At first glance, the plot of our August Asymptote Book Club selection is simple enough: we’re following the footnotes of an imaginary novel called Translator’s Revenge.
Translator’s Revenge is itself the story of a novel-in-translation, and our knowledge of the text is filtered through our narrator, Trad—a translator who feels that Translator’s Revenge is wholly inadequate and actively attempts to distort the original version. Add together those complex plot layers and you have Vengeance du traducteur, Brice Matthieussent’s perplexingly brilliant reconfiguration of translation theory. Add one further act of prestidigitation and you arrive at Emma Ramadan’s Revenge of the Translator, the English translation of Matthieussent’s prize-winning novel.
Our latest selection, then, comprises at least four books in one. If you’d like to join us in unraveling the threads of the plot, read Mallory Truckenmiller’s review below and then head to our dedicated online discussion page. If you’re not yet an Asymptote Book Club subscriber, there’s still time to sign up for our September selection: all the information you need is available on our official Book Club site.
Revenge of the Translator by Brice Matthieussent, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, Deep Vellum, 2018
Reviewed by Mallory Truckenmiller
“My author is me. Or almost. And I have accomplished my revenge. I have finally taken the place of the other.”
Revenge of the Translator is a novel of nested stories in which a translator escapes from the confines of the translator’s note to enter and interact with the text he is translating. This translator, Trad, becomes a key character in his own right, discovering his godlike power to alter or even “delete” the lives contained within the original text.
Both a story and a series of reflections on the act of translation, Revenge of the Translator sketches a dizzying map of connections between reader, author, translator, and character. Brice Matthieussent aims to empower translators rather than obscure them: his novel challenges the demeaning idea that translation consists of “the servile explications of the exegete fear-stricken by faith,” and attempts to redefine the role of the translator, gifting Trad with self-advocacy and the ability to create or prevent change.
Our translator leaps upwards from his own marginalized asterisk at the bottom of the page, escaping the translator’s note and thus the boundary of his traditional role “to reach and possibly steal the lone asterisk on the white part of the page, above the notes of the novel he’s translating.” As both rogue and ruler of his craft, he reflects on love, translation, and the relationship between writer and product: “I think of our interlocked texts, of our battered originals and our misfit translations, I think of our variations, our infidelities, our digressions, and transgressions. I think of our writing.” With this recognition of the joint act of translation, the novel creates a space for translators to regard their art as an organic interaction rather than a shameful invasion.
Revenge of the Translator questions the closeness of translator to text and the ability of the translator to own his or her translations. As Matthieussent defines the space between translator and translation, he attempts to echolocate a satisfactory understanding of translation through his parodies of insufficient theories such as the “servile co-pilot” or “clumsy mover” of language and culture. Sifting through indefinite conclusions and outdated philosophies, Matthieussent presents translation as more than just “the eternal afterthought,” as something remembered and recognized.
Emma Ramadan’s deft translation of Revenge of the Translator into English adds yet another layer to the plot. In a novel where translation is at the forefront of both theme and plot, the reader almost ironically recognizes Ramadan’s role as translator in this translation of a translation. Ramadan handles her complex task with masterful clarity as she embraces Matthieussent’s enthralling novel, his liberation of translation, his “Impossible hypothesis, so unbelievable that in this unhinged universe it becomes believable…” Wonderfully lost in the intricately woven plots, in the novel’s surreal atmosphere and rebellious humor, the reader encounters translation as a place for humanity—flawed, powerful, and shared.
Mallory Truckenmiller is an undergraduate student of English, Spanish, and literary translation at Saint Vincent College. She also serves as the social media intern at Eulalia Books, an independent publisher of literary translations. She is a translator of Latin American and Iberian literature.
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