In this series, we listen in as Drunken Boat’s renowned translators talk with one another about art, craft, and the role of translation in the world.

Ian Monk was born near London, but now lives in Paris, where he works as a writer and translator (of, among others, Georges Perec, Raymond Roussel and Jacques Roubaud). After contributing to the Oulipo Compendium (Atlas Press) he became a member of the Oulipo in 1988. He has published books in English such as Family Archaeology and Writings for the Oulipo (Make Now), in French (Plouk Town and (Cambourakis)), and even both N/S (with Frédéric Forte) and Les Feuilles de Yucca / Leaves of the Yucca, a bilingual ebook ( A new collection of his French poetry Vers de l’infini will be published by Cambourakis in April.

Chris Clarke grew up in Western Canada, and currently lives in Princeton, NJ. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (New Directions), Patrick Modiano (NYRB Classics), and Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press, Nov. 2017), among others. He was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant in 2016 for his translation of Marcel Schwob’s “Imaginary Lives” (forthcoming, Wakefield Press). He is a PhD Candidate in French at the CUNY Graduate Center, NY, where his dissertation examines Raymond Queneau’s work as a literary translator. He became a member of the Outranspo in 2014.

Chris Clarke: Ian, I was lucky enough to hear a bit about one particular project of yours when you spoke to us at a conference at Johns Hopkins via Skype a few years ago, but there are plenty who haven’t, and I’d like to get my facts straight as well as get an update on what has happened since that talk. By this, I’m referring to your never-ended Exeter Text — Revenentes theme. Initially a translation of Perec’s Les Revenentes, published in Three by Perec as The Exeter Text, you continued on working with this material for quite some time. Would you mind giving a short overview of the project, from the beginning to wherever you are with it now?

Ian Monk: This ‘project,’ such as it is, is done and dusted, so far as I’m concerned. The idea came up that it might be interesting to ‘translate’ Les revenentes into a lipogram in E. But it then occurred to me that it only really made sense to do this with the start of the book, the first few pages where virtually no cheating is going on, otherwise when the verbal mayhem really starts up, there would be no challenge. Having already done the English version of the book, in its entirety, I knew about this: staying in a univocalism is always going to be challenging, but cheating with a lipogram in E far less so, I reckon. So it was that I translated the first few pages into La Rapparition and then the same section into An Oxford Manuscript….

CC: What for you is the difference in approach, in method, in feel, between translating from/to a lipogram and translating from/to a univocalic?

IM: None really, except the more limited choice of vocabulary and syntax. As hinted at above.

CC: Working back and forth as you have, have you found that the two target languages have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to these constraints? Do they work differently?

IM: What’s very interesting is that Perec obviously wasn’t going to make his life any harder than necessary when writing these books. So it is that La disparition has a largely male cast (il, lui, no ‘e’ on adjectives…) and is written mostly in the passé simple (where you have loads of common e-less irregular verbs — Il fit, fut, sut, dit, put…) whereas in English, writing about men or women wouldn’t be that different (neither he nor she, ok there is him) and practically all English verbs end in –ed in the past, with only a small bunch of e-less irregulars (thankfully had, got, did…). It thus occurred to me that if an English speaker were to undertake the same project, he would probably write a first-person narrative in the present tense…

And, oddly enough, this is exactly what Perec did in Les revenentes, because he had ‘je’ and the present is relatively easy to manipulate in French just with e’s. In English, of course, you’d write a third-person narrative in the past, with either ‘he’ or ‘she’, and a reasonable choice of verbs in the past tense!

It was also fun to see how vocabulary changes shifted across the languages. A noticeable example in the opening sentence is Perec’s ‘chèvres en détresse’ which become ‘pestered sheep’, but when we get to the lipograms in E, the French one has ‘un mouton battu’ whereas in English we arrive at ‘goats struck by panic’. It was thus necessary to go through three shifts so as to get to a more ‘literal’ translation.

CC: Odd question: when you’re translating a lipogram, when does the constraint come into play? Are you translating for content first and then stripping away the forbidden letter? Or is it more a self-censorship that happens somewhere between reading and writing?

IM: What I actually seem to do is translate both, form and content, in my head, at the same time. I don’t see any point writing down a first version which doesn’t obey the constraint, without any idea of whether there might be a fruitful way of reworking it later. When I can’t find a solution rapidly, I leave a blank and move on. A solution then generally pops into my mind a day or two later.

CC: Have you done the same with different constraints, this sort of back and forth reworking? If so, did that involve translation as well, or was it instead applying and reapplying or removing a non-interlinguistic constraint? And if so, how did it work out?

IM: The only similar thing I’ve done, with a much simpler text to fiddle with, is my bilingual ebook Les feuilles de yucca/Leaves of the Yucca, which you can take a look at here:

CC: David Bellos brings up the idea of ‘smoothing’ in an article on translating Vie mode d’emploi [Life A User’s Manual]; specifically, he’s referring to the variations in tone in the original that are brought on by Perec’s use of unmarked citation, and how, if the translator doesn’t notice them and brings them straight across without any special attention, the shift in tone is smoothed and ends up either lesser or gone altogether.

By extension, in the act of moving a text back and forth, from one language to another and back and from a lipogram to a univocalic and back, does this tend to have a smoothing effect, making the tone more Ian Monk’s over time and less Perec’s, or on the other hand, does it make the tone pop out further in places, like the effect of a children’s game of telephone? Or neither, or both? Is there a smoothing that goes on? Or does it tend to send you off in different directions each time?

