Translator’s Perspective: An ‘Ordinary’ Christmas

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By Emily Boyce

During the festive season, Versailles sparkled with inevitability

While translating Pascal Garnier’s novel The Islanders, set over several days in December in a snowy Versailles and described by Mr B’s bookshop in Bath as ‘the perfect subversive Christmas read’, I was reminded how many festive traditions are shared on both sides of the Channel.

First, there’s the panic gift buying. Early on in the book, one of the four lead characters, Jeanne, is in a Paris department store shopping for a present for her blind brother Rodolphe, with whom she has lived for the past decade. She eventually opts for a set of bathroom scales, ‘a completely useless gift since Rodolphe didn’t care two hoots about his obesity and would not be able to see the reading anyway. But it was heavy and came in a big box, so it would make a nice present.’

The halls are suitably decked with ‘fake snow and grotesque Father Christmases wreathed in holly as lethal as barbed wire’. There’s over-spending, over-eating, over-everything: ‘People bought any old rubbish at any old price, committing a kind of budgetary suicide with the most tenuous of links to the birth of the baby Jesus. There was a general desire to end it all, drowning in bad champagne and foie gras from Monoprix.’ The main difference from Anglo-Saxon tradition is that the major eating takes place on Christmas Eve – réveillon, from the verb ‘to wake’, because the meal traditionally began after Midnight Mass and ran long into the night – and there are mountains of snails on the menu.

The Church has a peripheral role in proceedings. In The Islanders, it’s the place where Rodolphe encounters a homeless man, Roland, whom he invites home for dinner:

‘Honestly, where are my manners? I haven’t introduced you to Roland. We met this morning in God’s house, at Notre-Dame.’
‘What the hell were you doing there?’
‘Confessing, Jeanne, confessing, seeking forgiveness for having hurt you last night. Either that or I had to pee. Whatever, one way or the other I had a pressing need to go inside.’

And, of course, they may not have Eastenders in France, but a family fallout over the dinner table is still obligatory.

Garnier’s genius is in taking familiar situations – a bereavement, a reunion, a Christmas meal –  and turning them on their heads, or pushing them to extremes. His settings are service stations, supermarkets, sleepy provincial towns. As one reviewer put it, ‘Garnier’s world exists in the cracks and margins of ours: just off-key, teetering on the surreal, yet all too plausible.’ The same critic – David Mills writing in The Sunday Times – likens Garnier’s ability to ‘make the ordinary seethe with menace’ to the filmmaker Claude Chabrol.

The contrast between the ordinary and the horrific, when it inevitably comes, is powerful – in The Islanders, leek soup bubbles away comfortingly as a plan is hatched to bury a body… This is true not only at plot level but also in the language: everyday phrases are juxtaposed with joltingly original imagery, all recounted with such an economy of words that every single one matters. The challenge in translating Garnier, as four of us (myself, Svein Clouston, Melanie Florence and Jane Aitken) have done, is to retain Garnier’s pared-back, deceptively simple prose and avoid adding unnecessary clutter. Each sentence must be carefully pruned in order to weed out extraneous words. This means that where a cultural reference appears that’s potentially unfamiliar, it’s usually best left unexplained; if that is slightly disorienting for the reader, so much the better, since Garnier’s ‘oddness’ – the surreal flashes, the madness that suddenly breaks through the humdrum – is part of what makes him so distinctive, and adds to the aura of uncertainty and tension.

So if you didn’t know that Viandox was the French equivalent of Bovril, or that Lacenaire was a notorious poet/murderer, or that the abbé Pierre founded the Emmaus charitable movement, it doesn’t really matter. Nevertheless all these things are now part of my colourful Google history, which has recently covered such topics as ‘lilac vs mauve’, along with the names of various tools of the gilding trade. But that’s another book…


Emily is one of the in-house translators at Gallic Books in London who publish ‘The Best of French in English’.

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders, trans Emily Boyce (Gallic Books, London, Nov 2014)  978-1908313720, paperback original, 144 pages.

Read Shiny Ed Annabel’s review of The Islanders in our fiction section here.

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