Interview with Nicholas Elliott

I would love to hear about your career and what led you down the path of becoming a translator. I’ve seen that you have a background in film. 

I was raised bilingual, between the US and France and Luxembourg, in a home full of books. So, translation is not so much a path that I chose as one that I found myself on. I started translating professionally through a lucky break: a French corporation under investigation by the SEC needed to have five years of its financial documents and executive e-mails translated into English. The boxes of documents filled an entire office suite at its New York law firm. I think they hired anyone who could say “Bonjour.” That led to participating in some group translations (art catalogs and the like) and eventually to my own translation jobs, notably books about surfing, luxury watches, and bar mitzvahs. At that stage, translation was primarily a way to pay the bills while I worked on movies, wrote some plays, became a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, and managed a downtown theater company. In the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to translate books I would have read whether or not I translated them—including Michel Winock’s Flaubert. This has changed my relationship to translation, and made me realize it is as important to me as my other activities. And an excellent antidote to the anxiety of facing the blank page when I’m writing my own stuff. I’m also starting to find ways to combine my work as a translator with my background in theater and film. I recently translated French children’s play Oh Boy!, which was produced at the New Victory in New York, and am collaborating with a new film publisher on a series of translations of French films books. 

What attracted you to Michel Winock’s Flaubert? What separates Winock’s work from the other biographies that have been written about Flaubert? 

I had the good fortune to be offered this translation by John Kulka of Harvard University Press based on my previous work for HUP. Flaubert is one of my favorite novelists, and the idea of spending several months immersed in his work and world, particularly as described by a biographer of the eminence of Michel Winock, was irresistible.

Winock is primarily known as a historian, so it comes as no surprise that one of his biography’s major strengths is the anchoring of Flaubert’s life and work in an incredibly turbulent and complex phase of French history (Flaubert lived through the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and took front-row seats for the latter two). This historical and political contextualization extends to the novels, particularly to Sentimental Education, which I had read several times before embarking on this translation but never understood as clearly as I have since reading Winock. From a social perspective, Winock is particularly strong at discussing the attraction-repulsion Flaubert felt toward his own bourgeois class. The extensive use of Flaubert’s letters and travel writing may not be as novel, but Winock’s choices are judicious, generous, and well integrated, and it is always a delight to read Flaubert’s personal writings. 

Winock includes a great deal of Flaubert’s letters and other primary sources in the biography. What was it like to translate both the author’s voice and Flaubert’s language? How did you embody both voices? 

The idea of “embodying” Flaubert conjures up a kind of method-acting approach to translation, by which I put on a hundred pounds and grow a walrus mustache to properly bring the master’s words into English. The reality is far less amusing, though perhaps no more conclusive: I put very little conscious thought into my translations, by which I mean that I avoid conceptualizing them, practically to the point of superstition. I want to stay in among the words, dealing with the reality of each sentence and the challenge of making it sound like English, while being as true as possible to every nuance of the author’s intent. In this particular case, I trusted that if I translated Winock and Flaubert as well as I could, the question you raise would take care of itself—these are two different writers, with their own rhythms, and I did my best to follow them.

An additional wrinkle here was that my editor and I agreed that I would use previous translations of Flaubert’s fiction and correspondence where possible. Much of the correspondence quoted by Winock is previously untranslated—which is one major attraction of this biography for Anglophone readers—but I also drew on other translators, notably the great Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller. I suppose this creates the potential for a polyphony of voices. I’m tempted to say no single translation can encapsulate the achievement of a writer on the order of Flaubert and that to draw on different translations is to recognize that fact. But practically speaking, I learned a great deal from my predecessors and was attentive, for instance, to using the same English words they did for recurrent terms. I hope that the rereading, revising, and editing of the book as a whole smoothed out any potentially distracting discrepancy of tone. My translation benefitted from a superb edit by Louise Robbins at HUP—I suspect her eagle eye would have caught any major inconsistency. 

Did anything that you learned about Flaubert’s life while working on this book surprise you? 

I’ve kept a paperback edition of Flaubert’s selected letters close at hand since I was in my early twenties. While I wouldn’t go as far as some critics who claim that the correspondence is Flaubert’s greatest work, I am constantly awed by the descriptive energy, turbulent emotion, and rough humor found in the letters. I was also always struck by the warmth of this most loyal of friends and apparently most passionate of lovers. As a romantic young man, I thought Flaubert’s letters to his mistress Louise Colet were the greatest love letters ever written. It was therefore a surprise to learn that when it came to Louise Colet, Flaubert was basically all talk. From his den in Normandy, Flaubert begged off Colet’s pleas to see him—but wrote her extravagant love letters every day. He also wrote Madame Bovary, which was his excuse for letting Louise languish after him.

 I also discovered that in many respects Flaubert was as bourgeois as the good burghers he railed against, notably in encouraging his niece to marry a wealthy man she did not love because he was a suitable match and a good way to avoid a possible entanglement with her drawing teacher. Flaubert was a rich kid: his mother spent a fortune to send him on a two-year jaunt to Egypt, Jerusalem, and Constantinople.   

I should also mention, as banal as it may seem, that translating this book brought home to me what a truly great writer Flaubert is. His sentences can be difficult, his word choice occasionally obscure to the modern reader, but once I made my way through the thicket, often by consulting a nineteenth-century dictionary, I always found him astonishingly precise. I understood the famous stories about Flaubert agonizing for days over a single word and was thankful to him for the effort—I never had to guess at his meaning, which is the worst situation for a translator to find himself in when translating a dead or otherwise uncommunicative author.

