The Literal and Literary In Translation

A copy of "Out Of The Dark" at the Bennet Martin Library in Lincoln, donated by Roger Welsch, and signed by translator Jordan Stump. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Patrick Modiano is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. UNL professor Jordan Stump translated this novel from French to English. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Listen to this story: 

December 6, 2014 - 8:34am

This weekend in Stockholm, Sweden, the Nobel Prize in Literature is being awarded to French Author Patrick Modiano.  A professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln translated Modiano’s book Out of the Dark from French to English. For him, translation isn’t just about the words on the page. It’s about making good literature more accessible. Listen to Jordan Stump talk about being a translator or read the transcript below:

My name is Jordan Stump. I’m a professor of French at UNL. I’m a translator of about 20 books from French including Out Of The Dark by Patrick Modiano.

You can read a book, you can teach a book, you can write about a book, and those are all ways of getting involved in a book. Translating allows you to get a feel for how literature functions in a way that no other approach to reading really does. One of the difficulties about translation is that you can translate a sentence in many different ways. And probably a few of them are okay. Many, many of them are awful. You gotta think about the words. But if you think too closely about simply the words then you can create a text which is accurate but doesn’t do anything.

You’re actually trying to be the book. You know? You’re trying to get everything that is in the book and to be able to recreate it.

This book is a very typical Modiano-esque situation of a man thinking he remembers something from a distant past and not entirely certain that he’s remembering right or that it ever happened.

Watch Patrick Modiano's Nobel Lecture online on Sunday, December 7 at 10:30am CST


Read more about Patrick Modiano and Out of the Dark at the University of Nebraska Press website.

I was sort of floundering with the title. This book has a difficult title. To translate, I mean. The title in French is Du Plus Loin De L'Oubli. So, literally, what that means is: from the most far away. Du plus loin, loin is far away. So from the furthest point, say, of l’oubli. Oubli is a noun which comes from the verb oblier – to forget. Oubli is forgottenness. Which is a terrible word.

If you look up oubli in the dictionary  it will give you something like oblivion, but oblivion in actual usage in English suggests more sort of non-existence more than it does forgotteness. And so my wife, Eleanor Hardin, she had noticed actually, not me, that often in this book, the image of a man, say, walking down a street and there’s dark shadow on one side and bright sunlight on another side of the street, that that’s kind of a recurring image in the book. And that in fact, that neatly echoes the idea of a thing which is not there and a thing which is there. And so we toyed with the words a little bit and worked out Out Of the Dark. I thought that was a wonderful title.

I went to graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s. In those days, translation wasn’t taught in American universities. It’s thought of as not a scholarly practice. Little by little, universities are starting to create programs in literary translation. High time, I think. It’s one of the most important things that a scholar of literature can do with literature. Which is to make it accessible to other people.

To my mind, what I want is simply to create in the reader the kind of thrill, the kind of shiver down the spine, like Nabokov says, that I felt when I read the original.

Do you speak French? Listen below to compare the first paragraph of Out of the Dark in French and English.



blog comments powered by Disqus