Category Archives: raymond queneau

Translation as Stylistic Evolution

Some people have asked for the title of the Calvino/Queneau translation book I referenced earlier this week. It is Translation as Stylistic Evolution: Italo Calvino Creative Translator of Raymond Queneau. It will cost you about $60.

The Genius of What Is Possible In English

Fascinating conversation between Adam Kirsch and Ilya Kaminsky on what translation can and can’t do. I’ll grant that Kirsch is well-informed, and his concerns are fair enough, but this response of Kaminsky’s really gets at the inherent error in focusing to exclusivity on the source text w/r/t translation:

But what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.

I love that devotion to the “local” in your earlier commentary, and would like to turn the discussion to the idea of influences. How does this inherent local power in English language poetry grow, expand, and learn its own abilities from its constant encounters with the other? What keeps that wonderful poetic (or, at times, anti-poetic) “local” fresh? What allows it to constantly renew itself and not die of incest and boredom?

AK: What you say about poetry’s encounters with otherness seems to me to apply especially to American poetry. Think of Pound and Eliot, who were never more American than when they attempted to channel the whole of European literature

For what it’s worth, I’m reading a book on Italo Calvino right now that recounts Calvino’s translation of a book of Queneau’s that was essentially untranslatable (Calvino’s word, not mine). Why did Calvino do it? He wanted to enrich the Italian language, as well as develop his own style as a writer. That’s just what he did. (It’s a central claim of this book that this translation was largely responsible for Calvino’s evolution in his books after Cosmicomics.) And at the end of the day Italian readers had a book that, though not an exact parallel text to Queneau’s original, was still one of the year’s most interesting, innovative texts to appear in Italian when Calvino published it.

50 Outstanding Translations from the Last 50 Years

The Literary Saloon points me to: 50 Outstanding Translations of the Last 50 Years.

I certainly won’t quibble with the inclusion of Barbara Wright’s courageous rendition of Exercises in Style, but I will say that if ever a book is crying out for a new translation, this is it. Wright’s language may have been correct when she made her translation in 1958, but much of it just seems completely off-base now. I’d like to see a new translation, one that uses period language that has stayed a little more relevant than the words Wright chose.

Another thing about Wright’s translation: it’s all in British English! That’s, of course, fine if you’re English, but I think American readers deserve a translation of this work that relies so heavily on slang written in an idiom that they find more natural.

And lastly, Wright (perhaps inevitably) took numerous liberties with her translation–if anything, Exercises is, page for page, as good a collection of the untranslatable as you’re likely to find. Well, I’d like to see someone else’s creative intellect take a shot at solving some of the problems that Wright tackled.

For more on Queneau, see here:

Audience Expectations

Dan digs this out:

. . .A few years ago I had lunch with then-editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sonja Bolle. When asked what books I was soon to publish on my Sun & Moon Press label, I replied that we had just published a translation by the French Oulipo writer, Raymond Queneau. “O, I love Queneau,” she gushed, much to my surprise. “He’s a wonderful writer. But, of course, we couldn’t possibly do a review of his work!” “Why not?” I naively responded. Oh, our readers couldn’t understand a review about his literature. You know, most newspaper readers read at the sixth grade level.

I was appalled, not so much by the journalistic cliché we have all heard many times, but by the absolute misunderstanding, it seemed to me then and does yet today, of who her audience was. “Do you think,” I asked, “that it is the least literate part of your audience who reads the book section? Why even have a book section if that’s the case? There are many readers for different reasons,” I concluded. “We live in a very diverse time. And furthermore, I don’t believe that any reader of a newspaper is a complete idiot. Don’t you owe readers something

I think this is what’s frustrating about a lot of newspaper coverage–it just assumes a very low amount of understanding on the part of the audience–so you get reviews that rehash the plot and little more.

It need not be this way. You can talk about things like aesthetics, context, and voice in intelligent ways without writing something that can only be decoded by a specialist.

Bouvard and Pecuchet

coverJust a quick blurb for the Dalkey Archive’s new translation of Bouvard and Pecuchet, a book I finished reading last week.  This was my first dose of Flaubert, and it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. I’d, of coures, heard all about how Flaubert created the realist novel with Madame Bovary, and, well Bouvard and Pecuchet is definitely not your classic realist novel.

What the fine introduction and preface (by translator Mark Polizzotti and Raymond Queneau) explain, however, is that Bouvard and Pecuchet may be the first modernist novel, or at least a forerunner. Then again, it may by a postmodern novel. It’s not quite clear where this work first in.

What is clear, at least to me, was that it’s a damn entertaining book that features clear, inventive prose and is often quite funny. For more, see Derik’s review in The Quarterly Conversation.

99 Ways to Tell A Story

Derik Badman gives a positive review to Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell A Story over at Comic Book Galaxy. The book is an innovative comic based on a simple conceit. Following Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, in which Queneau tells the same story in 99 different ways, Madden

has created his own Exercises in Style in comics form, and I’m here to say that it stands as an equal to Queneau’s linguistic masterpiece. Matt tells a simple story: Matt gets up from working at his computer. He walks into another room of the apartment. From upstairs his wife Jessica asks for the time, and Matt answers her. He goes to the refrigerator and opens it. He can’t recall what he was looking for. That’s the story, and we read it ninety-nine times without getting bored. . . .

Early on, a group of pages vary the point of view: Matt’s first person view, third person from upstairs in the apartment with Jessica, a view from the refrigerator, a voyeur’s view from outside the building. Matt does an extensive group of generic (as in genre) variations: fantasy, romance, police procedural, horror (a four-color EC Comics pastiche), superhero (one example where Matt’s mimicking skills fail him with the drawing), manga (complete with right-to-left reading, excessive speed lines, and a gratuitous panty shot), political cartoon, and more. Many could be considered as variations on framing both formally and content-wise: reframing the original drawings to all hands and punctuation marks (which is a powerful statement on how much can be said with such a little amount of information), shrinking the original panels and adding absurdist images outside the borders, telling the story as a scene with actors and a director, the story as a flashback, the story as overheard in a bar… A number of pages fall under formal game playing (anagrams, palindromes) or structural variation (one panel, thirty panels).

I have a copy of this book and I’m sharing Derik’s enthusiasm for it.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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