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Interview with longlisted translator Damion Searls

Interview with longlisted translator Damion Searls

We speak with Shaun Whiteside, translator of Michel Houellebecq's Serotoninabout Houellebecq's writing, the skill of translating tone and the dark places Whiteside encountered on his journey with this book.   

Shaun Whiteside

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I was caught completely off guard! It’s wonderful, particularly in such extraordinary company. It’s an amazing long list this year, and it’s a great honour to see Serotonin feature on it.

What did you most like about translating Serotonin?

It was getting that mixture of mournfulness, cynicism and deadpan, often scabrous comedy. I’ve been a huge admirer of Houellebecq for many years, and it was a real privilege to be allowed to translate him. His voice is remarkably consistent across his works, and even when you’re familiar with his very particular and rather unique take on the world he still manages to shock. It might also be worth pointing out that at his best he’s also extremely funny, so I hope I managed to get that across too. It’s worth noting that even if one doesn’t share his world-view, he often seems to be a few steps ahead in terms of what’s happening in the world (in this instance a version of the gilets jaunes movement). That can be quite startling, as I suspect it is even for him.

How do you go about keeping the similar tone of the original language and the author when translating into English?

It’s inhabiting that voice and that mind. The narrator’s mind isn’t always the most pleasant place to be, so you have to go into some pretty dark corners, and make contact with the darkest aspects of humanity (particularly male humanity) along the way. Houellebecq’s bleak world view is broadly redeemed for me by his humour, a certain twisted romanticism and a refusal, even here, to yield to despair. So yes, it’s about taking that voice and making it your own and inhabiting the narrator’s mind, however uncomfortable that might sometimes be.