The first book that truly moved me was Victor Hugo’s massive, inimitable, Les Misérables. In a harrowing 6 months of minimal human contact and some 1,200 pages later, I had three major realizations: 1) that I wanted to be a writer, 2) that I wanted to devote my life to the French language, and 3) that it was so brilliant, I hardly noticed the fact that it was an English translation.
But my first Les Misérables wasn’t just a translation; it was a work of art in its own right. If it wasn’t for this translation, I might not have ever experienced the beauty of this singular story, nor would I have been encouraged to take my study of French to a serious level. At the time, I was nowhere near fluent, but I was entranced by the culture of France, an enchantment that lives on to this day.
Since my literary awakening with Hugo, French and Francophone authors have been seminal to my canon. Luc Sante, Patrick Modiano, Soraya Nini. It was Michel Houellebecq’s prophetic Soumission that scared me so deeply about the future of politics. It was Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir L’arabe du futur that was my window to the Franco-Syrian world. I was a traveler, and my means of transportation was language.
Thanks to translation, for many writers and readers, literature is not limited by a language barrier. Vladimir Nabokov wrote beautifully in a language that wasn’t his mother tongue. Paul Bowles wrote travelogues inspired by his adventures in Morocco. International inspirations have long been apparent for domestic authors. Though despite this, translation remains an aspect of literature that is largely underrepresented in the United States.
There are only a handful of bookstores in New York City, for example, that sell both French and English books. One such exception is the Albertine Bookstore, housed within the French Embassy. I recently attended 2016’s Festival Albertine, curated by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was a scholarly and creative exploration of the relationship between French and American culture and politics. The landmark remains a welcome home for American Francophiles and French Anglophiles alike.
In 2006, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, in partnership with the PEN American Center, launched the French Voices Awards to promote French and Francophone fiction and non-fiction to English speakers. Each year, a committee of professionals including French and American agents, publishers, translators, and academics award up to 15 grants to assist American translators and publishers to bring contemporary French and Francophone titles into English. With the mission of bridging global gaps, boosting cultural diversity, and universalizing human tropes, French Voices rewards publishers and translators who champion transporting contemporary and barrier-breaking books to readers in the United States.
That means that today there’s a catalog of over 117 books, including bestselling authors, Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), André Compte-Sponville (The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality), and Pierre Bayard (How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read). Their efforts have helped the French language become the most translated language in the United States.
This year's Grand Prize winner is Daewoo, by François Bon, originally published in French by Fayard in 2004. Bon was trained as an engineer and had a successful career in that field before he published his first book, Sortie d’usine, in 1982, to great acclaim. Since then he has published more than 30 books of fiction, non-fiction, drama, and children's literature. Now one of the leaders in experimental literature in France, Bon's work has never before been translated into English. Daewoo's English translation, by California-based scholar and writer Youna Kwak, is forthcoming in 2019 from Diálogos Books, an imprint of independent New Orleans publisher, Lavendar Ink.
Daewoo tells the story of the aftermath of an industrial region struck by unemployment. Bon narrates leveraging his extensive research and interviews with former employees of three Daewoo factories in the Lorraine region of France which closed suddenly between 2002 and 2003. Bon zooms in on the lives of four women who are haunted by their departed colleague, Sylvia, who committed suicide when the plant closed. The book presents a poignantly relevant portrait of a depressed region that could very well be anywhere, even in the United States. Its political resonance rings strongly in any language. Le Matricule des anges says, “The reader is moved and devastated by this exploration of those who have fought to the point of losing connection with life, or even life itself, for one of them.”
French literature remains an important part of my life, and now, as I embark on reading Les Misérables in its original French, I am reminded of the English translation that made me fall in love with it in the first place. It’s celebrations like these of French Voices that help bring us together when the future of global relations is murky. Translation is an art that needs to be nurtured, to continue the legacy of a connected world. Reading the literature of one’s own culture can only take one so far. Character is built by an understanding and appreciation of the foreign, and French Voices helps us to turn strangers into friends.