Michael Henry

April 1993. In the bookstall at Nice airport I notice a paperback with the title Le Chercheur d’or. It seems to be about a love affair and a search for hidden treasure at the turn of the 20th century. I have never heard of the author, Jean-Marie Le Clézio, but I buy it anyway.

Two days later I put the book down. It is the story of the pursuit by the narrator, Alexis, of his late father’s obsession with finding the treasure of the so-called Unknown Corsair on the island of Rodrigues. But Alexis’s search for the treasure is not what the book is really about. The narrative provides the framework for a series of bravura passages about beauty (of the sea and of the islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues), love (of family and obsessive romantic love) and grief.

Back in London I try to find out about the author. Nobody appears to have heard of him. The Institut Français has a few of his books but the librarian doesn’t know much about him. There is no trace of him on the shelves at Grant & Cutler. He doesn’t appear to be rated at all, yet his writing is so beautiful.

June 1994. I am in Strasbourg working with the Council of Europe and my search for information about Le Clézio takes me into a bookshop near the cathedral. I find two more books by him, one a collection of short stories called La Ronde in a Folio paperback edition and the other a slim volume, Voyage à Rodrigues: journal, published by Gallimard in 1986. On the flight back to London I read the journal. It tells the story of the author’s journey to a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, which is both a pilgrimage and an act of homage to his dead grandfather – this is the extraordinary back story to Le Chercheur d’or, which is dedicated to his grandfather.

The next day I telephone Gallimard to see if the English language translation rights for Le Chercheur d’or are available. They tell me that British Commonwealth rights are available but that the North American rights have been sold. I search Books in Print but there is no trace of an American translation called The Treasure Seeker or Searcher. The way seems clear for me.

November 1994. The conventional way of interesting a publisher in a new translation is to translate the first chapter and submit it along with a copy of the original and a synopsis of the work. In this case that isn’t possible. The opening chapter of Le Chercheur d’or, at just under 30,000 words, makes up a quarter of the book. I decide that the only course of action is to translate the entire thing. This is a big risk. If I am unable to persuade a publisher there is a market for the book, all the time and effort I put in will have been wasted.

I finish a draft of my translation of the first 40 pages. Now I understand why, nine years after its first publication in France, the book hasn’t been translated. Le Clézio’s decision to use period and Créole words gives it a very particular sense of time and place. The period words are easy to translate because there are English equivalents such as timoneer, lazaret and mirador. The Créole words for the flora and fauna are problematic. They aren’t in any dictionary, and I can’t work out the Latin names either. A trip to Mauritius and Rodrigues would help, but work and family obligations rule that out for the foreseeable future. My first attempt at the translation grinds to a halt.

September 1997 to March 2008. Years pass, my children grow up, the list of my legal publications gets longer, but my translation makes hardly any progress. In September 1997 I ditch the first draft and start again, only to abandon this second attempt. A third attempt in 2000 gives way to a fourth in May 2002, which I put aside after three months and do not pick up again until October 2004, when my daughter returns from a trip to Madagascar with a little dictionary of Créole. In it I find the nursery rhyme which appears in the opening chapter: Waï, waï, mo zenfant Faut travai pou gagn’ son pain. My sixth attempt begins in July 2006, and ends two months later with half the translation done. It is now 13 years since I started out. But it isn’t until my mother’s death in March 2008 that I make a decision: if this book matters to me I must finish the translation now.

September 2008. I have only about 20 pages to go. But it is a very rough draft. Since I haven’t been commissioned, the most important thing has been to get the words down on paper and I have been translating without a dictionary. Apart from the Créole words, which I have decided not to translate but to list in a glossary, there are no technical challenges left. The moment I have so long awaited at last arrives. I book a trip to Mauritius and Rodrigues for the end of October. On 29 September I print off copies of the rough draft and give them to three academic friends, asking how they’d rate the novel.

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[*] Toril Moi’s review appeared in the LRB of 11 February.