IM: This is obviously an issue. How to deal with the hidden quotes and allusions in a foreign work, which, even if you notice them, and try to imitate them, will probably mean little or nothing to the target audience? What I tend to do is add a little “strangeness” of my own when this seems appropriate, and maybe a reference or two which will be familiar to the target audience. This is what Adair does in his A Void, but to an excessive degree, I feel. For example, he has lots of references to movies which are just not there in the French. He was a movie buff, and critic. I’m looking forward to a French-less college student writing a thesis on “Movie References in La Disparition.” It’s rather like being confronted by puns, I think. Instead of vainly trying to translate the untranslatable, let it go, and slip a different pun in as soon as you can. Just don’t overdo it!

CC: I understand that within the Oulipo, there was eventually a feeling around a lot of constraints that “Perec had already done it” or “did it first.” And yes, he did take on some amazingly daunting projects. But the choices you’ve outlined above, whether it’s choosing the person or tense, tend to lead towards making the project easier. Is that always the goal, though? Is it really about finding the easiest way to solve the “problem” or the “constraint”? And, to move us back to translation, what does that mean for the translator? One example that comes to mind is Emma Ramadan’s recent translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. Manipulation of the gender is automatically going to be a bit easier in English, which is more of a gender-neutral language. So, is it on the translator to compensate in some way? To bring the difficulty level back up so that the “level of difficulty” matches more closely in both languages? Or is this just a fortunate thing for the translator, where the reaction should simply be to thank one’s lucky stars?

IM: To answer the question about the difficulty of a constraint, I don’t think you necessarily consciously choose the “easiest” solution, what happens, and what I tell the participants in my workshops to do, is work a little with a constraint, making a few short sentences first, so as to see what the constraint “wants to say”. To stick to our example of a lipogram in E, for grammatical reasons, it would be very ambitious to try and write a 300-page novel telling a love story between two women, especially in French. So, it’s more a question of not trying to force a constraint in a direction that is alien to it.

When it comes to the translation of Sphinx, I tried a chapter or two of it a few years ago to see, and was surprised to discover that it was much harder to translate than I had expected. You say that English is “gender-neutral”, that isn’t entirely true. Gender is there, but just not in the same places as in French. To take a very obvious example, there are possessive pronouns: how to translate “X admirait ses vêtements”? Then there is “lui”. Garréta obviously has a lot of “X lui dit” … “X lui donna” … I haven’t seen Ramadan’s translation, so I’ve no idea how she dealt with this, but it can’t have been easy.

CC: As far as “degree of difficulty,” Queneau wrote about calculating the degree of difficulty of a lipogram in his essay “Littérature Potentielle” back in 1964, and at least as far as the lipogram, it seems some have taken the notion to heart — for instance, the Spanish translation of La disparition voiding the “A,” the more common vowel in Spanish, or the Russian translation apparently adding additional chapters to compensate for the number of letters in their alphabet. Is this perhaps something the translator needs to keep in mind with a more visible constraint, and something he or she can shrug off somewhat when it’s less likely someone will notice?

IM: As I hint above, the degree of difficulty is not necessarily less in one language than another. This is because the writer of the original text obviously uses the strengths of the language in question which are “allowable” under the constraint. As my various examples show, these strengths often turn out to be obstacles in the target language. I haven’t yet encountered a situation where something like this doesn’t occur. The choice of the letter A in Spanish was an obvious one I think, and rather reflects the underlying rationale of the text, rather than looking for difficulty artificially.

CC: Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. In my limited work with constraints, I’ve definitely noticed one thing: working with them demonstrates something about your language or language pairing that you hadn’t thought of before. For instance, in translating Olivier Salon’s Stations of the Cry, I noticed that in some ways the inverse (Z to A) progressive lipogram is more difficult in English than it is in French: specifically, I lose “who, what, where, when, why, with” by the 4th paragraph, and then “the, there, they, then, you, yours, at, to, through,” etc. by the 7th. In French, a number of those stick around a bit longer, like “qui, quoi, où, quand, quoi” are there through the sixth, and “le, la” stick around almost half way through the text. When I lost my “the” I had to switch to the indefinite article; then I lost my “n” and realized I had to follow any iterations of the article with a noun or adjective that began with a consonant… And so on.

Are there any other unusual things you’ve learned about your language(s) by translating constraints or working with them in both languages?

IM: One that strikes me immediately is the ‘prisoner’s constraint’ — the idea is that you’re supposed to be a prisoner with only a tiny piece of paper to write a letter on, so you avoid using any letters with ascenders or descenders (i.e. b, d, f, g etc…). In other words, it’s a multiple lipogram. Harry Mathews asked me to produce one for the Oulipo Compendium, and I immediately said yes, without thinking. When I got down to work, I quickly realized that, in English, virtually no tenses are available, whereas in French, conjugation remains quite feasible. You can’t have the past (no ‘d’), the perfect forms (no ‘h’), or the future (no ‘l’) or even the conditional (no ‘d’) and no continuous forms (no ‘g’)! In other words, all you can use is a tiny stock of irregular verbs, or else the present simple! So the whole thing turned out to be far more difficult than expected.

CC: Something similar to this came to mind when I was watching a ventriloquist; clearly the movement of the lips is impossible to hide on all the labial stops, etc., so someone writing a ventriloquism routine will naturally avoid all of those big, meaty, poppy consonants. In a way, we might consider that this, like your prisoner’s constraint, and Olivier’s Stations, to be motivated lipograms, whereas a random “lipogram in A” is unmotivated, simply a lipogram “because you can.” La Disparition would occupy a middle ground — perhaps it started out as unmotivated, but by making the novel about the missing vowel, Perec managed to motivate the unmotivated.

