Books

“You Always Need New Words Because the World Is Changing”

For its eighth edition, the French-American Foundation in Paris awarded the 2021 Translation Prize to Santiago Artozqui for his translation of Why Visit America by Matthew Baker. This collection of short stories has been a resounding success on both sides of the Atlantic and is the author’s first work to be translated into French. France-Amérique met the two laureates for the occasion.
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George Catlin, Buffalo Bull Grazing – no. 2, 1844. © Smithsonian American Art Museum

France-Amérique: Why Visit America is a collection of thirteen short stories taking place in a near future. How did you come up with this idea?

Matthew Baker: The question of dystopia v. utopia is one that fascinates me because human beings are so diverse ideologically and philosophically. Some of the stories are set in a dystopia and everyone is experiencing it as such. But there are other stories that are set in societies that most of the characters are experiencing as utopia, and I was interested in following one or two characters in that world who, no matter how happy everyone else was, wanted to burn it all down.

Why do you write short stories about the United States? Is it because the U.S. feels more fragmented than ever?

M.B.: I started working on these stories long before I had the concept of the book as a whole, so it was not a deliberate touch. But I do love the idea of a larger story told through these connected yet separated pieces. I guess this is somewhat the structure of a country made of smaller states or regions, both independent and cooperating towards a larger national goal.

Yet, isn’t America used as a pretext to ultimately deliver a more global message?

Santiago Artozqui: I think so. The way I see these stories is that they take some aspects of American life and push them to their limits. Something similar could take place in France, whether superficially or when talking about topics such as racism, lexicography, etc.

M.B.: Maybe certain details would change if you transplanted the stories to France, to Scotland, or even to Brazil! Yet the history and the questions are ultimately universal ones that all humans struggle and live with.

There are many neologisms in the book: Would you say that the existing vocabulary is not enough anymore?

S.A.: I, for one, would say that you always need new words because the world is changing. There are new things, new interactions, and new ways to feel about things that need new words. Even outside of literature you need new words. Perhaps in Matthew’s book, we tend to notice them more than usual.

M.B.: Yes, I imagine it was a tricky project to translate. There’s a lot happening with language but also throughout the book, as they are speculative stories. Sometimes, there might even be words that already exist, but they are being used in an entirely new way or implicitly given a new definition!

The writing has all the enticing elements of a screenplay in novel form. Has cinema influenced you?

S.A.: Translation is a technical process but that’s sort of the easy part. Images are an entirely different thing. When I translate, it’s partly about the words but mostly about the images and references that I try to render.

M.B.: For me, film has had the biggest influence on me maybe more than any other storytelling medium, as a person as well as a writer and a storyteller. When I’m working on a piece of writing, I’m thinking of it as images, as in distinct shots or sequences or montages, in the same way that you would envision a film. And I do think that the stories were very much influenced by the history of film and genres from horror to spaghetti westerns.

S.A.: And it shows! Especially when translating the short story Why Visit America. Of course it was spaghetti western; it was obvious!

Which does make sense, since your short stories are going to be adapted onto the silver screen.

MB: I think eight or nine of them at this point have been optioned for film or for television. But you never really know what’s actually going to get made in that industry, because they make so few things relatively to what they option. I hope that a few of them make it to the screen in some form!

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Why Visit America by Matthew Baker, MacMillan, 2020. 368 pages, 27.99 dollars.

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