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.
October 2008. The answer to my question comes from an unexpected quarter. On 9 October Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wins the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature. I feel vindicated, but my joy gives way to despair when I realise that my translation will probably never see the light of day. There will now be a Le Clézio industry; worse, an American translation that I had found out about in 2004 during one of my periodic internet searches will now immediately be made available. It had first been published in the US in 1993 under the title The Prospector. This is a plausible translation of Le Chercheur d’or, since the narrator, Alexis, is mistaken for a gold prospector on a couple of occasions, but it does nothing to convey the strongly allegorical aspect of his search for life’s treasure and his belated realisation that it is love and the beauty of nature. The opening sentence of the American translation is: ‘As far back as I can remember I have listened to the sea.’ When I first read this in a review of the translation, it took me completely aback. I know the opening sentence by heart: ‘Du plus loin que je me souvienne, j’ai entendu la mer.’ It means: ‘As far back as I can remember I have heard the sound of the sea.’ The American translation confuses the verb écouter (‘to listen to’) with entendre (‘to hear’). This is not a good beginning.
All my plans have been turned upside down. It will take me several months to finish my translation, whereas the American translation is already available. The situation seems disastrous.
The next day I pull myself together and call Penguin and my friend Toby Eady, an agent, who promises to make contact with Gallimard’s director of rights, Anne-Solange Noble, at the Frankfurt Book Fair the following week. On 13 October I hear from Penguin; they would like to see a copy of my translation. A week later, Anne-Solange Noble asks for a copy too. I tell her that it is a rough first draft and I’d prefer to send her a new one after my trip to Mauritius and Rodrigues. But she is adamant: she needs to be able to show the translation to the publishers who are interested, or they will go with the American translation.
24 October 2008. I set out on my long-awaited trip to Mauritius and Rodrigues. When I booked the tickets six weeks earlier this was intended to be a joyous pilgrimage. Now it feels like a funeral procession. I resolve to use the trip to complete the glossary and revise the translation.
Nearly all the places described in the novel exist on Mauritius. Léon Le Clézio, JMG’s grandfather, was a magistrate on the island between 1902 and 1930, the period in which the novel is set. At this time it was a British colony, but had kept French as its official language and retained French civil and criminal laws. He first visited Rodrigues in 1902, and from then until 1939, when he was in his seventies and had abandoned all hope of returning, dedicated himself to his search for the hidden treasure of the Unknown Corsair. The maps and charts which, in the novel, Alexis draws in china ink and watercolours based on old Admiralty charts, were painstakingly drawn by Léon during his 30-year search. They were handed down to JMG in his father’s black case ‘in an old cardboard file tied up in string with the particularly vindictive inscription in my aunt’s writing: Worthless Papers’.
We board a light plane to Rodrigues, 560 kilometres from Mauritius. There, I find that Anse aux Anglais (known locally as English Bay) is exactly as described in the novel, aligned in a south-north direction with Pointe Vénus at its western extremity. The parcels of land bought by Léon in the Rivière des Roseaux are more difficult to find, but eventually I reach the ‘cul de sac’, the ravine from which there is no exit, where Léon carried out most of his excavations. There, in this valley in the middle of nowhere, are signs of massive upheavals, clear evidence of Léon’s activities 80 or more years earlier.
Higher up, on the west and east sides of the valley, it’s easy to find the basalt rocks that, in the novel, bear two crucial clues: two ‘anchor ring’ symbols, chiselled into the rocks hundreds of years earlier by the Unknown Corsair. Getting to them is difficult because of the shape of the valley, the number of ravines and the difficulty in keeping one’s bearings. In the journal JMG describes how ‘easily’ he found the anchor ring on the west side of the valley, but he had his grandfather’s maps. I am not so fortunate. It isn’t until my final day on Rodrigues that I make it to the basalt rocks. Hanging off the vacoas on the sheer face of the west side of the valley in the fading light, I finally abandon my search for the rings.
In the little airport shop waiting for the flight back to Mauritius, I find a thin Mauritian Wildlife Foundation booklet which provides solutions for two of the remaining Créole words. I cracked most of the others in the Natural History Museum on Mauritius and in the foundation’s forestry reclamation project three kilometres down a scary track in the middle of the forest on Rodrigues.
December 2008. Back in London, Jill Foulston at Penguin Modern Classics explains that they are planning to publish a new American translation of Le Clézio’s novel Le Désert, then wait before commissioning anything else until they can gauge the reception of that and two other British translations of JMG’s early works. Anne-Solange Noble in Paris also gets in touch to tell me she has sent my translation to several London publishers and will keep me informed. It now seems that there is some hope after all, as Gallimard have not sold the British translation rights to Le Chercheur d’or.
February 2009. So far, I have avoided reading the American translation. But now that mine is nearly finished, there is no risk of my being influenced by it, so it’s safe to take a look. I have been gambling that its standard will be consistent with that of the opening sentence. I start reading, and it doesn’t take long to decide that I won’t give up on my translation just yet.
March 2009. Toby emails to say that Ravi Mirchandani at Atlantic Books wants to see my translation. I send Toby the final versions of each of the seven chapters, the glossary and the afterword.
July 2009. I have not heard from Gallimard for some time, and email Anne-Solange. She replies, but not as I had hoped.
