An Interview with Jordan Stump

The words on the page told me everything I needed to know.

Our final Asymptote Book Club selection for 2018 was The Barefoot Woman, Scholastique Mukasonga’s “haunted and haunting love letter” to her mother. In this latest edition of our Book Club interview series, translator Jordan Stump tells Asymptote’s Alyea Canada why he leapt at the chance to translate both The Barefoot Woman and Scholastique Mukasonga’s earlier memoir, Cockroaches, and why “this is a really good time for translation.”

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Alyea Canada (AC): How did you come to translate The Barefoot Woman? What drew you to Scholastique Mukasonga’s work in general and to this book in particular?

Jordan Stump (JS): It was Jill Schoolman who introduced me to Mukasonga’s work, not long after Notre-Dame du Nil was published. I was immediately taken by it, so when the chance to translate Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman came along, I leapt at it immediately. I translate books that say something in a way that strikes me as so perfect I want to try to say it myself—like learning to play a piece of music you particularly love instead of simply listening to it.  Reading is like listening; translating is like playing. There are always many reasons why a given book has that effect on me, but in this case I loved the sharpness of Mukasonga’s eye, the graceful construction of her chapters, the way a story wrapped up in unimaginable loss is told with a little smile, and the way in which that smile sometimes abruptly disappears.

AC: Did your translation of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s earlier memoir, inform the way you approached The Barefoot Woman? Mukasonga has a very distinctive voice: in a previous interview you referred to it as “matter-of-fact . . . with a little bit of a lilt.” Did you find it easier to render her tone in English this time around?

JS: I’m always surprised at how little the translation of one book by an author helps with the translation of another. No doubt it helps to get to know an author’s voice, but what really counts is the voice of the book, and every book is different. I, at least, always feel like I’m starting over with every translation. That lilt is still there—it’s a bit stronger here, I’d say, since this is a book more about love than about loss, even if loss hangs over it all—but I have to find a way to make it come through in the context of this book, and for that the experience of translating an earlier book doesn’t help a great deal.

AC: The Barefoot Woman has a more cerebral quality when compared to the orality of Cockroaches (for example, in the passages where Scholastique Mukasonga breaks away from the narrative to address the reader directly). Was this quality difficult to maintain during your translation? With a book this personal, did you involve the author in your process at all?

JS: In the hands of a writer less lucid and generous than Mukasonga, that might very well pose a problem; as it is, I find that I need only follow her words. For that same reason, I didn’t bring her into the translation process: to my mind, the words on the page told me everything I needed to know, and did all the work that needed to be done.

AC: The text includes a number of words in Kinyarwanda that in some ways help illustrate an underlying tension in the book: that Mukasonga is writing in a colonial language that her mother can’t understand. Was it your decision to italicize these words each time they appear? If so, what was your reasoning for doing so? 

JS: The italics were my idea. I agonized over that question when I was translating Cockroaches: she generally doesn’t italicize, which one could see as a way of giving Kinyarwanda the same status as French, so in my early drafts of Cockroaches I did the same thing. But then I read through the manuscript and I found my eye sort of drifting over the Kinyarwanda words—just as we all (sometimes, at least) skip over words we don’t understand when we’re reading. I realized that I wasn’t really seeing those words. So I tried italicizing them and, however paradoxical it may seem I thought that the italics gave them a presence they didn’t have in roman. I want readers to see those words, to sound them out in their heads, and in practical terms I found the italics were the way to make that happen.

AC: You have translated a wide variety of writers from French, including canonical writers such as Honoré de Balzac and contemporary authors such as Marie NDiaye. Recently, there has been a trend of “discovering” African or Caribbean authors who have been writing in French for years. Why do you think there is suddenly an appetite for books from formerly colonized countries? What projects do you have coming up?

JS: I can see a couple of reasons for this. One is that there is currently a remarkably strong appetite for books from all sorts of places that American readers have overlooked for decades, if they’ve ever paid any attention to them at all. Look at the remarkable popularity of Ferrante and Knausgård: who would have thought, say ten years ago, that the famously translatophobic American reader would be waiting with bated breath for the next work by a writer from Italy or Norway? I think this is a really good time for translation because a very palpable segment of the reading population is suddenly hungry for things they haven’t seen before—books that don’t necessarily obey the strictures of the American literary tradition. The interest in postcolonial writers has something to do with that, of course, but there’s another layer to it as well. I think—I’d desperately like to think—that in this country we’ve become increasingly sensitive to the marginalization that’s been (and is still being) imposed on huge swaths of humankind, and that we’re increasingly eager to resist that marginalization, and increasingly curious about what it has silenced. That’s my hope, at least.

As for future plans: more Mukasonga, more NDiaye, and then we’ll see. . .

Jordan Stump is a professor of French at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author, most recently, of The Other Book: Bewilderments of Fiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) and the translator of some thirty works of (mostly) contemporary French fiction, including works by Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and Marie NDiaye.

Alyea Canada is an Assistant Editor at Asymptote. She currently works as a freelance editor and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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