Rabbit Trails into History: An interview with translator Christiana Hills
One often wonders if Oulipo was formed just so its members could laugh as outsiders try to describe it. Short for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), the organization since 1960 has devoted itself to producing literature beholden to self-imposed (and often, self-invented) structural constraints meant to spur invention and free the writer from habits of creative stagnation. Founded by a litterateur (Raymond Queneau) and a mathematician (François Le Lionnais), the group has produced a huge body of diverse work and bona fide masterpieces (the most commonly referenced would be Queneau’s Exercises in Style and One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Georges Perec’s A Void and Life: A User’s Manual, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), but rarely has the group’s combination of interests been realized as substantially as in Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days. Certainly the greatest novel about mathematicians during and after wartime (if only because I can’t think of any others), it is a book at once bearing the playfulness and invention of the best Oulipian work while simultaneously haunted by the catastrophes of the 20th century. Following the post-WWI fates of wounded mathematicians Christian Mortsauf and Robert Gorenstein through love, chaos, Nazism, and asylums, Audin’s story is told through a hodgepodge of styles documenting the physical and psychological scars of modern French history.
I recently spoke with Christiana Hills, translator of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, to get her perspective on puzzle solving, “method translating,” and the challenges and pleasures of collaborating on indefinable literature:
Steve Danziger for Open Letters Monthly: First of all, what’s a nice American girl like you doing getting mixed up with a bunch of French cruciverbalists?
CH: Well, it really started during my master’s program in literary translation at NYU, when I learned about the greatest cruciverbalist of them all, Georges Perec, and how he wrote a whole novel (La Disparition) without the letter e. It was a stunning piece of literature, but doubly impressive for me to find out that Gilbert Adair created an equally e-less translation (published in English as A Void). Later on in the program we had a creative writing course to improve our translation flexibility that included a whole week writing with Oulipian constraints. I haven’t read, written, or translated in the same way ever since. One Hundred Twenty-One Days is actually the second novel I’ve translated; for my thesis, I translated Agnès Desarthe’s A Hunting Party, but I have yet to find a publisher, perhaps because the first chapter is narrated by a philosophical rabbit.
OLM: Actually, hearing that, I’d really like to read that novel.
CH: I think it’s a genre whose time has come. But, I couldn’t get any play, so after one of my mentors suggested I sit on it for a year or two and look for a new project, I turned to the Oulipo, and came upon One Hundred Twenty-One Days while looking at some of the members’ new releases. Trying another tack this time, I applied for a French Voices grant – a fantastic program sponsored by the French Embassy that helps translators of Francophone books find publishers – and not long after I received it, offers started coming in. Since the book was being represented by the French Publisher’s Agency – a valuable “middleman” (though all the staff are women) between French- and English-language publishers – they helped the book find a home with Deep Vellum Publishing. So a major difference in my becoming involved and helping see the book to print was really all about finding money and getting support so I didn’t have to submit the work to publishers myself and play the waiting game for a second time.
OLM: Deep Vellum has also published Oulipo member Anne Garréta – since we talked before about what publishing companies find desirable in translated works, how did they see One Hundred Twenty-One Days fitting in with their vision?
CH: Will Evans (Publisher/Executive Director of DV) is very interested in the Oulipo (most of us who like the Oulipo are pretty addicted). But in general, since Will is a translator and DV only publishes literary translations, they’re committed to publishing works that we all should be reading, no matter where they come from. The Oulipo has been vibrant presence in the international literary and scholarly scene for a few decades, but their reputation was based mostly around Queneau, Perec, and a few others. But the Oulipo isn’t a one-trick pony – you can’t just read one book and think you’ve “got” the Oulipo. Each member really brings something unique to the art of writing with constraints, and so they all deserve to be translated into English, including the women!
OLM: In the current climate, many might say especially the women. Speaking of which, Michèle is part of a small minority within a group that has been taken to task through the years for being so male-centric.
CH: She is one of only five women out of the group’s twenty-three living members, but is one of the most active – she participates in many of their public readings (including the famous themed readings that happen one Thursday every month at the Bibliothèque Nationale) and has already written four full-length works since she joined the group. I haven’t yet met her in person, so I’ll be interested to see what she has to say about the gender question. But considering that Oulipo’s two most recent (male) members write mainly in Spanish rather than French, I have a feeling they’re looking to become more diverse.
OLM: Here’s a constraint for you – for those unfamiliar with Michèle’s work, give us a two-paragraph biography, leading to her joining the organization.
