Auster in French Translation
Le Breuf’s translations are no minor part of Auster’s success. Though selftrained, she was more reflective than Weissner. For Auster’s Book of Illusions she appended a six-page “Note sur la traduction,” explaining why she had left in English a bevy of proper names (cars, places, cities) and the catalogs of the pseudonymous translator and narrator David Zimmer. Weissner did such things without explanation. Le Breuf adhered rigorously to the plus- que-parfait in French, unlike some modernizing translators. The following passage is one that she discussed with me. The sexuality and slang posed translation difficulties. This is an account of how the disappeared filmmaker Hector Mann becomes a paid sexual performer:
The only time he had any trouble was the first time, or just before the first time, when he still didn’t know if he would be up to the job. Fortunately, Sylvia booked their first performance for an audience of just one man. That made it bearable somehow—to go public in a private sort of way, with just one pair of eyes on him and not twenty or fifty or a hundred. In this case, the eyes belonged to Archibald Pierson, a seventy-year-old retired judge who lived alone in a three-story Tudor house in Highland Park. Sylvia had already been there once with Al, and as she and Hector climbed into a taxi on the appointed night and headed toward their destination in the suburbs, she warned him that they would probably have to go through the act twice, perhaps even three times. The coot was stuck on her, she said. He’d been calling for weeks now, desperate to know when she’d be coming back, and little by little she’d bargained the price up to two and a half C’s per shot, double what it had been at the last time. I ain’t no slouch when it comes to talkin’ bread, she announced proudly. If we play this goon right, Hermie boy, he could become our meal ticket.98
Le Breuf told me that she had a trans-Atlantic phone conversation with Auster, not about the sex, but about how to deal with the slang.99 In particular she worried about “The coot was stuck on her” and “I ain’t no slouch.” She felt she had good equivalents for “bread” and “goon.”
La seule fois ou il eprouva de la difficulte, ce fut la premiere, ou plutot juste avant la premiere, quand il ne savait pas encore s’il serait a la hauteur. Heureusement, Sylvia avait reserve cette premiere a une assistance reduite a un seul homme. Cela rendait la chose a peu pres supportable : se montrer en public de maniere privee, en quelque sorte, avec une seule paire d’yeux fixee sur lui et non vingt, cinquante ou cent. Dans ce cas-ci, les yeux appartenaient a Archibald Pierson, un juge a la retraite age de soixante- dix ans, qui vivait seul dans une maison de style Tudor a Highland Park. Sylvia y etait deja allee une fois avec Al et quand Hector et elle monterent en taxi le jour dit et se dirigerent vers leur destination dans les faubourgs, elle le prevint qu’ils devraient sans doute s’executer deux fois, peut-etre meme trois. Le vieux avait le beguin pour elle. Il y avait des semaines qu’il appelait, dit-elle, desesperement anxieux de savoir quand elle reviendrait, et elle avait marchande, faisant petit a petit monter le tarif jusqu’a deux cents cinquante le coup, le double de ce que ^’avait ete la fois precedente. Je suis pas empotee quand il s’agit de negocier, annon^a-t-elle avec fierte. Si on exploite bien cet imbecile, mon petit Hermie, il pourrait devenir notre ticket-repas.100
“Le vieux avait le beguin pour elle” [the old man had a crush on her] is very idiomatic French, but she felt “it was just right” and Auster agreed. However, as my back translation in the following footnote shows, some of the rhythmic repetitions, as in the first sentence of the original, are lost.101 The sexual “act” is only implied in “s’executer” and the money is anonymized. Le Breuf’s French loses a bit of Sylvia’s slangy greed and Hector’s contrasting reticence, even while retaining “Tudor-style” and “Highland Park.” “Coot” has disappeared, and “slouch” is rendered as “clumsy.” In a language that has a quick- moving slang like French, these are conservative choices that will keep the text readable for a long time. Le Breuf wanted, like Rabassa, to keep Auster in translation, and in her translation—it is an “equivalence” translation with some domesticating touches. Her dedication paid off, for these translations sold hundreds of thousands of copies when Auster’s works were adopted for the CAPES exams.
Auster benefitted enormously in France by staying with Actes Sud, which has published all of his fiction. It was not only a gateway, but gave him both a patron (like Sun & Moon’s Messerli) and a translator in the validating French market that Casanova has written about. Auster is an author who would seem to prove her point, but she only mentions him once. While she champions the power of French literary judgment, she never describes the individuals in French culture who bestow cultural validation, not even sympathetic book reviewers. Franco Moretti, as Simon Sylvester points out, feels such “derision for the [detective] genre as little more than an appropriation of the short story form” that he cannot deal with “the weaving, evolving plot lines of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.”102