IM: There is in fact a Oulipian ‘constraint’ called ‘Vers turcs’ which is a particular type of multiple lipogram consisting in excluding all the letters that generally make your lips touch each other (b, m, p…) and would obviously be ideal for ventriloquist. A friend wrote a play where, in one scene, one actor apparently mouths the text, while a second actually says it, without moving her lips. It creates a very strange effect.

CC: I can imagine that it would create a strange effect. It can be really odd to take some of these forms off the paper and see them enunciated. I recently saw a short video clip of the Outrapo [Ouvroir de tragicomédie potentielle] doing what they call a Spectre Phonique: someone pronounced just the vowel sounds, and then someone just the consonant sounds. Neither made the least bit of sense on their own. Then they did it at the same time, and voila. I suppose the “motivated” constraints, the ones that can be explained to have a reason like these, aren’t necessarily any different to translate, but at the same time we might be able to suggest that if they are motivated, it allows us to give a more definite answer to the question about content vs constraint: If the work has an evident (audible or other) motivation, the translation definitely has to stick to that constraint above all else. If the sense gets lost a bit along the way, it’s unfortunate, but in this case, it’s better than the ventriloquist suddenly having to start popping a big bunch of bubbly bees and peas because you were trying to be faithful to meaning.

IM: Exactly! I might add to the above that the decision was made when compiling the Compendium not to attempt to translate this kind of highly constrained text based on combinations of letters, and instead to write a new, original text, using the same technique. This also applied to Perec’s “ulcérations,” or “threnodials” in English, which consist in writing poems using the eleven commonest letters in the alphabet (as anagrammed in the names of this technique) but in such a way that you cannot repeat a letter until the entire sequence has been exhausted (but you can have enjambements between sequences, and thus over the same word, which makes this different from purely anagrammatic poetry, and more like serial music). I consider this to be a true example of the untranslatable. Not only are the letters not quite the same in different languages, but the chances of hitting on solutions that mean something like the original is just about zero. Hence the decision to write a different sequence of poems, whose content had nothing to do with Perec’s work, but which quite simply used the same form.

Another example of this kind of problem is the aborted idea of cross-language anagrams I had with Michelle Grangaud. The idea was to make anagrams in French from English phrases, and vice versa. Well, going from French to English turns out to be reasonably doable most of the time, whereas the opposite is just out of the question. This is because in English, our “rare” letters (q, x, z for instance) are far less rare than rare letters in French (k and w in particular). You just need a dumb word like “know” in the phrase to be anagrammed and you’re screwed, unless you want endless quantities of kiwis in your texts.

CC: Wicked kiwis. I’ve actually come across that exact problem recently — playing French iPhone scrabble with my wife. I keep getting stuck with a K-W at the end, which are both 10-point letters, but way worse than Z or X in English, as you can’t get rid of them in 2-letter combinations. When I told her you had mentioned this, she suggested you incorporate a lipogrammatic add-on into your cross-language anagrams. I guess at first sight that might make is sound more difficult, too, although if you were scrapping K, W, Z, and X, you’d be making things a fair amount easier on yourself.

IM: This happens in Perec’s ‘belle absente’ or (‘beautiful-in-law’ as practiced by Harry Mathews), which consists in writing a poem whose first line uses all the letters of the alphabet except the first letter of someone’s name, the second line all except the second letter and so on. It was decided that including k and w just made the whole thing too cumbersome and artificial.

CC: I guess all of this leads me to ask you to enunciate the question I skipped past earlier: What is your goal when you’re translating a constrained text? What is it most important to preserve, and at the expense of what else? What comes first, the constraint or the meaning? And as I once asked Daniel Levin Becker in a co-interview, whose text results?

IM: I must admit that when absolutely necessary, I tend to sin on the formal side. I know many translators will disapprove of this, but my argument is that in any text written using a strong constraint, even rhyme, the content is to a certain extent determined by that constraint. The writer did not necessarily “say just whatever he or she wanted to say.” So, it seems to me, the same should apply to the translation. But this rarely happens to any radical degree. I think that only purely letter-based texts, such as anagrammatic poetry, are truly untranslatable. Once we reach the level of words, then there is almost always a solution out there somewhere.

As for “whose text then results”? Then surely this same question applies, to a greater or lesser degree, to any translation of a rich literary text? I don’t at all believe in the “invisible translator.” Nor do you, I suppose. I guess real literary translation produces bicephalous beasts, with one of the heads sometimes being smaller or larger than the other, depending on the outcome: Baudelaire’s Poe? Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam?

CC: Absolutely. It would be hard to convince me, after I’ve spent months translating a book, that those words in my notebook and in my laptop aren’t my words. Is it my book? No, not entirely. But whatever it is, it has at least been filtered in its entirety through my head and then hands. There’s something very personal about that. To someone who doesn’t consider translation when they read a translated work, sure, I guess for them they are still reading Gogol or Kafka or Roland Barthes. But once you become aware that this has been written, uttered, spoken, produced by another writer, an intermediary, it changes the experience. And when you’re the one doing the filtering/re-writing/re-producing, well, yes, I feel visible. At least to me. And very closely connected to the work.

