Rachel Careau explains how Roger Lewinter’s translation helped her translate Colette
Before you start translating Darling and The end of Cheri, the pair of brilliant novels by the French writer Colette about the love that unites an aging courtesan and a very handsome, much younger man, my experience as a translator had been narrow but profound. Intermittently, over a period of more than twenty-five years, starting with my graduate studies in 1989, I had struggled with the work of a single author: the Franco-Austrian writer Roger Lewinter.
My translations of Lewinter’s books love story in loneliness and The attraction of things were published by New Directions in 2016; I translated a third volume, comprising four shorter texts, for my National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship in 2019.
Over the years I have gained an appreciation for the unique set of demands that Lewinter’s writing places on a translator: a respect for the order and disorder of words and sentences, their articulation and disarticulation ; for the peculiar placement and eccentric pairings of its punctuation; for the precision and complexity of its syntax; and for the rules of its very individual shapes.
The source of the greatest challenge in Lewinter’s translation has always been his acrobatic syntax, and nowhere is this syntax more startling and confusing than in which—in order—at evening red—words—[who—in the order—in evening’s red glow—of the words—] (1998), one of four texts in my NEA Fellowship volume. This little book of barely ten pages involves the formal “disarticulation”, or disjunction, of a single, endless sentence by means of interpolated clauses or sentences underlined with hyphens, i.e. clauses or sentences that are in parentheses, that interrupt, what Lewinter calls the “loading clause”.
Its functional innovation, the asymmetrically spaced dash, allowed multiple interpolations to fit together, creating a structure that I came to visualize, working on translation, as a series of inverted ziggurats. Lewinter’s use of hyperbaton, the deliberate disruption of idiomatic word order, further complicates the text.
It would be hard to find a writer more different from Lewinter than Colette, in personality, subject and style.
Such a form suffers no inaccuracy: “If there is an unnecessary word, a filler word, the sentence cannot move forward,” Lewinter said in In-sentencea collection of interviews from 2002 (translation by me).
What seems tedious to me in prose, apart from the arbitrary aspect, which is something else again, is the padding. In a novel, three quarters of the words are there so that the clauses are complete, but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s like there’s a semi-precious stone and then an extremely heavy mount. You really have to cross vast areas of nonsense.
When I told Lewinter that I would translate Colette, in my memory he let out a small laugh. It is true that it would be hard to find a writer more different from Lewinter than Colette, in personality, subject and style: he intensely private, she sometimes scandalously public; his metaphysical, spiritual, mysterious subjects, his earthly, physical, relational ones; his syntactically complex and obviously literary style, his simple, economical and anti-literary. In our phone conversation, Lewinter expressed a lack of affinity for his work. I reminded him of the one thing I could point out that they had in common: they were both flea market enthusiasts.
This description of Colette’s style – simple, economical, anti-literary – belies the difficulty of translating her work. By “simple” I don’t mean inconsiderate, and economy and simplicity are not the same thing. A simple and economical style requires the greatest skill in the choice and arrangement of words. And an “anti-literary” style, a style that is more familiar than formal, poses challenges – like handling contemporary slang – that more literary works do not.
The challenges of translating Colette’s work lie not in her syntax, which is mostly straightforward: she disliked composing sentences in Proust’s “elaborate syntactic pyramids” (in the words of Lydia Davis) , or in anything resembling Lewinter’s inverted ziggurats. Her pleasure was apparently elsewhere, finding the right word, stripping the “padding” to say what she wanted to say with as few words as possible.
So that way I could tell Lewinter they’re not so different after all: Avoiding the “extremely heavy setting” she introduces us to the gem. And this is one of the difficulties of translating his work.
A simple and economical style requires the greatest skill in the choice and arrangement of words.
Colette, in her writings, often omitted words that were not strictly necessary – conjunctions like andand relative pronouns like who and who-as well as adjectives that might embellish and slow down the prose too much, so that his sentences might seem stripped down, a little irregular, a little syncopated. In translating his work, as in translating that of Lewinter, I have tried to reproduce his sentences as they are, endeavoring to respect the order of their words and their sentences, and to respect their omissions, trying not to add.
An example will serve to illustrate what I mean by respecting the order of words and sentences and not filling the text. This is Colette, from The end of Cheri:
A flood of incidents, a tide of broken regrets and innocuous resurrections, churned with the skill of a vocerator, bathed Cheri.
