“I got an email from my publisher. I’d just woken up, I was really confused. I thought they’d sent it to the wrong person!” French novelist Alice Zeniter is speaking to me after learning that her novel The Art of Losing has just won the International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest prize for a novel published in English. The prize, sponsored by Dublin City Council, was awarded to Zeniter and her translator, Frank Wynne, on Monday at an event during the International Literary Festival Dublin.
The beauty of the prize is that it’s open to books originally written in any language, and if a translated book wins, then the translator gets 25 per cent of the prize money. Aptly, Frank Wynne – who was born in Sligo – joins our conversation too, Zooming in from what he calls a “shed” in Dublin, cigarette in hand through much of our chat. Zeniter speaks excellent English but occasionally, when an idiomatic term eludes her, she’ll float the word over to Wynne, who quickly supplies the English, and the conversation flows on uninterrupted.
“It’s amazing to see how the book has its own life” in another language, Zeniter continues. “Because when I finished it and gave it to my publishers, they told me it would probably not be translated and if it was it would not sell abroad, because it was such a French topic. I was talking about the ruins of our colonial empire and who would be interested in that abroad?”
With hindsight, of course it’s easy to say that The Art of Losing was a much better prospect for publication and prizewinning than Zeniter’s publisher believed. I tipped it as a potential victor in my round-up of the shortlist for this newspaper, and its themes of immigration and colonialism are not just evergreen but current and urgent.
The Art of Losing is a multi-generational story featuring France’s Algerian diaspora, one consequence of its historical colonial presence in the country. The centre of the modern-day section of the book is Naïma, a typical young French woman who is trying to find out about the history of her family, who came to France from Algeria. Altogether we get three generations of stories, from Naïma and her father Hamid, and his father Ali.
The book came from a desire by Zeniter, who has an Algerian father, to write an immigration story that offered more than a “single person angle”, that told not just the story of arrival but of departure too, and the “strength, cleverness, adaptation” required of immigrants. Her novel, she decided, would have “the country of departure exist very strongly” and the reader would “travel with the characters”.
Of course, I say to Wynne, as an Irishman you will have some thoughts yourself on colonialism, emigration and immigration. Did these colour his reading – and his translation – of The Art of Losing?
“Very much,” says Wynne. “My father was born in 1901, so he lived through the 1916 Rising and the Civil War, and ‘the Emergency’ as we called it, 1939 to 1945. [So] the experiences of living within a colony and witnessing the emergence of an independence movement and civil war were founding parts of his young life.”
“So the parallels were very clear to me,” he continues. “And I think what Alice has done here, by encompassing the previous time beginning with the occupation [of Algeria by France], gives a much more complete feel, particularly for those readers coming to this without knowing much about it. The Algerian war of independence was called the silent war. It was agreed that no one would talk about it. After a brutal, quote unquote, ‘special operation’, that involved the torture of civilians and so forth, eventually the Vichy accord was signed, a huge blanket was thrown over everything, you know, ‘let’s not ever talk about how badly we behaved’.”
Where, I ask Zeniter, does all this history connect to the present day – when we saw far-right politician Marine le Pen, running on an anti-immigration platform, get to the final run-off in France’s presidential race a few weeks ago? (Her father, Jean-Marie le Pen, has been accused of using torture when he served in the French army in Algeria in 1957.)
“I think there’s a continuation of the same patterns,” she says. “Basically white French people who have lived with all the privileges they could have, don’t want to see that another part of the population is not having the same rights. They want to assume that the situation is OK for everyone. So it’s not a surprise that today French police are mostly targeting black people, Arabic people, mostly young men, but it’s because the history of this organisation is one of a racist empire.”
I’m mindful that in discussing these serious issues that the book addresses, we may be making it sound heavy going, but it’s a lively, action-filled book, and often playful in the way the narrative is delivered. Was that a deliberate choice on Zeniter’s part?
“Yes. It’s easy for opponents to just say, you’re whining, or you’re just angry. And it’s worse when you’re a woman, you’re Arabic or black, because of the [stereotype] of the ‘angry black woman’. So I really didn’t want to have something that would just be a scream of anger or pain. I wanted to have lives that were full. I wanted it to be playful because I don’t want to write a story just attracting compassion for my characters – I want people to be able to be my characters, which is something that’s really rare in our literature, you know, that you can put yourself [in the place of] a character who is Algerian.”
And what, I wonder, about the translation process itself. Is there much collaboration? “What I generally do,” says Wynne, “is have a finished first draft before I start asking questions of the author. In this, as in any novel with a historical element to it, that means doing research and so forth. I can’t believe,” he adds, “that I was translating books before the internet! It meant going to libraries to check on everything. When I go back to an author,” he continues, “It’s usually to deal with an ambiguity in the text, or sometimes it’s more general, about voice, about atmosphere.”
“Most of the time,” says Zeniter, “I remember that I agreed with you.”
“Which was very helpful,” says Wynne, “because my American editor did not always agree with me. So I could go to her and say, ‘But you see, Alice, she agrees with me!’”
As well as attending the award ceremony on Monday, Wynne is flying back to London (“rough week”) to chair the final meeting of the International Booker Prize. “Then I put on a monkey suit on Thursday and tell the world what we’ve decided.” Like the Dublin Literary Award, the International Booker rewards both author and translator, although its £50,000 prize is shared equally between author and translator. We’ve also seen a movement in the UK and Ireland for translators to be named on the front covers of books. Wynne “stumbled into my fifth career as a translator when I was 40”; it was after his translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the Dublin Literary Award 20 years ago that he was able to do it full time. Does he think we are seeing a greater recognition of translation as an imaginative act rather than an imitative one?
“I do. I mean historically, translation was considered to be a hobby. But you cannot simply pour a bunch of words in and get a bunch of words out. This is an imaginative act in which the novel needs to be entirely rewritten in another language. People still occasionally say to me, ‘Don’t they have software to do this?’ But machine translation doesn’t understand irony or empathy or humour. It can’t tell a joke.”
He continues, “I heard this very recently, people will say, ‘Oh, only one author could have written the book, but many translators could have translated it.’ Is that true? Only Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations, but the performances by Rosalind Tureck or Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett are all fundamentally different, and I quite like to know which one I’m buying.”
And, as we close our conversation, he notes that even among people who should know better, a lack of recognition can still persist. “About 12 years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Wynne says, “German translators at the time were campaigning for better rates and more recognition. And the senior editor of probably the most famous publishing house in Germany, said to the translator of a Nobel Prize-winning Italian author,” Wynne smiles, “’But I can get a translator anywhere. This town is full of pizza shops!’”