And yes, the point you make is fair when considering any translation. Perhaps it just seems a bit more likely that you’ll end up sinning on that formal side in a constrained translation. Yes, there will always be problems in a non-constrained translation that will require creative solutions and thus require you to stray in spots from the original. But to me, constrained translation, if you’re set on maintaining the constraint, can take me to extents of “disloyalty” that I wouldn’t otherwise reach. Another example from Olivier Salon’s Stations of the Cry, but this time from his “Q” paragraph: in French, he relies heavily on the word “coq” to fill his quotient of Qs in that paragraph, as he had already lost his U. Without just keeping “coq” in mine, I more or less had to jettison the entire sense of what he wrote in that paragraph, as all I had as Oxford-attested English words using Q but not U were borrowings from Arabic. I tried to follow the train of thought as well as I could, but let’s be clear, what I wrote there and what Olivier had written have no direct correlation whatsoever other than being tenuously connected by the semantic thread that runs through the piece–through my reading of the piece. Which I don’t think I would ever say about a solution in one of my non-constrained translations.

Another question, then. Can you think of any more of these big-headed bicephalous beasts, translations you think have surpassed their source texts? Whether in quality, or in celebrity/longevity?

IM: One double-headed beast is of course Catullus’s version (Catullus 51: ‘Ille me par’…) of Sappho’s poem ‘φαίνεταί μοι’ (Sappho 31) — ‘he seems to me’. Though most people prefer the original, I’d put them on an equal footing.

One other point of interest here — had Sappho’s poem not survived (most of her poetry has not), we would think that this was a pure piece of creation by Catullus. Given the very small proportion of classical Greek literature that has come down to us (an estimated 1% when you look at the fragments, as well as works and authors that are known to have existed from allusions but of whom/which nothing remains), we can only wonder how much of Catullus, and other famous Roman poets such as Martial, Horace etc. is not either more or less a straight “translation” of lost Greek originals, or at best an “adaptation”. This is something that could be mined with a little linguistic imagination, I think.

CC: I actually heard that Hugo Vernier wrote most of Demosthenes and Antiphon during his theme et version classes…

IM: Otherwise, to answer your question, there aren’t that many examples that spring to mind of translations surpassing source texts. But there are translations that have become classics in their own right, such as Chapman’s or Pope’s Homer.

CC: To keep on with this idea for a moment, and since we are already in agreement about the so-called “invisibility of the translator,” I’m recalling an article about a certain translation that suggested it in some ways surpassed the original because of its self-awareness. I think what the scholar meant was that it is possible for a translation to do (very nearly) everything that an original is doing, but then to add something further: a little wink to the reader to remind him or her that there is another layer to decipher, one provided by the translation itself and the play between languages. Since this was an Oulipian text, it was perhaps suggesting that while it’s already next to impossible to capture both the semantic level and the linguistic constraint in translation, doing so in a way that was somehow overt, reminding the reader that there was also a new, interlinguistic game to watch as well as the others… was like adding another layer to the onion.

What are your thoughts about that? About the possibility of introducing something to the text that isn’t there before when translating? Here, I’m not thinking so much about Adair’s Siskel and Ebert routine, but more as I just said, just winking to the reader every now and then to remind him or her that there is some fun interlinguistic play at hand as well.

IM: To be honest, I don’t know what I think about this. I guess that, once again, it’s something to be handled with caution. While not being invisible, a translator shouldn’t be a show-off, either (which is one of the things I reproach Adair for, in fact).

CC: Agreed, although I think that sometimes I would be interested in seeing some experimentation with this, cautiously done as you say. For me, the problem with Adair’s “riffing” was that it seemed to go on and on while he missed bringing over a great number of other things that were important — some little, some not so little. A few of which you point out in your essay “On G. Adair’s A Void” (Writings for the Oulipo, 2006), others that crop up in other criticism or just glare at you as you compare his version to the original. To me, perhaps that’s the fine line. Did the translator nail it? Has he got it all, or everything possible? Great, then a little bow and a soft tap of the shoe might be ok. But instead, it’s as if Adair just thought he had figured out how to work the lipogram, no problem, and that’s all anyone cares about anyway, right? So he thinks it’s ok if he ignores that little nuance buried in that really tricky passage, as long as he’s swinging his arms and legs like Gary Cooper as he taps out the lipogram… Adair did do some really amazing things in that book, but that was my principal frustration.

IM: I think what happened is he thought it was going to be much harder than it actually is. And so, he allowed himself far more leeway than I have ever seen in any other translation (after all, it’s about a third longer than the original, which is going some! And because the exploit is supposed to be marvelous, no one in the literary world seems to have made the slightest objection to this, whereas they are all very quick to sneer at ‘bad’ or inaccurate translations at the earliest possibility, so what everyone has been admiring (and after all he did win the Scott Moncrieff prize for this!) are his ingenious e-less hijinks, and not anything that looks like a real translation, at least to me).

CC: Now that Gilbert Adair has been gone five years, is it time to consider the possibility of a new published translation of La disparition? Or has that ship long since sailed? I’m one of likely not too many to have read four different versions of that book: all but yours, as far as I understand. Having looked quite carefully at them, and agreeing in many ways with your reservations about Adair’s version, I’d love to see what you did differently, and frankly where you and John Lee differ as well. Thoughts?

IM: I’m being asked more and more often about my Disparition. But it’s something I did a long time ago, and was actually the first book I ever translated! I’ve looked at the manuscript from time to time, but it seems to me that the whole thing would have to be worked over again for months before I could imagine publishing it, or even an extract of it now, given everything I’ve learnt since my wild youth.

CC: There’s also the added bonus of it being mythologized by its absence. I’ve read Perec, Adair, Lee, & West, but not Monk. So naturally, I just assume that yours has all of what I liked about each of the other ones without any of their problems. It IS Ian Monk, after all…

IM: It’s becoming so mythologized that it’s publication can be nothing but a major disappointment now. So I think I’ll be leaving it as a legendary island lying someplace off the charts for now.