And here is my translation:
A torrent of events, a tide of exhausted regrets and innocuous resurrections distilled with the skill of a vocero singer, swept over Cheri.
In Colette’s original French, as in my translation, the sentence begins with a flow (a torrent) and a tide (a tide), which together form its subject; the main verb, bathed (washed), falls at the end of the sentence, just before the direct object, Darling. Roger Senhouse, in his 1951 translation, reverses this order and inflates the sentence from the 21 words of Colette’s original French (and my translation) to 28, by adding a prepositional phrase and an adjective (he adds “perfect” to “flood” ) and extension to two names (“ease and speed”) the unique name of Colette skill (skill):
Chéri was awash in a perfect stream of incidents, a tide of past regrets and innocuous resurrections, all declaimed with the ease and speed of a professional mourner.
Senhouse also loses the vivid particularity of this rare word, voceratorthat is, one who sings a vocero, a Corsican dirge sung for a victim of murder and calling for revenge – which brings me to another source of difficulty in translating Colette.
Colette had a gloriously wide vocabulary, filled with slang and slang words, specialized and technical terms, rare and classic usages: gas burnermeaning more colloquially “a gas lamppost”, but also for “a major and unforeseen obstacle” (to be gas-burning also means “fail”); clerkmeaning “a clerk”, but also a slang term for “cat”; bird beata specialized term taken from falconry, used to describe prey beaten by the falcon’s wing and thus defeated, but used figuratively to mean “having lost one’s courage through a series of failures”, according to The Littre.
Now, I like to imagine them, Monsieur Lewinter and Madame Colette, visiting the flea market together, in search of their treasures, walking arm in arm.
Unusual usages and expressions like these can easily trip up a translator, and translating them requires some ingenuity, especially in the case of contemporary slang and slang, most often used in dialogue. Take for example, gas burner: Colette used it in The end of Cheriin the exclamation “Ah! There there, my children, what a gaslight!The words are spoken by the Girlfriend, the old prostitute who watches over Chéri in his last days; it colorfully depicts the steadfastness of Léa, Chéri’s former lover, in front of a character named Mortier, who was trying to get something from Léa that she had no intention of giving. Senhouse translated this as “Oh! la la, my pretties, what an ass he has made of himself! make a donkey means “to behave foolishly”; but what Colette meant was that Mortier had been frustrated in his plans by a formidable obstacle, namely Lea, and that he had failed.
Once I discovered the meaning of the term, it took me a long time, fumbling around, coming back to the problem again and again, to find the expression split on a rock, which means “to fail, to be fatally mistaken, to see one’s hopes and designs frustrated”. In addition to perfectly capturing the meaning of Colette, the expression was common at the time when The end of Cheri was written, having appeared in Webster’s Revised Integral Dictionary in 1913 — a requirement for me, because I wanted to avoid anachronisms in the translation. My own translation of the exclamation is therefore “My God, boys and girls, was he split on a rock!”
In June 2012, I had planned to visit the Plainpalais flea market with Lewinter on the last Saturday of my stay in Geneva. We made an appointment beforehand at the Café-Sandwicherie du Théâtre. I arrived at the appointed time, but he arrived late. His mood seemed sour. He sat down, quickly shot down a ristrette (a tiny, very strong black coffee), then abruptly left. I waited almost an hour, without knowing where he had gone or if he intended to return, before leaving and returning to my hotel.
He phoned, we had a hitch, and by the time we had resolved our differences, it was too late, the market was closing for the day. I regret missing what turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because after forty years of going to the Saturday flea market, Lewinter no longer goes there.
Colette and Lewinter never met. When he arrived in Paris in 1948 or 1949, he was a seven-year-old boy and Colette was an arthritic, bedridden seventy-five-year-old woman. As a child, he visited the Louvre alone on Thursday afternoons, where he lingered each time in front of Leonardo’s work. The Virgin of the Rocks, attracted by the smile of the angel, while Colette was lying in her apartment in the Palais-Royal, a few streets away. Now, I like to imagine them, Monsieur Lewinter and Madame Colette, visiting the flea market together, in search of their treasures, walking arm in arm.
Cheri and the end of Cheri by Colette, translated by Rachel Careau, is available from WW Norton and Company.