In conversation with... Louise Lalaurie

Hi Louise! Thank you for joining me today. I have just finished reading Antoine Laurain’s Smoking Kills, which you translated from the French to English, and I’d like to ask you a few questions both on this specific book and more generally on translation. So let’s begin…

How did you get started in literary translation?

A: I studied English Literature and Art History at Cambridge, including a paper on literary translation into English, but never thought of it as a career until I moved to France after a few years as an editor and writer in book and magazine publishing in London. My contacts in art publishing began asking me to translate French art monographs, exhibition catalogues etc., often including literary extracts. An editor I worked with regularly at Flammarion in Paris passed my name to the Institut Français in London, and I translated extracts from new French novels for their twice-yearly review Fiction France, sadly no longer published. At the same time, Flammarion asked me to translate the text of a book of erotic French postcards from the Belle Epoque: four specially-commissioned short stories by Delphine de Vigan, Serge Joncour, Anna Rozen and Philippe Jaenada – my first published literary translation! The second was the result of a French Voices award, to which translators can submit a pitch and sample even if they don’t have a contract for the book (provided the English rights are available). It turned out that Dalkey Archive Press were also looking at the author I had proposed, French psychogeographer Jean Rolin, and my translation of his fictionalised Congo travelogue The Explosion of the Radiator Hose was published by them in 2011.

You have translated one of Laurain’s previous books, The President’s Hat. Are there elements in the author’s writing style that you find are specific to him?

A: I love the way Antoine builds a wonderfully affectionate, slightly nostalgic iconography of French and especially Parisian life, from oyster-eating in a traditional brasserie to queuing up for cigarettes under a glowing red tabac sign or sitting on a bench in the Parc Monceau. He takes his readers to so many nooks and corners in the French capital, even the exercise yard at the Santé prison. “Antoine Laurain’s Paris” is instantly recognisable and immensely enjoyable. He also has a splendidly arch feel for the worldview, references and speech of a particular tranche of Parisian society, which I really enjoy trying to convey in English.  

Can you describe the process of translating Smoking Kills, whose original title is Fume et Tue

A: I read it before starting and knew that finding the right English equivalent for the very Parisian voice of the first-person hero, Fabrice Valantine, would be crucial. As for every translation, once I think I’ve struck the right tone, I work through a pretty thorough first draft, listing queries for the author and doing whatever bits of research are required as I go along. For Smoking Kills, this meant plenty of picture searches on Paris localities I didn’t know personally: the neighbourhood known as La Campagne à Paris, or the Piscine Pontoise (an Art Deco swimming pool). And some quite detailed research about Colombian frogs. And covert killing techniques involving lightbulbs and petrol. Translators always joke about their unlikely and/or highly suspect search histories…! I print out my first draft, read it in a different room from the one I mostly translated it in, do a copy-edit by hand, then input my corrections back onto my Word document, accepting or rejecting them, or coming up with alternatives, in the process. The result is a ‘finished’ third draft, which goes to the publisher.  

Were you in contact with Antoine Laurain during the translation of either of his books? In general, how do you find that having access to the author impacts on the translating process?

A: I wasn’t in contact with Antoine during either translation, but Jane Aitken, the publisher of Gallic Books and my co-translator on The President’s Hat, with Emily Boyce, is in close touch with him, and I know he likes our translation of The President’s Hat! As a rule, I don’t work closely with the author throughout the translation process, in fact, but I do consult them with specific queries. Jean Rolin put me in touch with a contact in the Merchant Navy, for example, who was able to help with the terms for the parts of a cargo ship. It tends to be that sort of fine detail.

Without giving too much away, can you please describe a scene that you loved translating or a scene / sentence that was particularly difficult to render in English?

A: Smoking Kills has some great set-pieces, each with its own challenges. There’s an Edenic scene in a forest glade, and (without giving too much away) buttocks are involved (fesses in French), which prompted an entertaining discussion with fellow translators on Facebook about ways to avoid the unattractive English word. One of the book’s first reviewers says he feels the scene has an authentically ‘continental’ feel in English, which is what I was aiming for. Another great scene transposes a cast of at least six characters from their office setting to a work ‘jolly’ at the Piscine Pontoise: the challenge was to convey their sense of awkward unfamiliarity as they see one another in a completely new light, while at the same time retaining each character’s recognisable, established traits and speech. Antoine pulls it off perfectly in French, and I had fun trying to do the same in English.  

The President’s Hat was a collaborative translation, while you are the sole translator of Smoking Kills. What are the advantages or either process and which one do you prefer?

A: The President’s Hat is narrated in the third person, but through the eyes of a series of different characters, so it was well suited to a collaborative translation: Jane, Emily and I each took one character (Emily took two, in fact), and the different voices work well as a result. Smoking Kills is a deeply personal, first-person narrative, so a collaborative approach might have been more challenging. I did co-translate a similar narrative a few years ago, however: Tregian’s Ground by a Swiss author, Anne Cuneo, for And Other Stories, with Roland Glasser. The book required a huge amount of historical and specialist research, which it was great to share. And Anne’s input was central to the translation process in that case: she suggested we take alternate chapters (Roland got the odd numbers, I got the evens, on the toss of a coin…) and then we edited each other’s work, with complete freedom to accept or reject the edits to our respective chapters. The ‘fifth Beatle’ in all this was unquestionably our (then) editor at And Other Stories, Sophie Lewis, who is herself a distinguished translator. Readers say the result is seamless, and I think the narrator’s first-person voice holds true throughout! I don’t have a preference for either approach, really – and even a solo translation becomes a collaborative effort ultimately, because the input of a really good copy-editor is invaluable.   

What are you working on at the moment? 

A: I’ve just delivered another powerful multi-character narrative to Ravi Mirchandani and Ansa Khan Kattak at Picador/Pan Macmillan: The Braid, by Laetitia Colombani. Three women confront (superficially) radically different challenges across three continents. It’s been a huge best-seller in France, so I’ll be really interested to see how it’s received in English. And now I’m gearing up to wear my art history hat and write a book on Matisse for Thames & Hudson: something completely different!

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Short stories by Annie Proulx, with my English book-club here in Toulouse. I love really strong prose stylists in French and English, and her writing is extraordinary. Also Virginie Despentes’ fabulous novel Vernon Subutex, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, both in the original and in Frank Wynne’s translation – it’s the raw, edgy, punk counterpoint to Antoine Laurain’s Paris. 

Is there one type of fiction that you prefer translating? Does this reflect your preference as a reader?

A: My translations of Jean Rolin and Gabrielle Wittkop definitely reflect my enthusiasm for strong, virtuosic prose at the boundaries of travel and fiction, both to read and to translate. I also love character-driven, literary crime with a really strong sense of place, so translating Olivier Truc’s thriller Forty Days Without Shadow (Little Brown, 2014) set in the Sami territories of the Scandinavian Arctic, was a joy. 

Many thanks for your time!

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