Lexicon Valley

Can Lorin Stein Translate Michel Houellebecq Into a Great Writer?

French author Michel Houellebecq 

Photo by Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

At the beginning of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, Houellebecq, perhaps unwittingly, analyzes himself. “The beauty of an author’s style,” he writes, “the music of his sentences, have their importance in literature … but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.”

Few would call Houellebecq, who holds the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, a “bad writer,” but in France he is known for his narrative inventiveness while his style is generally accepted as second-rate: something readers put up with in order to get to his ideas. And yet in Submission, his latest novel, his style is so distracting that the Parisian weekly L’Express called him out as “a poor writer but a good sociologist,” adding, “a good writer would not use ‘based on’ in lieu of ‘founded on,’ ‘however’ in place of ‘on the other hand,’ and ‘wine vintage’ when he wants to mean ‘vintage.’ ”

Houellebecq is a classically French intellectual in that the Idea comes above all. By systematically draping ideas over characters, he has created a text that is essentially a political treatise disguised as a novel. For instance, near the end, François gets into a dialogue with a former academic colleague, whereupon they proceed to discuss everything from the social instability caused by mass secularism to the supposed evolutionary benefits of polygamy—all this for multiple chapters, unrelieved by an explanation of feelings or a description of the setting or any of the other details that a reader of fiction might reasonably expect.

Characters, too, are created and erased at will. Myriam, François’ romantic interest, comes onto the scene near the middle of the novel, then disappears when she moves to Israel, never to be mentioned again except for three sentences in the final act. It’s clear that Houellebecq invented Myriam predominately as a comparison to the sexually submissive wives that François’ male friends are gifted after Mohammed Ben Abbes, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, wins the 2022 French presidential election. Nabokov famously said his characters are his “galley slaves.” Houellebecq’s characters are his way to claim his stories as novels and not academic texts.

But for a novel about the Islamization of France, what other choice does Houellebecq have than to write paragraphs of dense theory shrouded by disposable fictional characters? To write a text probing how culture clashes function, how they are born, and how religions provide a structure for a morally bankrupt post-war Europe in any genre other than fiction would be to assure a miserably low readership. How many people would read a nonfiction text called something like Michel Houellebecq’s Thoughts on Women, Islam, and the Future of the European Union? Dress it up with some sex, a few discardable characters, and a smart narrator with a few flaws and suddenly you have a robust readership.

This anti-style is “le style Houellebecq.” In France, it works: Submission is a best-seller, having sold more than 120,000 copies in its first week alone. It has now sold more than 650,000 copies since its January release. But Houellebecq admits his novels come at the cost of style, going so far as to imply many of his books are not even literature at all. In a letter to Bernard Henri-Lévy collected in a book of correspondence called Public Enemies, Houellebecq writes, “In this transaction, literature is surely the loser. The sort of novelist inclined to exploit freedom of speech or to test its limits in a society where virtually anything can be said without reprisal is less likely to be some descendant of James Joyce …  than a provocateur.” Houellebecq understands that he’s all content and no gloss—a theoretician who aims to analyze and provoke—and the French accept it as all very well. Yet the new American translation of Submission shows that other countries aren’t so sure: a little style and a little clarity might be implicit requirements of the American reading public.

The editor in chief of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, accepted the task of rendering the American English translation of Submission. A few odd lapses in Stein’s judgment jump out rather quickly. For instance, Stein is posed with this sentence:

C’était probablement le seul ancien élève de la rue d’Ulm à avoir passé, après son agrégation, le concours d’entrée à l’Ecole nationale supérieure de la police.

Stein translates it as:

He was probably the only graduate of the Ecole Normale ever to have passed the entrance exam for the police academy.

While Stein usefully clarifies that the “rue d’Ulm” is the street name that stands for a prestigious grand école  called the “Ecole Normale” and simplifies the sentence by both dropping the needless nuance of “après son agrégation” (“after his civil service exam”) and the name of the exact police academy (“l’Ecole nationale supérieure de la police”) in favor of the cleaner “police academy,” he makes the elementary mistake of translating “passé” as “passed” when “passé” is in fact “taken” and “passed” in the exam-taking sense would have to be “réussi.

