Last Translation Tuesday, we brought you the nonfiction winner of our annual Close Approximations translation contest, picked by Margaret Jull Costa. This week, we present the fiction winner: Ruth Diver’s translation from the French of Sophie Pujas’s fiction, which marks the first time her work has been published in English. Judge Ottilie Mulzet, an award-winning translator herself who has translated László Krasznahorkai’s fiction, chose Diver’s entry because it “combines excitingly experimental writing in a wonderful translation. To me the English version reads perfectly, truly attaining that marvellous balance where, as readers, we are well aware of being privy to a textual world otherwise not available to the Anglophone reader: Diver steers well clear of over-domesticization, and yet at the same time, her translation never contains the infelicity of a clumsy rendering. The author’s voice—a combination of lucidity and ironic sympathy for her anonymous characters intersecting with the urban geography of Paris—is captured magnificently. I truly hope this work will find a home with a book publisher.“
—The editors at Asymptote
Rue de l’Odéon (6th)
Life rushes around him, but he’s not involved. The city rumbles comfortably, but he doesn’t belong. Homeless? What a joke. He’s already been here eight years. On the same ventilation grille. Staring at the window of the same café. The passersby grow old and die. He is eternal, stuck under a trapdoor in time. The devotion of those who wanted to help him has worn out. Nobody can imagine any other life for him now. He doesn’t care. He knew it could never happen.
Sometimes he throws insults randomly about. It’s relaxing, this sudden emptiness around him.
He carefully avoids seeing himself. A beard and long hair, just to be on the safe side. Even if he had a face, there’s no chance he will ever see it again.
One day a woman from his former life passed by, with a violent scent and a sharp jolt to his heart. Thirsting for her to look at him, he asked her for money, she fumbled around in her bag, for a little too long. He wanted to say, “You could never find anything, could you, do you want me to hold your things like I used to, your makeup, your cigarettes?” She handed him a couple of coins, her eyes sliding over him without recognising him, kind-hearted and distant. Her gaze was serious and sad, but what could he do? Two creatures drifting in different worlds, with only a sliver of an opening between them.
He felt relieved.
It was official. He was dead.
Place Saint-Pierre (18th)
Autumn has the colour of promises. Some seasons are softer, more lyrical, more majestic—I can’t think of one more dreamy.
This morning, the world seems possible to him. This in-between feeling is spectacular. Yesterday he’d never had a future, barely any tomorrows. Today, something in the golden dryness of the air makes him almost want to put one foot in front of the other.
It’s a victory, for him, to have the appetite to breathe, to feel curious about the curves the leaves follow as they die. Almost. His body gleans timid joys, seconds of euphoria.
He wasn’t always like this—convalescent, lopsided.
He wasn’t always like this—stranded, and doomed to stay that way.
All it took was one winter morning. All it took was a car. All it took was a brief swerve in time for his wife and son . . . It could have been avoided in so many ways. An infinity of chances could have changed that insane scenario and saved them. But human flesh does not win against chrome, happiness does not deter catastrophes from spreading their sinister music—it attracts them. Day after day he weaves and reinvents these alternative chances that could have changed that insane scenario. A stubborn little bicycle of obsession, turning, second after second, sometimes without his being aware of it.
Come on, it’s a splendid autumn day, a smell of crêpes and roast chestnuts drifts over to caress him. In his situation, there’s nothing more treacherous than softness.
He sits down on a bench, just for a second. Something has stopped him in his tracks, but he doesn’t know what to call it. And then it comes back to him: Today the world is possible, almost. The monster must be tamed. He stands up again. It’s time to go pick up his daughter from school. The two of them can surely make something up. They might even pretend that it is called the future.
Rue Jonas (13th)
He could never have imagined that the world was so big. Sometimes he can’t help throwing himself into it. So many years spent shrinking himself to his allotted space. So many years not being alive. He had forgotten how to walk straight ahead, just as his eyes had forgotten the line of the horizon.
You can never leave prison. You drag it along inside you, and it rattles and clangs. And yet the children squeal and the prunus trees wave their purple branches. You can never leave prison. But the sky is enormous and the streets are his.