CC: We’ll have to consider it the opposite of the Sappho-Catullus quandary. The unfortunate instance when only the original still exists and the fabled translation has been lost. Still, I’d love to read it one day. I definitely understand why you don’t want to touch it, rework it, or publish it, but here’s my reason. One of the things I’ve written about in my academic work examines the use of translation as a tool of understanding. Richard Sieburth demonstrated this in a seminar with a bit of Derrida that was giving us grief. We looked at the same fragment in French, in English, and in German. Each had a slightly different nuance, a slightly different solution. But by stacking the nuances up on top of each other, we got a clearer picture of what was at play.

I did something similar with a series of ambiguous lines from Chrétien de Troye’s Perceval ou le conte du graal for a research paper once, pulling out the same lines from eighteen different versions: six in modern French, six in ancien français and six in English. The six in ancient French worked for this too, as they weren’t the same — none of the different manuscripts used to produce the texts were exactly the same, as the scribes that produced these books, several hundred years before printing, had interpreted the ambiguities differently, or dealt with problems with the manuscript they were copying in different ways. The end result was that I had eighteen slightly different readings of the same lines. It wasn’t even a question of taking a poll on what the right answer was, but rather a chance to use all of these different nuances to shade in a big fuzzy spot from all different angles.

I think this is important with the classics especially, because of the manuscript tradition but also because language has evolved more than we tend to think. But also, this way I get to create this composite translation in my head, something that would never fit on a printed page necessarily, but a composite text where certain words or lines or paragraphs would double and triple and multiply in order to show the various readings possible.

So, while Adair did some things that I do like (and others that I like less), and John Lee and Julian West also really nailed it in spots and dropped the ball a bit in others, I’d love to see what Ian Monk’s version adds to the hybrid text I’ve built in my head — I’m sure it would help shade in some of the blanks and give me a fuller sense of what this text can be in English. And this, of course, is why I tend to object when someone states, “We need a new translation of X, the old one isn’t holding up.” For me, it’s rather a case of needing another translation of X, or even better, several more translations. I know that doesn’t really fit in with the way the literary rights system works, or the publishing world in general, but at least for classics in the public domain it might be something for us to strive for.

Do you ever read more than one translation of the same thing? Or compare translations of a work?

IM: I have done, to a certain degree, mostly when it comes to Latin and Greek classics, and in particular Homer (when toying with the idea of writing about Homeric translation as reflections of different periods, this came to nothing, but should have…). As I’ve said, I don’t consider myself to be a full-fledged literary translator and have never formerly studied the subject, so I’ve never done this systematically as you seem to. I’m too lazy! If I can read a language, then I don’t read translations from it, and if I can’t then I obviously can’t judge the quality of the translations I read.

CC: Before we move to some of your other translations, let me ask you this: How does translating different kinds of writing affect your approach, your interest level, your enjoyment level, or your frustration level? After all, you cover the spectrum more than most. So for instance, what are the differences between translating yourself, translating another Oulipian’s work, translating Daniel Pennac, translating Raymond Roussel, translating Camille Laurens, translating advertising/technical writing?

IM: I’m now bored shitless translating not very interesting literary novels or detective fiction. I hate wading through two, three, four hundred pages of not very well written prose, of the kind that you tend to skim read when not having to translate it. So now, to earn a living, I prefer to translate marketing reports! You can’t make a living out of translating Oulipian stuff, or even Pennac (great fun to translate), Roussel (a marvelously exciting challenge) or even Laurens (her long intricate sentences were a delight to work with, while refusing the temptation to break them up). After all, I don’t have a teaching job, so the money has to come from somewhere!!

CC: Between you, me and anyone reading us, have you for the most part resisted the urge to mess with your marketing reports or advertising translations? Just a little tweak here, an inside joke there, an “accidental” double-entendre or calembour…

IM: Ah no, I don’t do that at all. I need this gig to pay the rent, and there’s far too much money at stake for everyone involved (in ascending order: me, marketing and advertising agencies, then multinational companies like L’Oréal, Nestlé and so on) to be anything less than deadly serious if you want to do this kind of work, no matter how silly it might seem sometimes…

CC: Understood! Allow me to move us back to some of your work. Other than the Yucca, which you pointed out earlier, most of your writing tends to stick to either English or French, or involve some form of translation. Have you considered fully bilingual writing? J’ai toujours voulu écrire une nouvelle where one personnage is une francophone, the other est an anglophone, et là, right au middle, the text is complètement bilangue, mais at the beginning, les chapitres de la copine sont en français, et those du mec are in English. Is this something you’ve played with, or have thought about?

IM: This has been toyed with on a personal level. I’ve written a few short poems like this, but I think a full blown piece of prose would be a bit taxing for anyone who isn’t bilingual. That said, I did write N/S with Frédéric Forte, which is half in English (mine) and half in French (his), made up of eight-line poems, with four lines in each language, but never in the same order, with lots of intentional ambiguities: when you stumble across the short line “on table”, which language are you in? The book also contains my translations of the whole thing, the other way round.

CC: Sure! A few thoughts from N/S: I think generally, it’s safe to say that most people consider the goal of translation to be letting someone who doesn’t know a given language read something that they otherwise couldn’t. However, I think one of the things you’re touching on here, which is also something I’ve been exploring with Olivier Salon, and something we play with in the Outranspo [Ouvroir de translation potencial], is what else we can do with translation. I say this because with N/S, we’ve got a different reading experience made specifically for the bilingual reader. Sure, it can be read by an anglophone or a francophone with only one language at their disposal, but what they’re going to get from it will be quite different.

