had to understand and visualise the spaces the girls were living and studying in so that I grasped it fully for the needs of the translation. For example, their “boxes,” these curtained-off bedroom spaces that worked something like a hospital ward, essentially provided them with rooms that were private yet penetrable, excitingly permeable, but also inspectable at any time of day or night. Perfect for bed-hopping as well as for escape, for times of abandonment as well as for spying, guesswork, and tale-telling. I ended up calling a Canadian Catholic boarding school in order to discuss terminology!
Thérèse and Isabelle is a quite radical, even explicit, work. Do you think this is part of the reason for its obscurity until now, or is something else involved?
This is precisely the primary reason. Gallimard retained rights yet did not publish the book in its complete, unbowdlerised form until 2000. The publisher claimed to be afraid of legal problems, with some justification. It was probably also simply wary of attracting brickbats over the publication of a text that spends some time describing lesbian sex between teenagers at a convent school—several taboos rolled into one. Also, other parts of the work that Leduc had intended Thérèse to be part of were published separately, so the impulse to publish Thérèse and Isabelle was effectively repressed or put off in various ways. Leduc was never able to advocate for her work very effectively.
Do you have a translation philosophy that guides your work?
Not really. I’m wary of translations that are guided more by the translator’s personal approach than by their feel for the text. I do occasionally turn down books for which I don’t think I have much sympathy—that’s a principle. I don’t have the flexibility (yet?) or the command of English or simply the ear to translate anything and everything. I’m much surer with some voices than with others. I think translators should have a commitment of sympathy to the texts they work on and be open about this. Of course I’m ready to work hard to capture and recreate a new or challenging voice. But there’s no gain in working against one’s personal linguistic grain.
In addition to Leduc, who are some other French authors you’d love to translate or would love to see translated into English?
I’ve long been a fan of Pascal Quignard. I think his Petits traités should be translated and also his La Leçon de musique. I’ve also been reading quite a few Haitian writers recently. It’s impressive how many good writers seem to emerge from that particular small, troubled country. Kettly Mars is one who I think deserves translation and wider reading, but there are quite a few.
How would you characterize the general reception of works that have been translated into English from French?
I suspect it’s not a very considered reception. I don’t think French writing is cool as such. People don’t go looking for it (though the existentialists are eternally very cool—so perhaps that’s enough for most readers). But they can get into it. Michel Houellebecq remains something of a bête noire for publishers of French writing in English—why do these oddly chosen giants dominate foreign scenes so? It’s hard to know. On the other hand, people do keep on reading French writing, steadily—and perhaps it’s healthy that they don’t think about its origins too much.
What are you working on now?
I’m just about back from maternity leave and am looking forward very much to starting to translate Emmanuelle Pagano’s Nouons-nous—for And Other Stories. I also recently translated Héloïse is Bald, by Émilie de Turckheim, and have been reading more of her work and really want to translate more of it. I find echoes of Flann O’Brien in there, and obscure links to Marcel Aymé, among many other things.
Featured image of Violette Leduc