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Interview with longlisted author Emmanuelle Pagano and translators Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis

Interview with longlisted author Emmanuelle Pagano and translators Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis

We talk about margins, the intertwining stories within Faces on the Tip of My Tongue and the emotional rollercoaster of editing with longlisted author Emmanuelle Pagano and joint translators Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis.

Emmanuelle Pagano

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I’ve had the eerie impression of being on my own bookshelf: the books that have been recognised and that have won this prize are among those that I myself read and enjoy. So now, by extension, it’s as though I’ve been read and appreciated by their authors. By choosing me, the jury makes me feel as though I’m on their level: it’s dizzying! And here next to these authors that I admire, I’m joined by my tremendous translators: this prize is wonderful for that as well, for the recognition of the work of many hands and many stages that goes to make a translated book.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book Faces on the Tip of My Tongue?

Many times in my life – perhaps because I believe I myself would have become a marginal ‘case’ if I hadn’t become a writer – I’ve had encounters with the marginalised, sometimes very close, too close even. They touched me (sometimes in the literal sense) so much that I wondered how I could pay tribute to the emotion that they stirred in me, and at the same time detach myself from them, from their hold on me, for which I was largely responsible. So I began to write their stories, but also to write stories for them. They had gifted moments of their lives to me, and I had both to return that gift and to share it with them. I felt indebted, obliged. That’s how it started.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is made up of a web of short, interconnecting stories – why did you choose to write in this style and how did you find it?

At the start, I just wanted to group together some short stories I’d already written to form a collection: they had in common a focus on characters who were on the margins of society, or at least on the margins of something. But some elements were missing: I had to write more. Then I remembered that one of these existing short stories was centred on a character who was (appropriately) in the periphery of one of my novels. I thought it would be interesting to spotlight characters from other stories in order to write new stories with them. Having done this, I was dissatisfied: some of the stories still had no ties. I rewrote them all so that each would connect to one, two or three other stories, which would in turn refer onwards to one, two or three more. All the main characters are now marginal people. I had in mind that line of Godard’s: “The edges are what hold the pages together”. Linking all the stories to each other allowed me not only to emphasise their unity, but also to give a central role to these marginal characters – for them to go from the periphery of society and of the world, from the periphery of one to story to the centre of another, and so, if not to the centre of a society or a world, at least to the centre of a book.

How do you feel that the English translation of your original work is a shortened, edited version?

To start with I was disappointed, but in the end, this shortened version has been an opportunity to make new choices with my translators and to reflect on new connections between the stories. And perhaps one day the stories that haven’t yet been translated will go to make up another collection…?


Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis

What has it been like to be longlisted?

JH: It really means a lot to be in the company of so much brilliant new writing and translating, and I’m delighted that Emmanuelle’s brave, unique work has been recognised in this way.

SL: This was properly unexpected. Like Jenny and Emmanuelle, I am particularly happy to see this book join company that I admire enormously, both in terms of original authorial and translating talent. Also that Emmanuelle’s work, which is unostentatious and, if not marginal, certainly not – proudly not – metro-central, should be so appropriately and joyously recognised.

What did you most like about translating Faces On The Tip Of My Tongue?

SL: I love the world(s) of these stories. As a reader I find it valuable, salutary, eye-opening to be taken so close into the minds of ordinarily, breath-takingly death-defying teenagers, of troubled people forever driving between places along mountain roads, of people for whom the ‘zone industrielle’ is where life takes place, never the picturesque old town. So translating them became the privileged opportunity to read and reread them with the greatest attention.

JH: Emmanuelle’s sentences have a fine, balletic quality that I enjoyed trying to dance along to English with similar finesse. Also, there is quite a lot of word play and punning, which was very difficult and very good fun to translate. We didn’t want to lose those playful elements, partly for the obvious reason of not wanting to lose the double meanings, but also because they’re one way in which Emmanuelle packs a lot of explosive meaning into a few words.

How did you find jointly translating this novel?

SL and JH: Very rewarding. The short story format lends itself well to co-translation, in that we were able to divide up the job of producing a first rough draft fairly easily. These drafts were full of questions and comments to each other, and we actually found it liberating to know that we could suggest ideas knowing that there was another pair of eyes and ears to try them out and question them. We then exchanged drafts several times, honing and rephrasing

The stories were re-edited into a different order for this collection. How much were you involved in that process?

SL and JH: The original French collection, Un Renard à mains nues, contains a mixture of stories that have characters in common, and others that don’t share characters but do share a range of themes and motifs. We tried to maintain this balance of linking and separation in the English edition. There was initial agreement between Peirene Press and Emmanuelle that we should make the English collection slightly shorter and in doing so foreground just slightly more the connections and commonalities in the stories. Based on this agreement, we recomposed the selection mainly by following essential or dominant themes and unmissable characters. Emmanuelle suggested some changes to our proposals, but in fact we three had very similar ideas about how to shape the English edition of the collection. There was no re-writing, but readers may notice that the last story in the English book is not the same as in the French edition, and a couple of paragraphs were omitted to accommodate the impact of that change to the concluding tale.