To summarize, translating this biography certainly gave me a less glorious view of its subject as a living breathing man, but I wouldn’t trade my lost hero-worship for the empathy Michel Winock invites by his careful assessment of his subject’s personal life. And the work that resulted from this imperfect man’s toil is unassailable. 

Are you a fan of Flaubert’s novels? Who are some of your favorite authors? 

Flaubert is arguably my favorite novelist: he’s certainly the one I’ve read most comprehensively (it helps that outside of the juvenilia and personal writings, he only wrote four novels, a handful of stories, and a “play”). In fact, Flaubert has been one of the few consistent passions of my life as a reader. I’ve only now gotten to the stage where I’m doing a significant amount of rereading, so many of the authors I once called favorites are dimly remembered. But my reply will have the authenticity of unaided remembrance because I’m answering you from a train in Germany, far from my library. Two books that recently reconfigured my way of thinking about fiction include Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. I still haven’t read anything better of my generation (more or less) than Infinite Jest. I’m finally reading Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, in Richard Zenith’s translation, one of the handful of books I brought with me to New York back in 2002. It’s amazing and somehow appropriate that something this powerful was sitting on my shelf all these years. Every time I’m in Germany I try to browbeat my German friends into reading Arno Schmidt. Hilton Als and Maggie Nelson are two contemporaries who help me face the mess we’re in. If that doesn’t work, I turn to George Orwell and James Baldwin. Lately I’ve also been thinking about John Dos Passos’s USA. I go out of my way to see certain films from the seventies and eighties in order to read what the late film critic Serge Daney had to say about them. He is my other literary hero. Those who dismiss him for lacking theory have no ear for language and no love of criticism exercised as poetry. 

You won the French-American Foundation Translation Prize in 2013 with Alison Dundy for The Falling Sky by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert. What does the Translation Prize mean to you and how do you think it benefits the field? 

Translation is a lonely business. The translator works alone and must aim to be invisible. Some of the books I translated have received long, glowing reviews that omit to mention the translation. I have come to accept that for a translator, particularly a translator of non-fiction, not being mentioned is equivalent to a good review. Most readers would prefer to pretend there is no translator between them and the author. To be nominated for, let alone awarded, a prize for translation is therefore a much-appreciated encouragement to the translator sending his work off into a silent world. And though the two books I have been nominated for were commissioned by a publisher that pays fairly, which is far from the norm, it would be disingenuous not to mention the importance of receiving a cash prize. Prize money enables me to work on projects I want to work on—rather than whatever comes along—and, best of all, to advocate for books I want to translate but that haven’t found a publisher able to afford a standard translation rate. It also helps to pay the rent.

I was particularly glad that the French-American Foundation recognized The Falling Sky. Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa’s book presents a Yanomami shaman’s view of community, environment, and history, one that is generally unfamiliar to most Western readers and that has radical political and social implications. It demands a greater readership and I am grateful for the spotlight the prize shone on it.

We all know that Americans are not particularly adventurous in terms of translation of foreign works. Every translation prize contributes to fighting this grievous tendency, as well as the more general insular bent in our society. As for the French-American Foundation specifically, past prizewinners and this year’s nominees lead me to believe that it proclaims the importance of literary quality and intellectual rigor over print run and commercial viability.   

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring translator, what would it be? 

The most important thing for me is to stay engaged with both the languages I work in, as well as the cultures associated with them. The hardest part of my work is to recognize whether a turn of phrase is idiomatic, i.e. “Is this really how people talk?”  When I’m deep in a translation, a literal translation of a French sentence might sound correct to me because it sounds right in French—but I’m writing in English. This may sound basic, but trust me, the process of translation can really scramble your sense not only of what is grammatically correct but of what is natural. That’s where it becomes essential to be keenly attuned to your target language and its evolution. And I don’t only mean by reading the newspaper: the hardest things to translate (and sometimes to understand) are slang expressions, for which there a few reliable reference resources. Keep talking to people. 

Can you tell us about any current projects that you are working on? 

I recently finished translating William Marx’s The Hatred of Literature, also for Harvard University Press. As the title indicates, it is about hatred of literature from Plato to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is an erudite but accessible work, written in an idiosyncratic style that seamlessly blends virtuoso phrasing and everyday expressions with a delightful irony that never succeeds in masking the author’s love of literature. Translating it has been one of the great pleasures of my career. I am now applying for funding to translate a book of conversations between Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard, edited and annotated by my Cahiers du Cinéma colleague and friend Cyril Béghin and to be published in the US by the young film book imprint Film Desk. Its publisher Jake Perlin and I hope this will be the first of several translations of French film books to be made available to English-speaking readers through Film Desk. 

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 About Nicholas Elliott 

Nicholas Elliott is a writer and translator living in Queens, New York. Aside from Michel Winock’s Flaubert, he has recently translated several volumes from the French for Harvard University Press, including Pierre Briant’s The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, Pierre Razoux’s The Iran-Iraq War and, with Alison Dundy, Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s The Falling Sky (winner of the 27th French-American Foundation Non-Fiction Translation Prize). His translation of the French children’s play Oh Boy! was performed at the New Victory Theater in New York in January 2017. Nicholas is also the New York correspondent for French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor for film for BOMB magazine. He is an occasional filmmaker whose three short films have screened at venues including the Rotterdam International Film Festival and New Directors New Films (MoMA/Film Society of Lincoln Center).