Beth Julian grew up in Harrisburg, PA and attended Central Dauphin East High school. She attended Lebanon Valley College, graduating in 2009 with a degree in English & French. She received her Masters in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg in 2011. She is the Director of the Center for Writing & Tutoring Resources at Lebanon Valley College.
Saint-Ybars is put out by Les Editions Tintamarre, which is part of Centenary College of Louisiana. Les Editions Tintamarre publish novels that are deeply a part of American culture yet not a part of American literature because they are not in English. Saint-Ybars is the first book that Les Editions Tintamarre has published in English. Check them out here: http://www.centenary.edu/editions/aboutus.html —
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on your translation of Alfred Mercier’s Saint-Ybars. I knew nothing about him or his work until I did a quick Google search. I enjoy hearing a book’s origin story—but I’m sure the route of a translator is different than most. What led you to this author?
Beth Julian: Thank you! I found this author through sheer panic, in a way. During my first year as a graduate student at Penn State, I arrived at the point where I had to decide what to write my thesis about. I really didn’t have a clue: I narrowed it down to American literature, which didn’t help me much. I was talking to a classmate (who is now a colleague of mine at LVC), and I told her that I wish I could find a way to tie in my two undergraduate majors of English and French. I loved French literature, and I did some translating in undergraduate coursework, but I didn’t think there was a way to bridge the two interests. My classmate said, “You should look into Creole literature—there’s a whole genre of literature that’s practically unknown to Americans.” So I did some Google searching and came across Les Editions Tintamarre and Centenary College of Louisiana. I took a chance and e-mailed Dr. Dana Kress, who teaches French at the college and also runs the publishing company. We exchanged a few e-mails, and before you know it, I had my thesis project. It really is a strange story—Dr. Kress really went out on a limb and trusted a student to translate one of his favorite works that he always wanted to see published in English. There was no guarantee that it would be publishable, but after revisions and a couple years, both of us ended up extremely happy with the end product. And Mercier’s lack of fame was both positive and negative: the work was unique and hidden for decades from the American audience, but finding articles and sources proved to be very difficult. I spent a lot of hours digging through databases, looking at microfilm, and trying to break down dense 19th-century articles written in French!
CS: I was intrigued by the novel’s description—not only its naturalist’s take on a unique locale but also its considerations of the time’s social classes and mores. I’m assuming you had a real love of the book in order to dedicate so much time to it. What about the novel spoke to you?
BJ: The novel is often described as a 19th-century “soap opera.” The French word feuilleton is often used, meaning a work of fiction meant to entertain readers. Saint-Ybars is entertaining, but it’s also very deep and very applicable to today’s world. It’s not what I would consider a happy story: it’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy. There are a lot of characters and plotlines that intersect, with themes of race, gender, politics, class, language… I was drawn to its complexity, I guess! The novel would fit well into a course in any of the above-mentioned topics because the story is essentially a commentary on American culture and history. Plus, Mercier crafts some truly beautiful descriptions that we worked and reworked to capture that same eloquence in English.
CS: I’ve always thought translation must be its own art form. Translating a manual or reference text would be difficult enough, but translating fiction, when you’re just as concerned with the language’s lyrical and tonal elements as you are about its more concrete structures, must be a painstaking procedure. Can you address the process? What kind of responsibilities did you feel to the author and work? Did you encounter any unexpected troubles along the way?
BJ: Translating is very much like a puzzle at first. You have to figure out what the author is saying and maintain accuracy. Since the text is a bit older, there were some French words that I couldn’t find in a dictionary. I enlisted the help of my former French professor at LVC for really difficult words/phrases (he had a 19th century dictionary!). In addition to this, the whole book itself is a commentary on language. Some characters spoke Standard French; others spoke Creole. So the original text was bilingual because Mercier wanted to portray people exactly how they spoke. The Creole language developed by ear first, so when written down, it is spelled more phonetically than anything. I could pick out some words here or there, but it is really a different language with race and class implications. At first, the publisher and I weren’t entirely sure how to deal with the bilingualism in the translation. We wanted to preserve as much as possible, but the English language has no direct parallel for Creole. Any of the options we came up with would have lost or twisted the representation of the language. So we decided to keep the Creole parts in Creole, with footnotes in Standard English. It’s not possible to preserve every single facet of the original text in a translation, but after many conversations with multiple people, we decided this was the best route.
Personally, I wanted the text to be readable and accurate, both historically and linguistically. This was my ultimate goal. It’s very difficult to make a translated work sound natural. A good portion of the revisions focused on eliminating awkward phrases or words. So there definitely was some artistic liberty. I remember being very worried about translating word-for-word what Mercier said, until Dana Kress told me that I could have a perfectly accurate text, but no one would want to read it! So after that, I worried less about keeping the sentence structures exactly the same and more about preserving Mercier’s meaning and eloquence.
Another part of the text’s readability relied on researching specific terms, historical events, and people. Mercier wrote for a local audience, so in every chapter, there are references that the global reader might not understand. I went through each chapter and researched terms that either I didn’t know or that most people wouldn’t know. So the research aspect was a long process, and each chapter comes with footnotes. Plus, there’s an introduction to the book that explains the whole historical context, language implications, Mercier’s life, his vision, and more. Ironically, Mercier wrote exclusively in French in order to preserve the language, which was already quickly dying out. So if Mercier were alive, he would actually not support the translation! This was also something that was discussed, and while I understand his reasoning and vision, it ultimately is more important to share his work with a larger audience.
CS: I’m interested in the pace of translator’s work. Did some sections glide by while sometimes it took a whole day just to do a paragraph? Or ever a couple sentences?
BJ: The first chapter was so rough, and it was the longest chapter. Sometimes I still look at the first chapter and see the choppiness, but that’s probably just in my mind. Like I said, I was really worried about writing word-for-word, and that showed in the first draft of the translation. But the nice thing about this novel is that there are 52 chapters, but some chapters are only a paragraph or a page. It was easy to establish goals. Plus, I knew the revision process would be the most important. Overall, I found the translating to be rather easy and fun for me; however, the revision process was more frustrating and painstaking. Examining something that close requires patience, and then I would spend days on a sentence or paragraph.
CS: What’s next?
BJ: I would love to do another translation. Nothing is in the works yet, but that’s where my interest lies.