David Bellos : The Irresistible Translator

“If you thought translating Proust might be difficult, just try Asterix”, says David Bellos, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University (New Jersey), where he has directed the intercultural translation and communication program since 2007. Bellos is acknowledged as the master of complex translation and the first to have tackled the French-language virtuoso Georges Perec.

“I had no talent whatsoever for sports, music or mathematics when I was a teenager. But I realized I could be good at French”, says Bellos, who has devoted his career to learning and teaching languages. While at school in a small town outside London, his French teacher Mr. Smith forged his love of language. Bellos would later become Mr. Smith. At 14 he studied French, then German, Latin and Russian. He continued his studies at Oxford University, and spent his first years learning about 19th century French literature. After graduating he taught at Edinburgh, Southampton and Manchester before settling down at Princeton in 1997.

His interest in translation was piqued later upon discovering George Perec, an author considered untranslatable until then. But La Vie mode d’emploi (1978) “was begging to be translated”. Bellos received the annual Translation Prize from the French-American Foundation in 1998 for this work, before entering the same Foundation as a jury member. But he admits that “the real reward is having a large readership”. The volume of work required of the volunteer jurors is enormous, and each is given several kilos of books to read. “Making critical, accurate judgements under these conditions is extremely difficult”, says Bellos.

His much-revered work on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011), was partly inspired by a “stupid” remark made by a parent of a Princeton student, who said: “You’re a translator? Don’t you think a translation can never match up to the original text?” Bellos went home and started writing essays based on his experiences in teaching and a certain number of ill-founded preconceptions of the translating profession. The highly humorous book guides readers through diverse themes such as the Tower of Babel, the Nuremberg Trials, Saint Jerome, Charlie Chaplin, international press agencies and computer software. The book was a publishing success story, covering the technical and philosophical aspects of the art of translation and of going from one language to another, while managing to avoid citing intimidating figures such as Walter Benjamin and Antoine Berman. “The variability of translations is incontrovertible evidence of the limitless flexibility of human minds. There can hardly be a more interesting subject than that”, he writes.

David Bellos also gave the world English version of Georges Ifrah’s L’Histoire universelle des chiffres as well as several novels by the Albanian author Ismail Kadare. And in March 2014 he published the first English translation of Daniel Anselme’s La Permission (1957), a novel about three French soldiers who spend their leave in Paris during the Algerian War. “My situation is rather special, as I don’t make my living as a translator. I only translate books I love”, he says. “American translators have long been ill-though-of compared with their French counterparts, whose numbers and reputation are far greater. The French also enjoy the support of unions, associations, government contacts and charters outlining translation prices per page. Working conditions have become difficult for American translators, who are now being put under pressure by an increasing demand for translations from English to French.

When he isn’t translating, Bellos is an accomplished critical biographer. He is the author of a “French trilogy”, three works on the lives of Georges Perec (Prix Goncourt for a biography, 1994), novelist Romain Gary (2010, which is still awaiting a French translation) and filmmaker Jacques Tati (2011). The three authors “share a wonderful sense of humor”, says Bellos. “In my opinion, they are the three most precious authors from French culture in the 1960s and 1970s. A true example of what France gave the world at the time, and far more enjoyable to read than the Nouveau Roman authors.”

Bellos sometimes wanders off the beaten track, making room in his repertoire for popular and “scandalous” authors such as Georges Simenon, San Antonio and Pierre Boulle. He is currently preparing a work on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a novel he sees as “the most ambitious ever written, a work of genius”, and which enjoyed international success following its publication in 1862. But the story of Cosette is looked down upon by the literary elite. “Authors of popular 19th century literature such as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Jules Verne helped to forge global popular culture”, says David Bellos. “Everyone knows the names of the musketeers, and the captain of the Nautilus. This literary heritage is little taught in universities, yet contributes enormously to international popular culture.”


Article published in the November 2015 issue of France-Amérique.


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