Providing the translation beneath it, as you’ve done with N/S, adds another level of fun to it. If I only read English, I would be able to piece together the lines I didn’t understand by glancing down at the translated version. If I wanted. But I could still ignore that, and read the French with the English simply for the sound, and for whatever I could decipher via cognates and borrowings. The third possibility, however, is the one I get to enjoy as the bilingual reader: I get both the bilingual text, and the slightly different mirror image of the translation. I get to see the slight drift of sense from one to the next, and I can wonder which came first. Which line is the translation and which the “original”? Were you consistent about this, by the way? Is the formatting consistent, to keep the one written first appearing first? Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer to that.

Also, to go a bit further, what does the form of N/S give you creatively that you wouldn’t get with a single instance? And what new modes of writing/reading do you feel this form opens up? How does the bilingual state of the initial text affect things, and then what does adding the translation/inversion do to the process?

IM: Firstly, I must point out that the translation is very much a translation and not something else as well. Fred and I wrote the original poems, more or less on a daily basis, via email. When we were done, I translated the whole thing without altering a single word in the originals.

I think the most important thing that we got from working in two languages is the point I discussed earlier, the fact that there are so many words in common, or else ‘false friends’ between English and French, meant that it was possible to write linguistically ambiguous short lines; ‘on table’, ‘rue continue’, or else at least lines where the first word is ambiguous so that, having read a couple of lines in French, a line begins with for example a word like ‘influence’ which could be French, but then the line continues in English, so that you then stumble and have to ‘correct’ your pronunciation of the word; not to mention single word lines, such as ‘lit’, where the reader can’t initially know which language it is in, but then the overall sense makes this clear, or other single word lines such as ‘surprises’, where it’s impossible to know which language is being used, unless the reader picks apart the structure and works it out (the translation generally provides a clue to this), even though, in this case, it actually makes no difference, except for the pronunciation, of course. I suppose it’s the shared vocabulary and orthographic coincidences (in words like ‘rue’, I mean) that makes this procedure so rich. It wouldn’t be the same with English and Japanese, for instance.

The challenge when translating the whole thing was, of course, to make this ambiguity work the other way round, hence the slight drifts you’ve noticed.

CC: Now that you’ve pointed them out, these linguistically ambiguous lines are indeed what is popping for me. So, I can determine the language of these ambiguous lines by checking four vs four in each language. When you translate them, are they all staying put, or are some changing that I haven’t noticed? For example, in #9, we have “observe mine”, which, as I’m taking it as an English line, would give us something like “observe (le) mien)” if you wanted to preserve the sense. But instead you’re preserving the ambiguity, which is changing the sense once it becomes a French line, and giving us a meaning that we could read as “observe appearance”… Unless we’re talking about a mine as in “excavation.” #10 doesn’t work the same way, though: we have “attendant” (i.e. FR “waiting,” but also a gas-station “attendant” in ENG.) And yet, by using “attendant” in the same poem as “on table,” you’ve made it truly ambiguous, as I have to refer to the translation to know which was English and French, I can’t simply count them up. Add a few more and you’re getting into [Perec’s] Trompe l’Oeil territory…


Back home

and the letter-pad


le simple toucher du


on table

ou ma main dérisoire

de noirceur

De retour à la maison

et le bloc-lettre

waiting for

the simple touch of the


on table

while my derisive hand

blackens in

(from N/S, by Frédéric Forte & Ian Monk, Éditions de l’Attente, 2004.)

IM: The point here was to maintain a doubt in the reader’s mind as to the linguistic provenance of certain lines, and so, when translating the poems, I made different choices in different places about what should be kept and altered so as to create similar effects. It was generally necessary to alter the line because the ambiguities arise above all from what precedes a particular line directly, I mean, if you’re moving from French or from English. But the result sometimes does lead to greater, or to lesser, ambiguity in one version or the other in some cases, which is inevitable I guess.

CC: Inevitable, but lovely. The more I look at this work, the more enjoyment I get from those little transitions and the questions they bring, or doubts, or double-takes. And yes, the translations are still “equivalent,” but it’s kind of like matching snowflakes. Which I guess is another metaphor for translation as a whole–the snowflakes will be different, but I’m just trying to find the two that are the closest together in shape, weight, design, etc.

The single and double lines do remind of ‘L’Egal Franglais’ here (Harry Mathews’ list of words that Perec expanded and used for his Trompe l’Oeil poems), although from what I understand he specified that meaning couldn’t be common between languages for the words to make the list. In N/S, this last proviso seems to have been ignored, which makes it extra interesting to follow the translations of these homographics. Plus, L’Egal Franglais allowed for accents and capitals to be added, which you haven’t, so that makes us count lines to determine which language a single homographic line is in, whereas an accent would be a giveaway.

IM: Their idea for L’Egal Franglais always seemed to me to be excessively strict, and, to a degree, missing the very interesting point of words’ disturbing inter-lingual ambiguities. They also missed loads of possible candidates (forms such as “observer”, (which though having the same basic meaning does not have the same grammatical form) or “badger” (ok which didn’t exist in French at the time, I guess)).

CC: Removing this last rule of L’Egal Franglais, as you have done with these lines in N/S (where they can’t share meaning) certainly has some great possibilities. The Trompe l’Oeil poems worked on visual similarity vs semantic difference. But if this rule is removed, and any homographic word, be it cognate, faux amis, borrowing, what have you, if done carefully, you’ve got the self-translating poem.

IM: For the self-translating poem, see my « morale élémentaire » ‘Double Content’ in Drunken Boat 8:

CC: Nice, I had forgotten about that one! But what about one that goes a step further, and sticks to words that mean more or less exactly the same thing in both languages? Instead of ‘Roman court,’ where we have Roman/novel, Roman/romain, court/runs, court/cour, something where both the original and the translation use the same words and have the same meanings? Of course, I just tried to play with that for a few minutes, and syntax rears its ugly head, so we may have to settle for a translation where the noun-adjective order has been inverted, almost like a mirror poem… but it MIGHT work.

