(Godine is publishing a new, corrected edition of Life A User's Manual and the first-ever English edition of Perec's essays collected in Thoughts of Sorts. I recently spoke with Susan Barba, an editor at Godine who worked on both of these books.)
Scott Esposito: My first question has to do with what's new in this edition of Life A User's Manual. The original translation by David Bellos was published in 1987, and in the ensuing 20-some years there's been considerable attention devoted to both the original and Bellos's translation. What kind of changes have been implemented in this new edition and were there any particular critiques/sources you and Bellos were drawing from?
Susan Barba: As David Bellos explains in his “Note on the Revised Edition” at the very end of the book, the changes to this edition of the translation are the result of the more than twenty years of scholarship devoted to Georges Perec since the publication of the original translation. “This twentieth anniversary edition,” writes Bellos in his Note, “seeks to take account of the corresponding and cumulative effect of these re-readings without making any fundamental stylistic change to the original translation. This is still the same book; my only aim in revising has been to make it less imperfect than it was on first appearance.” The changes we made were mostly of the variety that copyeditors and proofreaders make: spelling mistakes, mistakes in terminology, inverted colophons, incorrect page references in the index, and even the omission of a paragraph in the final chapter! I worked closely with our older Godine edition, the British Vintage edition, and David’s new file, proofreading and comparing editions, and querying David from dawn to dusk. David was my primary source in the process; I know that new editions of the French text, prepared by Bernard Magné, were of great use to him, and I suspect if you read the list of names on the translator’s note on page 657, you will have your answer as to other important sources of help.
SE: Translation is always a daunting task, but given the kind of meticulous, playful writer that Georges Perec was, it's always seemed to me that his books are more daunting than most, and never more so than in this enormously complex book. Based on that, I'd like to ask two questions: first, what was your role vis a vis Bellos in creating this new edition of Life a User's Manual, and, second, how does your work on this translation compare with your work on other ones at Godine?
SB: Quite honestly, while I spent a great deal of time on this book, I played a very minimal role in the grand scheme of things. When David’s new manuscript came to me, most of the changes discussed above had already been made by David himself. I made sure these changes were implemented in the new edition, and in the process of copyediting and proofreading, assisted by our wonderful copyeditor, Mr. Kirk Shaw, I found discrepancies and additional errors that needed to be corrected (or sometimes—and strangely for an editor—needed to be left alone since they were Perec’s original errors, not the translator’s!).
My role as the editor of this translation was far more limited than, for example, my role as editor of another new book we’ve just published, Desert by Nobel-Prize-winner J. M. G. Le Clézio, translated from the French by C. Dickson. Desert was a translation I was more creatively involved with, corresponding with the author and translator about choices of translation, suggesting substitutions and changes, actively taking part in the creation of the English text. With Life A User’s Manual, I came into the process at a much later point, after the first edition had already been published, and after David Bellos had already delivered his final manuscript of the revised edition. Because the translation was not open to stylistic changes, my role, while involved, was circumscribed, more a mechanic than an engineer.
SE: In his translator's note, Bellos stated that he's made "liberal use of the principle of compensation." As both an editor and as a reader, what's your opinion on translators using equivalences when they feel the original can't be translated literally?
SB: Without getting embroiled in a thorny argument about the question of fidelity, I’ll say this much: I think we rarely read successful literal translations of texts (apologies to Mr. Vladimir Nabokov). All translators make use of the principle of compensation to one degree or another; while Bellos might describe his use as more liberal than another’s (and he alludes to the arguments this liberal use has engendered in the same Note), I’m all for it in this case because it’s in the spirit of Perec’s work. The jokes, allusions, mathematical equations, and puzzles with which Perec peppered his work were an integral part of his texts and their reasons for being. If the translator has a choice between providing a literal translation which spoils the joke or elegance of the equation and substituting his own symbols in order to preserve meaning, then yes, let x equal y. I believe Georges Perec would agree.
SE: I wanted to also ask you a couple of questions about Thoughts of Sorts, a collection of Perec’s essays originally published in 1985. This is the book’s first English publication—what sorts of things in there would appeal to people who enjoy Perec’s fiction?
SB: Well, I think the works in Thoughts of Sorts are part of the same project as Life A User’s Manual and Perec’s other novels in that they attempt to make sense of the human experience, but they do so with considerably more attention paid to the ways in which one makes sense: by sorting, thinking, ordering, classifying. A fascinating autobiographical portrait of the author also emerges from these pages, and anyone who has enjoyed Perec’s novels will be captivated by the many little details Perec shares with us about his life: his experience with psychoanalysis, his favorite reading position and place, the objects found on his writing desk, and much more.
SE: And lastly, I’m wondering if essay is the right word to describe many of these pieces. I’m thinking, for instance of “81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners,” which is pretty much just what the title implies, or “I Remember Malet & Isaac” which is sort of an experiment into memory by cutting and pasting headings and phrases from his school history books. These things are great to read . . . but: essays?
SB: Yes, it might seem questionable, but when you begin looking into the history of the word you’ll find it suits quite well the works included herein. The OED defines essay as “I. the action or process of trying or testing. [. . .] II. A trying to do something.” Only in the eighth definition of the word do we finally reach what one might consider the common contemporary definition of the essay: “A composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, ‘an irregular undigested piece’, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” What is striking about the etymology and various meanings of “essay” is the centrality of effort, the essay as a testing ground. Other definitions include the essay as an experiment or the testing of food or drink. In a broader, historical light, then, essay seems exactly the right word to describe these pieces, which range from fully finished compositions more or less elaborate in style to experiments in memory, history, and even cookery.