Rue Eugène-Poubelle (16th)
It’s a corner of Paris that doesn’t look like Paris. Chunks of short skyscrapers under construction dominating the Seine, a miniature Statue of Liberty guarding the Pont de Grenelle. It looks like New York as imagined by the small-minded. Elsewhere the city is made of stone, cautious and serious, here it is metallic, sparkling, futuristic. He sets himself up on the parapet, he’s early. He comes to all his appointments with this extra time, a stretch he has to fill in somehow without allowing any anxiety about the next stage to seep in. A moment of suspension, which today’s equipment no longer requires. Modernity has banished breaks. He’s a photographer. He works for a famous film magazine. His job is to collect humans. He transforms each of his admirations, sooner or later, into a portrait. He understands the patient greed of butterfly trackers. His gift is to embellish, to wreathe faces with colours that reveal them, to discern madness or softness where nobody had seen it. He’s daring: putting a dead fish into a movie star’s hands, seeking out accidental nudity, giving orders. Every time, it all happens very quickly. He loves this acceleration of time, not being allowed any mistakes. Nothing floating or swaying. He’d love his whole life to be like this, each second counting, permanent tension, inspiration always vibrating. He smokes a cigarette, the curls of smoke drift off into the roar of the traffic, playing in the grey sky. He thinks about the first time he saw this actress, he was a kid, or maybe it was during those years when he was escaping from childhood, just on the edge of a new life. What had affected him most were her legs, and her contralto voice, low and sensuous, that seemed to be their natural extension. She had aged, but he hoped to give her a present of a little of his desire from long ago. He had a penitent and protective tenderness for women whose splendour had eroded. She would be beautiful, in the instant when he pressed the shutter release.
Square Saint-Éloi (12th)
All Parisians of sound mind and body hate pigeons, on principle and by vocation.
They are rivals, pretenders to the possession of the same territory.
Rats, pigeons, and Parisians: the rightful occupants of the City of Lights.
The pigeon—it’s a settled case—drew dreadful cards in the avian beauty lottery. Shady colours, zero elegance. The Parisian pigeon, moreover, is crippled, limping, and all in tatters. Shreds of its feet are missing, and it astonishes us when it somehow manages to take flight. Feather by feather it comes undone, subsisting somehow or other, while its cousins the sparrows, in triumphant squadrons, graciously hop about, stealing crumbs from students’ sandwiches on the wing, and landing on the blue whale in the fountain.
And yet, she likes pigeons. She has a soft spot for them. At her age, now that she only moves with heavy, cautious steps, she prefers their clumsiness to any prettiness. Solidarity of the defeated, of those left behind. At least she had been pretty once, red lips and light ankles. And from her bench, handing out the bread she brings for them, she ponders this mystery: why had she never seen any baby pigeons? Only these adults, already miserable. As if deformity were spontaneously generated.
Lost in thought, she muses on the vertigo of a fall not preceded by a rise, and is jealous of these creatures that have no glorious past to mourn. Never having been, maybe that was the secret.
Pont Mirabeau (15th)
Knowing how much a city can change its face in a few seconds.
From the golden greyness of an autumn morning to the most carnivorous downpour.
From almost mildness to a venomous chill.
From the smile of a girl, so young, so young, to a scornful look flung by a passerby.
From hot coffee to hunger that gnaws the stomach like acid.
That is only for those who are the dregs of the street, the invisible people thrown out to fend for themselves.
You can snuggle up, when the city shifts and shivers, go home, seek refuge in a warm café, call the woman you love.
You have no idea how violent they are, those phones of yours.
The hard part isn’t not having one. They can be found, you’re so clumsy, so prone to losing things.
It’s not even getting them to work. Everything is set up to cadge the crumbs from those who own nothing, rechargeable cards, penny by penny, no need for a bank account.
But voices to call.
Those magical creatures who respond to your desires, deign to let you inform them that you have been here or there.
Those voices, it takes a lifetime to earn them, an instant to lose them.
You don’t realise it, but those voices—yes, grumbling, hoarse, often unhappy—are your most precious possession.
It’s raining, but he doesn’t care.
Without anger, he stamps his heel on the phone he found on the bench a few moments ago and threw on the ground, which won’t stop ringing. Silence falls. Drops of water are sticking to his face. He doesn’t even know he’s cold.
Translated from the French by Ruth Diver
To read the rest of the article, hop over to Asymptote’s brand-new Spring issue uncovering new writing from 27 countries including an exclusive interview with Man International Booker Prize-shortlisted translator, Ann Goldstein.
Sophie Pujas is a French writer and a journalist at the weekly news magazine Le Point, where she specializes in cultural and science reporting. She has published four books, none of which have yet been translated into English: Z.M., a personal evocation of the life of artist Zoran Mušič (Gallimard, 2013, short-listed for the Femina essay prize); Street Art, a collection and commentary of photographs from around the world (Tana, 2015); Maraudes (Gallimard L’Arpenteur, 2015); and most recently Ce qu’il reste de nuit, a portrait of street artist Lokiss (Buchet-Chastel, 2016). She has lived in Paris since her student days, when she became a compulsive walker of the length and breadth of the city.
Ruth Diver is a New Zealander who grew up in the Middle East and Paris, where she received a bilingual education. She studied Russian at Oberlin College and later lived several years in Austria and Germany. She holds a Ph.D. in French and comparative literature from the University of Paris VIII and the University of Auckland, where she headed the Comparative Literature programme until 2014. She is the author of Enfants russes, écrivains français (Honoré Champion, 2013) and has published research on translingual literature. Ruth participated in City University’s Translate in the City summer school, then collaborated with Ros Schwartz on the translation of The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.