IM: I’ve thought about this, and have come to the conclusion that it’s practically impossible, for syntactic reasons as you rightly intuit. It’s very hard to get beyond brief snatches of grammatically formed sentences, hence the use of the “morale élémentaire” for my poem(s) that don’t mean the same thing at all. Saying exactly the same thing without it ringing false one way or another would be quite a feat.

CC: Another question this brings to mind, which goes back to my previous question that mentioned “modes of reading.” Specifically, you wrote that the reader “stumbles and has to correct” his pronunciation, be it mental or aloud. This reminds me of Queneau’s toying with spelling and syntax. Jérôme Meizoz suggested that for the most part, for Queneau it wasn’t actually an attempt to write language as it is spoken, as people often assume. To back this, he simply points out the fact that there is next to no consistency in how Queneau records the sounds of the spoken, this “français parlé écrit.” Which to me brings to mind the eight or ten different spellings he uses for “blue jeans” in Zazie — “bloudjinnzes,” etc. Instead, Meizoz took it as Queneau’s attempt to destabilize the reader, to make him slow down, stop, change up his rhythm, take stock of what he was doing, seeing and reading. Is that at all similar to the effect this has here? Although this seems to me to be less about stopping to puzzle something out, as you would with one of Queneau’s “doukipudonktans” or mots-valise/portmanteaus. Instead, I’m picturing the garden of forking paths, where there are constantly language forks that I have to navigate, only, every now and then I take the wrong fork and have to go back and take the other option — because of the homographic.

How do you see this working here? And what, in your mind, does the bilingual nature of the process do to the reader? And, bilingual reader vs one that speaks only English or French, how does it affect them differently?

IM: Obviously, the bilingual reader is ‘better equipped’ for this exercise, but, at the same time, will probably ‘stumble’ more than the monolingual one, who will tend towards his or her single language in as many words as possible and iron out some of the ambiguities. One point about the translations, which I don’t know if you’ve noticed, is that in most cases it is not possible to stitch together two monolingual versions of the poems by fitting side by side the four English lines from the original and the four English-version lines in the translation, because the syntax will generally not coincide. I didn’t try to make it do so, that wasn’t the point. The point was to keep the shifts of meaning and the ambiguities we’ve already discussed.

CC: Plus, there’s something lovely to me about the idea that people with different language sets get different poems out of each one. I’ve been thinking about that lately, who the reader might be, what different readers there could be. In a way, it has to direct us in our efforts as translators. But it can also be complicated; there’s a piece of Olivier’s that I’m working on right now where that became the fundamental question and I really had to change my approach in a way I’ve never considered before.

IM: Which piece and how??

CC: Olivier called it “Étant donnés un auteur, un traducteur et le gaz d’éclairage ou Comment déjouer les tours de Babel?” He has written me what we’re considering an apophasis/préterition: he’s gone out of his way to write something “untranslatable” that directly challenges me to translate it. It’s coming along. The line of questioning I had to work through was really a question of how to “preserve the reading experience” in such a venture. As a bilingual reader, how can I translate this in a way that the resulting text will have a similar effect on someone else as this one does on me? And out of necessity, who is that someone else? It’s a fun challenge, we’ll see what I end up with.

Which translations of constrained texts have impressed you the most? By you, and/or by other translators?

IM: As I said, I read very few translations of work I know in the original language — one would be Harry’s translation of Perec’s epithalamium for Jacques and Alix Roubaud.

CC: Which untranslated works of the Oulipo do you think will make for the most interesting works in translation? And conversely, as you mentioned above in passing, certain Oulipian works just can’t be translated but rather need to be re-created or re-performed. Any others like this that come to mind?

IM: I’ll have to think about this! A lot of Jacques Jouet’s stuff needs translating for sure, in particular his serial novel La République de Mek-Ouyes, and a selection of his poetry would be a good idea, too. Then, there are our new hispanophones, Eduardo Berti and Pablo Martín Sánchez who are very interesting novelists, and much more besides. Then there remains acres of Roubaud’s poetry which still hasn’t been translated and absolutely needs to be!

For the untranslatability question, very little of interest is really untranslatable, except anagrams, and work purely based on word play, such as much of Olivier’s stuff, or else things like Marcel Benabou’s ‘alexandrins greffés’, which stick together two halves of two different, but well known lines of French poetry, to create new ones. Translating this would be meaningless because the entire point is the delight of recognizing familiar words in strange contexts.

CC: I absolutely agree with wanting to see more Jacques Jouet in translation. A few of his books have been brought over in the past years, but never the ones I’ve been excited to see. I honestly considered pitching some of the Mek-Ouyes stuff, but they’re really big undertakings… maybe one day. Emma Ramadan and I have nrealy finished a co-translation of a play that Jouet wrote with Olivier Salon; it was a lot of fun; we’ve got the fifth act to go. Roubaud, yes, too, I don’t know why so much of it hasn’t been tackled. The most recent I’ve heard of is the L’art subtil du Go that he did with Perec and Pierre Lusson; Wakefield Press out of Cambridge, Mass. is going to publish a translation of that in the coming years. And I know a translator who is working on a (from what I understand rather long) novel by Pablo Martín Sánchez, I’m looking forward to that.

IM: Pas de deux? Interesting, but a bit too cute for my taste!