But “passé” or “réussi,” it is easy to forgive Stein for his mistakes, both rare and relatively trivial, as he finds success in maintaining Houellebecq’s signature inventiveness while improving on his style. Houellebecq, for instance, has a penchant for commas; his sentences suffer as a result. Meaningless clauses pop up everywhere, overly complicating a text that is already dense, theoretical, and intricate. Stein clears away these complications, leaving the reader of the American English version able to focus on Houellebecq’s theories rather than on interrupting bits of superfluous information.

Take, for example, the last lines of the book:

Un peu comme cela s’était produit, quelques années auparavant, pour mon père, une nouvelle chance s’offrirait à moi …

Stein translates it as:

Rather like my father a few years before, I’d be given another chance …

The direct translation of Houellebecq’s phrase above is “much like it happened, a few years before, for my father, a new chance would be given to me.” The halting rhythm seems unnecessary and Stein rightly smoothens it out. Stein also breaks up Houellebecq’s run-on constructions. Where Houellebecq uses one sentence, Stein will make it two. Where Houellebecq uses two sentences, Stein turns it into four.

Stein’s cleaning up of the text makes it easier to read, but it also changes the flow established by Houellebecq. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Houellebecq might be pleased to see these changes, viewing them as valuable improvements. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he would have preferred his errors to remain. Translation quickly shows itself to be a multibranched decision tree, and these kinds of issues sprout from all sides.

But at the root of it all is the principle question of translation: What, exactly, is the translator’s job? Should the translator be trying to improve and clean the original text, or should he hew to it closely— even if that means keeping confusing informalities and awkward phrasing intact?

Translation is literary selflessness. There will always be scholarly articles and perhaps even little blurbs written up in literary journals on historically important translators, but, for the most part, a translator takes on a book for some combination of small amounts of money and the desire to share a work with a greater portion of the world. When John Rutherford translated Leopoldo Alas’ La Regenta, he said it took him roughly five times as long to translate as it had taken Alas to write. (In the introduction, Rutherford wrote, “Translation is a strange business, which sensible people no doubt avoid.”)

In a perfect world, a translator would be a servant to the original author’s work, able to subsume himself and his own stylistic impulses so as to match the author’s. And yet, with particularly inventive writers working with particularly famous texts, one often reads the translator’s voice rather than the original author’s. This is the case, for instance, with Lydia Davis, who has translated both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English.* A representative example of Davis’ tinkering is her adjustment to the famous phrase uttered by Emma in Madame Bovary:

Elle connaissait à présent la petitesse des passions que l’art exagérait.

Davis renders it as:

She knew, now, how paltry were the passions exaggerated by art.

Davis has reversed the grammar, changed a noun into an adjective, and added a pair of commas, which disrupt the rhythm established by Flaubert. Why she does all of this for a relatively straightforward and clean sentence is tough to say, but her personal idea of style likely played a role. Flaubert once said that prose was like hair: It shines with combing. But comb too much and a text can be bastardized, the style of the author and the style of the translator mixing together into a muddy puddle. Don’t comb enough, however, and the text could remain unclear.

There are lots of reasons that at least some changes must be made when translating from French to English, not least of which is the obvious one: There are far more words in English than in French. What’s more, cultural touchpoints need to be clarified. Few people who haven’t lived in France will know that the Ecole Normale Supérieur is located on the rue d’Ulm. But where does this logic of clarification stop? Should a translator assume that the non-French public also knows that the Ecole Normale Supérieur holds great prestige in France? No reader wants to be taken out of the story and forced to realize that everything he’s reading has been translated for him and adjusted not just for his linguistic capacities but for his worldview as well.

Stein was posed with a particularly difficult set of decisions in translating Submission. He had to find a way to approach Houellebecq’s clunky, minimalist style. He had to be both translator and editor, not because he’d necessarily decided that authenticity and smoothness are equally important in translation, but because Houellebecq’s work simply requires so many changes. To not edit for clarity and style would be to leave the American reader deeply confused.

Then, again, perhaps confusion in the reader is exactly what Houellebecq would have wanted. One cannot win. One can comb and comb, but at some point, one realizes that the shine is grease and perhaps the hair just needs a wash.

*Correction, Oct. 16, 2015: This post originally misstated that Lydia Davis translated Proust’s entire In Search of Lost Time from French to English. She translated only the first volume, Swann’s Way.