“What I am is a militant translator”: An Interview Mitchell Abidor

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Emmanuel Bove’s harrowing 1932 novella, A Raskolnikoff, was released to the American public late this year. With Mitchell Abidor’s stunning translation—for which he has won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant— comes a new hope for one of literature’s forgotten sons.

Abidor is the right translator for the job. A contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a translator of French, Portuguese, and Italian for the Marxist Internet Archive, Abidor has translated hundreds of texts and published numerous collections from a myriad of radical political writers, from 17th Century France to Revolutionary Russia. Abidor’s most recent translation, however, is a departure from the radical political essays. Emmanuel Bove (1898-1945) was a prolific French writer who published over thirty books in his lifetime and garnered praise from Albert Camus, John Ashbery, and Samuel Beckett. Abidor’s translation of A Raskolnikoff, which Bove wrote in 1932 as “a continuation” of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is a logical extension of his other works in translation as well as an optimistic new phase for the literary legacy of Emmanuel Bove. I reached out to Abidor by phone to hear his take on Bove’s legacy, the state of revolutionary writers and their works, and the art of translation. He spoke to me just days after returning from Vienna, from the dining room table of his home in Brooklyn, surrounded by books—Cortazar, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Bove, Borges, Beckett, Philip Roth, Jean-Patrick Manchette—and “watched by framed portraits of Kafka, Robert Bresson, Ataturk, Eva Peron, Joseph Roth, Jean Jaures, and my favorite baseball player when I was ten years old, Roman Mejias of the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros) as well as a 1962 team picture of the Colts and a still from the greatest film ever made, La Jetee.”  

BoveBookCoverWhen and how did you discover Emmanuel Bove?

That is a really good story! I’m sure you’ve never heard of Emmanuel Bove before right? He really is quite a writer. Thirty-some years ago, I went to see a film by the great German director, Wim Wenders called Reverse Angle. It is a series of films, like film essays. In one of them, he’s reading Mes Amis (My Friends, 1924), which is really Bove’s best novel. And he talks about how Peter Handke, the great Austrian writer who’s his friend, told him about Bove. And just the way he described Bove in the film, I said “You know what? The next time I’m in France, I need to pick up something by Bove.” And that was what happened. I picked up Mes Amis, and it was one of the greatest books I ever read. I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. And it was also fascinating because Bove had been completely forgotten for decades.

Because he had been forgotten, was it difficult to find his work?

No. Because what had happened was, in the late ’70s, there was a guy named Raymond Cousse who rediscovered Bove’s books and they were starting to be republished. It was only in the late ’70s/early ’80s that Bove made a comeback. And so every time I went to France, a couple more books had come out over the course of that year, and I just bought everything that I could. So that was how I discovered Bove. And nothing was available in English for a few years so I would always tell people “when these books come out, you’ve got to get them.”  Now most of his books are available in English, or a lot of them, anyway.

Brian Evenson writes in his introduction that the works of Bove have undergone a sort of Melvillian revival in France. What do you imagine the reasons are behind this revival? Have Bove’s novels somehow become more relevant in the eyes of readers? 

Once you get people to push a writer to bring him back, it really helps. Raymond Cousse worked hard and convinced publishers to bring his stuff back. But what’s also been a huge help for Bove is the fact that Peter Handke, the Austrian writer who translated Bove into German, is one of the most respected writers in the whole world. So when you have somebody like Handke on your side, it’s a big help. And then once he comes back, once people start reading him, his best novel comes back first.

Which was My Friends?

My Friends, right. And once that happens, then this one comes out and then that one. And so you build up a head of steam. So that’s why now, at this point, books can come out of stuff that has never been published because he has an established audience.

This particular novella that you’ve translated, A Raskolnikoff, was written by Bove as a sort of sequel to—or, as Bove says, “a continuation” of—Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. How exactly does Bove’s novella function as a continuation of Crime and Punishment, given their difference in time and place?

One of the reasons I love A Raskolnikoff is because I thought it could be the title to for almost every one of Bove’s novels. Because so many of his novels are about young people just kind of lost, living in shabby apartments. All of his main characters, in all of his books that matter, are all Raskolnikoff.

The sensibility of Crime and Punishment can be transported anywhere. Raskolnikoff could be American, could be French, could be anybody. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He considers himself better than what he’s doing. He’s unhappy. At some point in our lives, we’re all Raskolnikoff’s. I know I was.

You won the 2014 Hemingway Translation Grant for your translation of A Raskolnikoff. How important are grants for translators and are there many of them available?

Donald Breckenridge, the managing editor of Red Dust, knows people at the French Cultural Service in New York and thought to apply for the grant, which exclusively covers the translator’s fees. This works both for the publisher and the translator, since the grant, $2000, is a good one if you’re doing a book for a small house, which normally can only afford a fraction of that. There are a number of grants out there, but the competition is fierce, and granting agencies are hard to figure. For example, it’s all but impossible to get grants for translations of the great Victor Serge, because he was of Russian heritage and was born and grew up in Brussels. So though he lived for a time in Paris and wrote some of the most important French novels of the middle of the 20th century, he wasn’t French, so they won’t help.

