Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Leslie Camhi is the translator of The Book of Mother.
The New York-based writer and journalist discusses why the subjects at the heart of The Book of Mother resonated with her and how reading memoirs set among the ‘gauche caviar’ of Paris in the 70s and 80s prepared her for the translation.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker – an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win?
The Book of Mother is my first book-length translation, and a very personal project. So it’s thrilling and also a little dizzying to find the book on this distinguished and truly global list. That its inclusion here comes at a moment when translators are working to gain increasing recognition makes it that much more meaningful to me. A degree of invisibility is ‘baked into’ the role of translator. In the case of The Book of Mother, I strove to disappear into the author’s voice, to render her beautiful French as vivid and immediate for readers as if it were originally written in English. So I’m grateful to the International Booker for shining a light on the role of translators, and I’m excited to be part of the conversation.
What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find in particular, translating fiction?
An editor with whom I’d worked as a writer at Vogue magazine and who years ago had moved on to book publishing had acquired this French novel and was having some difficulty finding the right translator for it. She knew that the themes of the novel—motherhood, madness, childhood loss and survival—would resonate with me, and that I’d lived in France and written a lot about French subjects. She asked me to read it in French, and if I were so inclined, to translate a 3,000-word excerpt as a test. So I did and voilà! I acquired a new identity as a literary translator. I loved living with the indelible characters of this novel, who kept me company and carried me through the painstaking work of translating it. I fell in love with some of them.
What’s your earliest reading memory?
I remember being about five or six, looking out the window of my family’s car while waiting for my mother who’d dipped into a shop, and very slowly sounding out the letters painted on the asphalt beside us: “N-O P-A-R-K-I-N-G!” Not a terribly poetic text, but I do recall my childish excitement at piecing together that puzzle. My favourite book as a child, which I reread many times, was Grimm’s Fairy Tales (a translation, though I don’t know by whom), but the first book that I read as if I were seeking answers to my own life in it was Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Its adolescent heroine travels to another dimension to find her missing father, a scientist whose experiment may have gone awry. My own mother had died when I was a small child, and this character’s determined search for her missing parent must have moved me.
What did you enjoy most about translating The Book of Mother? What did you find most challenging?
The Book of Mother deals with a number of challenging subjects, including mental illness and the betrayal of the pact between mother and child, a betrayal which places the child in the role of caregiver. Yet it is illuminated by the love and clear-eyed commitment that animates the narrator, who excavates the ruins of her childhood and her mother’s life without bitterness, seeking only to establish their true dimensions. The book is also at times extremely funny. I enjoyed the swagger and occasional erudition of its larger-than-life characters, and all the contradictions that give the book its vital force in French. On a more technical level, the book is full of indirect speech which is not set off in quotation marks. The challenges there involved getting the characters’ voices right and rendering them distinctly. Maman’s diatribes, with their violence and working-class French idioms, posed a particular challenge.
I read some of Maman’s violent diatribes aloud in English to my teenage son, to see if they sounded right to him
Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
Echoes of the poetry of Paul Celan occur late in the novel, when Maman’s reason is giving way to phantoms of the Shoah. For the cadences of the novel’s long, winding sentences, I looked to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I had previously read many memoirs set among the gauche caviar [champagne socialists] of Paris in the 1970s and 80s in preparation for a non-fiction work of my own. So that milieu, which the characters inhabit in part, was familiar to me from prior research.
What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?
The nearness of my own sensibility and Violaine’s meant that for the most part I didn’t have to stretch terribly far to make my English a true reflection of her French. I was also very fortunate to be translating an author whose English is truly excellent, who has herself worked as a literary translator from English into French, and who understands intimately the challenges of translation. She encouraged my creative freedom, and in going over the text with her, she consistently opted to discard language that may have been close to the French original but impeded the work’s flow in English. Violaine’s collaboration made this a better translation.
Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.
My entire life is a lesser-known fun fact about me! But in the context of translation it may be interesting to note that my formal education in French consisted of a single semester of college language instruction: French 101. (I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.) But I also know that a lot of learning takes place outside of school.
Tell us an interesting fact about the book.
Our children contributed to this translation. A poem the narrator wrote as a child plays a key role in the story. Violaine’s eldest daughter is bilingual and was close in age to the narrator when she composed the poem, so we agreed that Violaine’s daughter could try her hand at translating it. For my part, I read some of Maman’s violent diatribes aloud in English to my teenage son, to see if they sounded right to him.
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
French author George Perec’s W, or The Memory of Childhood, tells the story of the author’s youth as a hidden child in Nazi-Occupied France. Alternate chapters of the book are devoted to Perec’s autobiography and to the story of a mythical island, W, whose inhabitants are devoted to “sport” (the latter an allegory for the death camps). Perec’s autobiographical chapters in this work had a deep impact on me. Perec barely knew and possessed only fragmentary memories of his parents, Polish Jews who had emigrated to Paris before the war.
His father had died as a soldier in the first months of the war’s fighting, and the author’s last memory of his mother was of her putting him on a train at age six to be evacuated from Paris to the so-called Free Zone in the South of France. She stayed behind in Paris, was deported to Auschwitz, and probably died there. Yet somehow these fragmentary memories are sufficient for Perec to weave into a compelling narrative. It’s a lesson that, as a writer, I’m still learning.
What book haven’t you finished?
I have written about Simone de Beauvoir’s impact on my life, but I have never finished her magnum opus, The Second Sex. (I have of course read her memoirs and fiction, and I can highly recommend her 600-page novel, The Mandarins, for its resonance today.)