CH: Michèle Audin was born in Algeria but grew up in France. Her father Maurice Audin was an anti-colonial activist leading up to and during the Algerian War and was killed under torture by the French Army when she was just two years old. She has written a short memoir about him, Une vie brève (A Brief Life). She actually refused the Legion of Honor in 2009 because Sarkozy had refused to answer a letter her mother had written in regards to the affair. France still hasn’t claimed responsibility for his death, over 60 years after it happened. This is almost certainly why history plays such an important part in her work.
She has recently retired from a long career as a mathematician and professor of geometry at several French universities. She was inducted into the Oulipo in 2009, after gaining interest from a few members for the way she integrated literature and history into Remembering Sofia Kovalevskaya , a biography of a 19th century Russian mathematician. You can read more about this in a piece she recently wrote for Publisher’s Weekly called “What is the Oulipo?” (which I translated) that tells her story of how she was “co-opted” into the group and what happens at a typical meeting.
OLM: I loved her explanation of co-option in that article. First, she’s invited to a meeting, then, “Six months later, I receive a message from President Paul Fournel, who suggests I come back. Forever.”
CH: Indeed! Once you become a member of the Oulipo, you are a member forever. There are several members, including Marcel Duchamp, whose absences from meetings are politely excused “for reason of death”. And you can never leave the group, unless you commit suicide with the express purpose of doing it to leave the group! But no one’s tried that tactic.
OLM: Could you expand on the relevance of history to Audin’s work? Oulipians claim no political agenda but the books seems to be at least brushing up against national critique in a way that most Oulipo work doesn’t.
CH: As a scholar, Michèle has done a lot of research on the history of mathematicians, especially those who have been forgotten from history: women, Jews, soldiers who died young. I think from both this research and her personal experience, she has developed a desire to uncover through her writing a history that’s not in the history books. There’s a line in the last chapter of One Hundred and Twenty-One Days, when the historian is reflecting on all the stories and bits of information that make up the novel, and he says that private events, like the stories of love and friendship told in the novel, are what holds the threads of “the fabric of history” together. Her most recent work, Mademoiselle Haas, reflects this as well – it’s a series of short stories about unmarried working women in 1930s Paris, women who are forgotten in the historical and political narratives of the inter-war period.
OLM: So, of all possible translators, why you? You’re obviously passionate about her work, but what were the circumstances that led to this partnership?
CH: Not long after signing the contract, I sent her a tentative email with a few small questions about certain details in the book. Thankfully, Michèle answered, and we started a cordial back-and-forth exchange, at some point during which she offered to read what I had thus far translated of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, “if it would help.” I was nervous about this point as well, having heard horror stories from fellow translators about overbearing authors not agreeing with their translators. But I wanted to give it a try – after all, how often do you get to work with a living author, and a member of the Oulipo at that? So I sent the first chapter. She sent it back quite quickly, perhaps a day or two later, filled with comments and suggestions, but also praise. In fact, she ended up reading and commenting on my entire translation of One Hundred Twenty-One Days! Throughout the process, we got to know each other, especially through those asides you put in emails, like when she was stuck in a hotel in Burkina Faso during the coup last summer (she was more than happy to have something to do in reading my drafts!). We have yet to meet in person, but it will happen one of these days, especially as she gave me permission to translate her next book, Mademoiselle Haas.
OLM: Of all the books you could have possibly pursued, what was it about this book specifically that you found so appealing?
CH: I suppose what attracted me to the work was its density, the way in which all of its rabbit trails of references to history, literature, and mathematics leave you wondering if you’ll ever grasp the whole thing. Michèle doesn’t hide her scholarly background in her literary work, but rather combines it with the playfulness inherent to everything Oulipian, which makes this book so refreshing and intriguing. And, after talking about this book for the past year or so, I still have trouble describing it. That tells you how complex it is.
OLM: That’s too bad; after reading it, I couldn’t describe it either, and was hoping to steal your description. But maybe you could discuss the constraints Michèle was beholden to, and how they helped shape the book.
CH: We’ll start with the form: eleven chapters, each in a different genre or a mix of genres, including a children’s story, a diary, a series of newspaper articles, a transcribed interview, a scholar’s research notes, and even a list of numbers that relate to the overall story. Through these various forms, we learn about the lives of three different French mathematicians, the men they worked with, and the women they loved. You’ll read about one character in a chapter and hear nothing about him until he’s mentioned a few chapters later. That kind of thing. It’s also in-your-face with intertextuality, especially literary references, but also details like footnotes and an index of proper names.
And of course, being Oulipian, the work contains constraints. The last few words of each chapter are also the first few words of the next chapter, with the last words of the book being the same as those that start the book (I only recently discovered that Michèle was inspired for this by troubadour poetry). There are also a few constrained nodes hidden in the book’s content (some of which Michèle had to point out to me!), such as an alphabetical list and a few parenthetical elements in the notes chapter with vocalic restrictions based on author’s names (example: Dante (wretched hearts)).
