“I got an email from my publisher. I had just woke up, I was really confused. I thought they sent it to the wrong person! French novelist Alice Zeniter talks to me after learning that his novel The Art of Losing has just won the Dublin International Literary Prize, the world’s richest prize for a novel published in English.The prize, sponsored by Dublin City Council, was presented on Monday to Zeniter and his translator, Frank Wynne, at an event during the Dublin International Literary Festival.
The beauty of the prize is that it’s open to books originally written in any language, and if a translated book wins, the translator receives 25% of the prize money. Fittingly, Frank Wynne – who was born in Sligo – also joins our conversation, zooming in from what he calls a “shed” in Dublin, cigarette in hand for much of our conversation. Zeniter speaks excellent English but sometimes, when an idiomatic term escapes her, she passes the word to Wynne, who quickly delivers the English, and the conversation continues uninterrupted.
“It’s amazing how the book has its own life” in another language, continues Zeniter. “Because when I finished it and gave it to my publishers, they said it probably wouldn’t get translated and if it did, it wouldn’t sell at home. foreign, because it was such a French subject. I was talking about the ruins of our colonial empire and who would be interested in it abroad?
With hindsight, of course, it’s easy to say that The Art of Losing was a much better prospect for publication and reward than Zeniter’s editor thought. I featured it as a potential winner in my roundup of this newspaper’s shortlist, and its themes of immigration and colonialism are not only persistent, but current and urgent.
The Art of Losing is a multigenerational story featuring the French Algerian diaspora, a consequence of its historic colonial presence in the country. The center of the modern part of the book is Naïma, a typical French girl who seeks to know the history of her family, who came from Algeria to France. In total, we get three generations of stories, from Naïma and her father Hamid, and her father Ali.
The book was born out of Zeniter, who has an Algerian father, a desire to write an immigration story that offered more than a “one-person perspective”, that not only told the story of the arrival but also of departure, and the “strength, intelligence, adaptation” required of immigrants. Her novel, she decided, would “make the country of departure exist very strongly” and the reader “travel with the characters”.
Of course, I say to Wynne, as an Irishman you will have your own thoughts about colonialism, emigration and immigration. Did this influence his reading – and his translation – of The Art of Losing?
“A lot,” says Wynne. “My father was born in 1901, so he lived through the 1916 uprising and the civil war, and ‘the emergency’ as we called it, from 1939 to 1945. [So] the experiences of living in a colony and witnessing the emergence of an independence movement and civil war were founding elements of his young life.
“So the parallels were very clear to me,” he continues. “And I think what Alice did here, encompassing the previous period starting with the occupation [of Algeria by France], gives a much fuller impression, especially for readers who come to it without knowing much. The Algerian war of independence has been called the silent war. It was agreed that no one would talk about it. After a brutal, quote-unquote “special operation” that involved torturing civilians etc., finally the Vichy accord was signed, a huge blanket was thrown over everything, you know, “let’s never talk about how how we behaved’.”
Where, I ask Zeniter, does this whole story connect to the present day – when we saw far-right politician Marine le Pen, run on an anti-immigration platform, make it to the last round of the presidential race in France a few weeks ago? (His father, Jean-Marie le Pen, was accused of using torture when he served in the French army in Algeria in 1957.)
“I think there’s a continuation of the same patterns,” she says. “Basically, white French people who have lived with all the privileges they could have, do not want to see that another part of the population does not have the same rights. They want to assume that the situation is OK for everyone. It is therefore not surprising that today the French police mainly target blacks, Arabs, mainly young men, but that is because the history of this organization is that of a racist empire.
I’m aware that by discussing these serious issues the book tackles we can make it heavy, but it’s a lively, action-packed book, and often playful in the way the narrative is delivered. Was it a deliberate choice on Zeniter’s part?
“Yes. It’s easy for adversaries to just say, you’re complaining or you’re just angry. And it’s worse when you’re a woman, whether you’re Arab or black, because of the [stereotype] of the “angry black woman”. So I really didn’t want to have something that was just a cry of anger or pain. I wanted to have full lives. I wanted it to be playful because I don’t want to write a story that just draws compassion for my characters – I want people to be able to be my characters, which is something very rare in our literature, you know, that you can put yourself [in the place of] a character who is Algerian.
And what about, I wonder, the translation process itself. Is there a lot of collaboration? “What I usually do,” Wynne says, “is have a finished first draft before I start asking the author questions. In this, as in any novel with a historical element, that means making research and so on. I can’t believe, he adds, that I was translating books before the Internet! That meant going to libraries to check everything. When I come back to an author, he continues, It’s generally to deal with an ambiguity in the text, or sometimes it’s more general, on the voice, on the atmosphere.
“Most of the time,” Zeniter said, “I remember agreeing with you.”
“Which was very helpful to me,” says Wynne, “because my American editor didn’t always agree with me. So I could go up to her and say, ‘But you see, Alice, she agrees with me!’ »
As well as attending the awards ceremony on Monday, Wynne returns to London (“difficult week”) to preside over the final meeting of the International Booker Prize. “Then I put on a monkey costume on Thursday and tell the world what we’ve decided.” Like the Dublin Literary Award, the International Booker rewards both author and translator, although its £50,000 prize is split equally between author and translator. We have also seen a movement in the UK and Ireland to have translators named on book covers. Wynne “fallen into my fifth career as a translator when I was 40”; it was after his translation of Atomised by Michel Houellebecq won the Dublin Literary Award 20 years ago that he was able to do it full time. Does he think we are seeing more recognition of translation as an imaginative act rather than an imitative one?
“I do. I mean, historically, translation was considered a hobby. But you can’t just pour in a bunch of words and get a bunch of words out. It’s an act of imagination in which the novel has to be completely rewritten in another language. People still sometimes say to me, “They don’t have software to do that? But machine translation doesn’t understand irony, empathy or humor. He can’t tell a joke.
He continues: “I heard that very recently, people will say, ‘Oh, one author could have written the book, but many translators could have translated it.’ Is it true? Only Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations, but interpretations by Rosalind Tureck or Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett are all fundamentally different, and I like knowing which one I buy.
And, as we close our conversation, he notes that even among people who should know better, a lack of recognition can still linger. “About 12 years ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Wynne recounts, “German translators at the time were campaigning for better rates and more recognition. And the editor of probably Germany’s most famous publishing house, told the translator of a Nobel Prize-winning Italian author, “Wynne smiles, “But I can find a translator anywhere. This city is full of pizzerias! »