In your biography page of the Marxist Internet Archive, you say: “My MIA work revolves primarily around translations from the French, Portuguese and Italian, in all of which I’m self-taught.” Where and when did you inherit your interest in translation, and in all these languages?

I specifically taught myself all of these languages. I’m not bragging, but I’m just really good at languages. I think back to some of the things that I said in French early on when I first taught myself French and I was living in Paris—I couldn’t speak a word of the language, not one word. But somehow, instinctively, I knew what to say. I knew how to construct the sentences, I even knew how to work out idiomatic expressions. And so if you’re good at languages, you’re good at languages. I can see English through these other languages somehow.

French is also one of the languages you taught yourself?

I learned French at the movies. It’s a story I tell everyone, and it’s absolutely true. I learned it going to the movies. I was a film major in college. So I used to see four films a day. And I loved French cinema.

When you go about translating something, do you just sit down with the book and go though it line-by-line? How does that work?

That’s the way to do it. I never studied translation. I just picked it up as I went along. So I do a first draft where I just get all the words on the page. And I don’t worry about style. I just make sure I have everything there. I have a framework. And then I do a second draft where I make sure that I have all the words. And I compare it to the text again, and fix it up so it reads a little bit better. And then I do a third and a fourth draft where I ignore the original because I know I have everything in the original. I just make sure it reads like good English.

In fact, the book that I’m working on now is a collaborative effort. I’m working on it with a young guy in London, and it’s clearly his first time translating. And he’s making all the same mistakes that I made when I first started translating, which is sticking too closely to the original. French—the sentence structure is completely different, and their vocabulary, they have fewer words than we do. So if you stick too closely to the French, it doesn’t read very well in English. I always thought that Bove would be really easy to translate. And it was easier than most, but it was still a challenge because you have to express the style. Just the mere fact that it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s got no style.

Most of the translations you do are not necessarily novels. Did your method change with A Raskolnikoff? Did you feel you had more room to be creative?

I’ve now translated a bunch of non-fiction—political stuff, histories, the novel, and some poetry. And it may sound kind of trite, but the challenges of all of them are so completely different. For example, when I translate the writings of some anarchist bomb throwers of the late 19th Century, clearly they’re not great stylists. So it’s just a matter of getting the ideas across so they sound well in English. With Bove, the challenge was to not make it sound stilted because his style is so simple and direct. And you also don’t want it to sound impoverished. Because they have fewer words in French than we have in English. And you don’t want to just take the first definition of a word, which is not really what a novelist would be thinking when they write it.

As a translator, your body of work—which includes the collections: Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938 (PM Press, 2015); and A Socialist History of the French Revolution (Pluto Press, 2015), along with countless others— seems to focus extensively on the works of progressive revolutionaries throughout Europe, from as early as the 17th century. Could you comment on these various writers? Who are they, what sort of things are they writing about, and why is it important that we read and study these writings today?

I have a theory about this. I’m notoriously misanthropic. Despite my being on the left, I really don’t like people, and I really don’t like the human race, which is why Raskolnikoff is perfect for me. So I was sitting with a friend, and he says, “You know, I don’t see you as the kind of guy standing on street corners, handing out leaflets or marching in demonstrations or organizing the working class.” I said, “No, I do the translations that inspire other people to do the work that I’m too lazy to do.” What I am is a militant translator. And I told this story to a friend of mine in London. She so loved it that when I saw her again three days later, she handed me 500 business cards that said “Mitchell Abidor: Militant Translator.” And that’s what I am.

Here’s the reason why it’s important that we read all of these writers: when I was growing up as a Leftist, there were all kinds of people I wanted to read but I couldn’t because I couldn’t read any of these other languages. So once I got the ability—I taught myself all these languages—I wanted to first read them myself. And then I figured, if I had always wanted to read writings by these people, there must be other people who wanted to read them and can’t either. And that’s why I do the translations. It’s my way of giving voice to these people who have no voice in English. They’re the ventriloquists and I’m the dummy.

It’s all part of a revolutionary tradition. People know the names of these writers, but they don’t know really anything about them. I’m not a big fan of interpretation. So what I try to do in all of my books is present the raw document. Let the readers make their own decisions. That’s why most all of my books are anthologies. So rather than be a slave of somebody else’s interpretation, I’ll just give you what they said and you decide. Then, if you read the interpretations, you can see if they’re right or not.

Is your translation of A Raskolnikoff meant to supplement these more explicitly political writings or is it meant to be separate from or peripheral to your other work?

That’s a great question. And here’s what it is: it resonates with the other side of me. Somewhere within me is that same miserable wretch that I was at twenty. I’ve never shaken him. And actually all of my favorite writers all speak to that really cynical misanthropic me that’s still within me. That’s what A Raskolnikoff is: it’s me expressing that other side of me that doesn’t believe that politics make any difference, that thinks that people stink. So actually there’s no connection between the two except that the one is the mirror image of the other.

interview by Josh Bovee

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This entry was posted in Interviews on April 27, 2016