OLM: I know some Oulipians are adamant about not revealing their constraints – did you just commit an act of heresy?
CH: Don’t worry – I asked her permission to talk about the constraints, since I also do so in my translator’s note at the end of the book itself. But you’re right: the question of whether or not to reveal the constraints is an area of fierce debate within the Oulipo – those in favor say that’s what makes readers marvel at the behind-the-scenes aspects of their works, while those against say that readers will end up looking for the constraints without appreciating the work as a whole.
OLM: What were some problems/challenges you faced translating the work? Translation is a constraint in and of itself, isn’t it?
CH: It is indeed! And that’s why I love it. It’s like a puzzle you’re working to solve, but one with multiple solutions that appeal in different ways.
In my translator’s note I mention that this book at times felt like eleven different translation projects. There were two main challenges: all the different styles, and all the references. Some of the styles came more naturally to me, like the research notes at the one chapter that’s in a stream-of-consciousness narrative. But the more unorthodox documents found within the text – things like 1930s psychiatric reports, excerpts from mathematics articles, transcribed interviews with Holocaust survivors, and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – took some reading to master. But that’s one of my favorite things about translation – you get to read beyond what you would normally read, and learn all kinds of random things in the process.
Which brings us to the references. There’s a list in the back of the book (in a “supernumerary chapter”) of over 40 poems and books Michèle referenced in the book. I actually got pretty hands-on with researching all the references. I call it “method translating,” where I made a multi-tabbed spreadsheet to keep track of things like the library call numbers for the book, a timeline of the events, and the index pages. I also made a Pinterest page of related images, and a YouTube playlist of the music mentioned. The last chapter takes you on a walk through Paris, so I took the same walk via Google Earth (the next-best option to hopping on a flight to CDG). I’m not really sure what my end goal was with all of this “method,” other than what comes out as performed in the translation itself.
OLM: I’m glad you mentioned the translator’s note – it feels like an invaluable addition to the book, and captures so much of the spirit, and the pragmatics, of the partnership between author and translator. And, I’m hard-pressed to think of another instance where an author or publisher gave a translator the opportunity to explain their process in such detail – it’s a wonderful acknowledgement of your contributions, and seems like a real testament to the collaborative process.
CH: Thank you! I really enjoyed writing it, since it helped me sum up my translation process before I really started tackling the editing and formatting with the publisher. Since this is my first book to be published, I had never gone through the editing process before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But Deep Vellum treats their translators really well – after all, it was started by a translator and they only publish translations! So the editing itself was really smooth. But I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about the formatting until it came time to agree on the layout of the book. With all those different genres, you can imagine how complicated the formatting is, so I was all over it – add an indent here, take out this page break here, this should be in italics, this bullet should be an arrow… thankfully, the folks at DV were really patient with me, and the finished product looks awesome.
OLM: You sound understandably proud of the work. But most importantly, does this mean you’ll get to attend an Oulipo meeting? I hear there’s free food.
CH: And free-flowing wordplay! Actually, I like to daydream about what a gathering of Oulipo translators would be like. Because, like I said before, many of us who translate the Oulipo are addicted to their work – you have to be, to spend so much time with a linguistic puzzle.
Or perhaps I’m just assuming they’re all as passionate as I am.
Michèle Audin is a mathematician and a professor at l’Institut de re- cherche mathématique avancée (IRMA) in Strasbourg, where she does re- search notably in the area of symplectic geometry. Audin is a member of the Oulipo, and is the author of many works of mathematics and the history of mathematics, She has also published a work of creative nonfiction on the disappearance of her father, Une vie brève (Gallimard, 2013)—Audin is the daughter of mathematician Maurice Audin, who died under torture in 1957 in Algeria, after having been arrested by parachutists of General Jacques Massu. On January 1, 2009, she refused to receive the Legion of Honor, on the grounds that the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, had refused to respond to a letter asking for information on her father, the possible whereabouts of his body, and recognition of the French government’s role in his disappearance. For the Oulipo, Audin has contributed to a collection of short stories, Georges Perec and the Oulipo: Winter Journeys (Atlas Press, 2013), and edited and annotated an abecedary of Oulipo works, OULIPO L’Abécédaire provisoirement définitif (Larousse, 2014). One Hundred Twenty-One Days is her first novel and was published to universal acclaim in 2014 by the prestigious Gallimard publishing house in France.
Christiana Hills is a literary translator who graduated from NYU’s MA program in Literary Translation (French–English) and who received a French Voices Award from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States for her translation of One Hundred Twenty-One Days. Hills is currently a doctoral candidate in Translation Studies at Binghamton University in New York.
Steve Danziger is a contributing editor at Open Letters.