CC: Yes, we’re calling it Two-Step. I found it quite interesting. It was a fun process, and the point for us was to try to replicate the way it was written by the two of them, to recreate that in our translation process as much as possible. There are some tricky bits in there, too! I’m looking forward to seeing how it turned out when it’s all said and done.

As to untranslatability, I’m with you there, it’s mostly all worth a look. Olivier Salon goes out of his way to make things difficult sometimes, but that’s half the fun… I’ve been picking at that piece of his for a few years now, I’ve really just started back to work on it after letting it gestate a good long time. And while it is taking a lot of thought, it should work out. Something will come of it, eventually. I’ve also been playing with a 19th century piece that will likely take me the rest of my life to translate, at least at the rate it is progressing right now. It might require computer assistance, we’ll see. I think we were saved the trouble of translating Monsieur Bénabou’s “greffés” when the Alamo coded us a machine to build them for ourselves. Beyond that, I’m standing by, ready to translate his “Zéroïne” as soon as he has finished composing it. I assure you, it will be some of my finest work.

CC: And how about the English edition of Fred Forté’s Minute-Operas (shortlisted for the National Translation Award for Poetry last year), which you translated in collaboration with Daniel Levin Becker, Jean-Jacques Poucel and Michelle Noteboom? What were some of the most interesting problems that came up in your contribution to that?

IM: Trying to translate some very hard constraints, keeping as close as possible to the sense of the text. The worst or best example, as you want, is a poem he wrote about the ashes of his father (thus the sense really needed to be kept, and sensitively), each line has a precise number of words and letters, and the ‘rhymes’ are single letters. Hard but the result impressed Fred!

CC: I’m glad you mentioned that one. I’ve just had a good look at it, and it is really a wonderful piece of work by both of you, very impressive but also very beautiful. Daniel Levin Becker’s index description for the fixed form here reads, “Chant royal with no refrain. In (old collections), the metrical unit is the letter: one hundred letters per stanza. The rhyme formula ababbccdcd is respected every ten letters.” This does lead me to one question, about constraint visibility. Now, it’s more than likely that if Forte (or Levin Becker) hadn’t taken the time to very kindly explain the constraint, I may not have noticed what was at play here. Which also means that as translator, I would have failed miserably, or, to be kind, I would have come up with something lovely that preserved the sense but missed out on the rest of the piece. So, with this in mind, how do you approach translating a constrained text in the odd situation that you don’t know what’s at play?

IM: This is one big advantage about translating living writers’, and especially your friends’, work. I’m not absolutely convinced that I’d have noticed everything that’s going in the poem we’re discussing, had I not asked Fred to give me a full run-down of all the poems in the book which it had fallen to me to translate. But I do think that the close reading involved in translation can mean that we notice things we hadn’t noticed before, once we get down to work (though sometimes we might also be noticing things the author hadn’t consciously intended!).

CC: Sometimes it’s truly impossible to tell, and sometimes that’s intentional as well. My thought goes back to Harry Mathew’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium — fortunately Perec, when translating it, could walk over to Mathews and ask. But reading that book, while certain things were obvious (the Pan language system and the wife’s gradually improving grasp of English/French syntax, for example), I continually got the feeling as I read it that there was something at play I wasn’t grasping. Perhaps it was simply expectation, perhaps it was Mathews toying with us (Canada Dry?) or perhaps I was truly missing something. As a translator, that’s a scary feeling. And exciting.

IM: The construction of this book is incredibly complex, and very little was left to chance. Harry explained some of it to me, including the references to each day’s liturgical Ordinary, and various other religious underpinnings… I’m unsure just how much of this Perec managed to cram in (but a lot, I guess, Harry has always been merciless with his translators in terms of getting things exactly right!).

CC: What’s your approach when it comes to a project like that? I think this question makes more sense with longer works where there can be many constraints, but not solely. With your translation of La disparition, how did you organize, catalog and otherwise track down all of the bits and pieces at play? I’ve seen a website project built around a new translation of Vie mode d’emploi, into Italian, if I remember, where they’re building their own Cahier de charges that catalogs every little trick of the text, every constraint to be observed (as best they can, anyway). Anything like that?

IM: I didn’t organize myself at all. I simply ploughed through the whole thing head-long, for about three months, picking up clues and hints as I went, and going back to change certain elements whenever subsequent revelations made that necessary.

CC: To turn the question back to Opéra-minutes, if the index sheet wasn’t present, a translator is in the same boat as a reader: missing part of the game. Does what Roubaud referred to as “la pudeur de la contrainte,” which I might call “constraint modesty,” does that prevent works from being translated properly? What is your manner of dealing with constraint visibility in your work? And to your Oulipian colleagues who prefer to keep the constraint to themselves (although I think their number has dwindled over the years), what are we poor translators to do, throw our hands up? And in that latter case, does it shift the onus onto the sense and away from the constraint, and accordingly consider the constraint to be a tool only and push the onus towards the product? Whereas originally the Ouvroir thought itself to be more about the tools and less about the outcome, or so they said.

IM: My choice is not to make the structures of my book explicit, for example, there’s never been the equivalent of Fred’s index. Perec apparently later regretted publishing parts of his ‘cahier de charges’ because he feared that people would now be reading the book like a box of tricks to be noticed and checked off, instead of a novel. But I’m happy to explain what’s going on in my work to anyone who wants to know. For me, and for most of us, such structures aren’t top secret, but they’re not the point either. The point is the final work. This is the distinction between Oulipian play-cum-theorizing, and producing the hard stuff.

So I suppose translators need to grab Oulipians by the lapel and quiz them before they die!

CC: Well, I’m very pleased to have had a chance to get started here. Thanks Ian!