02 August 2011

Adventures in Translation



One of the nice things about living in France was running into all sorts of obscure, out-of-print French works one could never find Stateside. Just outside one of the bus stops in downtown Dijon, right around the corner from Église St-Michel, sits an antique book store, run by a wealthy and eccentric Catholic matron (who I later discovered has a deep devotion to St. Teresa of Avila). Judging from the traffic, I doubt much money passed hands there, and she probably ran her little shop more as hobby than as business. While waiting for my ride, I'd spend happy moments within, rummaging through the leatherbound titles stacked floor to ceiling, fingering the yellowing pages, inhaling the ancient must. I don't think I ever left without some volume or other, whether it be an original printing of St. Thérèse's last pensées, or a hundred-year-old Latin copy of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (and all for a pittance).

One of the little treasures I found was a fraying collection of out-of-print essays on fugitive priests during the Terror. There were accounts of King Louis XVI's last moments with his confessor, the secret Mass said in the Queen's cell the day before she died, and the harrowing ministry of priests in disguise in the dungeons of the Conciergerie. Many of the names of these brave souls are lost, forgotten, ignored in the modern Republic, and largely unknown to English speakers. Returning to the States, we had three boxes of books shipped overseas. On this score, I cannot recommend French freight mail, as only two of our boxes ever arrived, one of them mysteriously having been doused in water, the other broken into with a third of its contents taken. The last--it had to be the one full of my rare French volumes--went missing entirely. *Sigh*. At least I still had one last French book, which escaped pilfering by coming over with me in the suitcase. But no such luck; the bewhiskered miscreant got to it eventually.

Such is life. Another lesson in detachment.

Remembering how inspiring the collection of essays on fugitive priests had been, and how too few Americans know of the sacrifice and heroism of these men of the cloth during one of France's most evil times, and discovering that there is as of yet no English version, I decided to undertake the task of translating it for an English-speaking audience, with the aim, of course, of eventual publication and distribution Stateside.

Anyone who's ever undertaken translation of a work knows you don't just start the project willie-nillie. One must first obtain the translation rights from the author or his estate. In the case of old out-of-print books whose authors are deceased, things get tricky. My first port of call was Le Bureau du Livre Français in New York City. I shot them a short inquiry, and they responded promptly with the name of a publishing company in France I could contact. So contact them I did, and they, in broken English, responded by directing me to yet another French publishing house. I e-mailed that one, which answered in even more broken English that they no longer ran the business, but that I should contact the publishing house that had just referred me to them. Not helpful. Somehow, out of this muddle, I was able to find the name and postal address of the author's last living heir, a retired colonel living in a chateau in rural Limousin. With help from a Dijonnaise friend, I crafted a polite letter informing him how inspired I was by his father's writing and requesting translation rights for his work. I waited weeks, with no answer, and was resigned to the fact that it was not meant to be.

Then one day, the letter came--a little handwritten note of a few lines, that simply read, in French, "My husband recently passed away, but if I can speak on his behalf, I think he would be happy to grant you permission for this project."

Formidable!

So these days, frequently interrupted by the daily duties that make up domestic life, I happily sit down and translate. It is only in its first stages: the literal rendition, which will later be gone over a second time and rephrased into a lucid and accurate interpretation. Then the manuscript gets shopped around, and, if the good Lord wills, published. But that is a long way off yet.
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