I was about to write to you to say that Ravi Mirchandani just recently acquired UK rights to both Désert and Le Chercheur d’or. I had sent him your translation of the latter, as you know, and he thought it was very good but he finally decided to acquire from David Godine, the American publisher who holds the copyright to both current translations, their version of The Prospector … Ravi knows Sue Berger (who worked for Godine) well, because they used to be colleagues in London when both were working for Penguin and she is offering him a good price for Carol Marks’s 1993 translation.
With very best wishes,
This is a bolt from the blue. Over the weekend, I carry out a quick review of the American translation. I prepare a short summary and email it to Anne-Solange. She replies that she will forward it to Mirchandani: ‘there is still a possibility he might be convinced by your arguments.’ Toby, too, asks me to send him a letter summarising the principal problems with the American translation so that he can give it to Mirchandani.
November 2009. Still no word from Atlantic. Toby emails me on 5 November to say he will be meeting Mirchandani and Noble in Frankfurt. A few days later I am at home looking at the large number of books about JMG and his work which have recently appeared on the French Amazon website. I order two and almost immediately hear the ping of an incoming email, which I take to be the confirmation from Amazon. It isn’t. It’s an email from Issa Asgarally, a professor of literature at the University of Mauritius, whom I had met on my trip, inviting me to the launch in Mauritius of his special JMG edition of Italiques, for which I have written a piece, ‘A la recherche du chercheur d’or’. It is in three days’ time, and Le Clézio will be there. I drop everything and fly out. In the seat in front of me a man is reading the reissued Gallimard edition of Le Chercheur d’or.
I reach Mauritius a few hours before the reception. JMG is taller than I expected and in good physical condition, calm and reserved, with a very direct look. He listens politely to a number of speeches. Afterwards people queue for his autograph. I wait patiently until they are finished, then introduce myself.
The following day I meet Jean-Marie and we talk in French about Issa and Italiques. I tell him that translating Le Chercheur d’or was a challenge because of the vocabulary and we talk for a while about some of the words. Eventually I bring up the subject of the American translation and hand him a copy of the letter I sent Toby in July 2009 summarising the principal issues. I remain silent as he reads it carefully. Our conversation resumes around the pejorative naming conventions used by white plantation owners to animalise the mixed-race children they had produced with black plantation workers. I give him a typescript of my translation, and we discuss some of the entries in the glossary. After a while he says that he would like Atlantic to publish my translation and is going to tell them to do so.
I take out of my bag my original paperback copy of Le Chercheur d’or. The spine is broken and falling apart, and the chrome bulldog clip I borrowed from my mother all those years ago to hold the pages open while I typed is still attached to the middle pages, which are deeply yellowed because they lay open in the sun for so long when my work was at a standstill. He looks at the signs of wear and tells me about a conference he once attended where someone had spoken about the translator’s desire to place their work ‘at the feet of the author’. He inscribes my copy in French: ‘For Michael with my good wishes and thanks for the gift of the translation. Mauritius 13 November 2009.’
After I get back to London, I email Anne-Solange. I tell her that Jean-Marie has decided he wants my translation to be published and that he will be in contact with Gallimard and Atlantic. I copy Toby in.
December 2009. Anne-Solange tells me that Mirchandani will not now be publishing Le Chercheur d’or until spring 2011, that he accepts there is probably a case to be made against the American translation and that as soon as he has been able to look at both of them he will be in touch with me via Toby, but that this is not likely to be until March 2010.
March 2010. I receive an email from Anne-Solange:
I want you to know that when I last saw Jemia (very recently: February 23rd) she said that Jean-Marie had absolutely not taken a final decision concerning the two existing translations of Le Chercheur d’or (yours and the one by Carol Marks which was published by Godine) and that obviously he would also be attentive to Ravi Mirchandani’s opinion on this subject … so please don’t jump to the conclusion that everything is done and settled.
Jemia is Jean-Marie’s wife. I have not met her but I know that she is a lawyer and that she deals with most of his business affairs.
I discover that Jean-Marie is going to be at the London Review Bookshop to promote the publication of the American translation of Le Désert in an interview with the Guardian journalist Maya Jaggi. On the day of the event, with half an hour to kill, I go into Prêt à Manger, order a cup of tea and sit down with my French paperback of Le Désert. After a few minutes I am distracted by a tall man who has sat down two tables away from me and is eating a banana. I am hopeless at recognising people, but I think it might be Jean-Marie. I go over to him and say his name. He recognises me immediately, and is as surprised by the coincidence as I am. I ask him when he will make the decision about which translation of Le Chercheur d’or is going to be used. He tells me that the decision has already been made, that he wants my translation to be published. By this time we have been joined by someone from Atlantic Books, who says that this is a matter for Jean-Marie to raise with her editorial colleagues at a meeting the next day.
April 2010. On 24 April I receive a letter from a friend enclosing a copy of a piece by Maya Jaggi about Jean-Marie. It mentions that Atlantic plan to publish The Prospector – the American translation – next year. I email Anne-Solange immediately, pointing out that there are three principal problems with the American translation: its mistranslation of key terms, inconsistent use of tenses and mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation. I remind her that these are the problems identified in Toril Moi’s LRB review of the Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translation of The Second Sex, which caused such a storm.[*] Anne-Solange responds:
Don’t mention the London Review of Books to me. Please read my letter which I sent to them after Toril Moi’s review, which aimed at demolishing in 3 pages many years of work, was published without the LRB minding that this ‘reviewer’ had a personal agenda on the matter.
One might forgive a few errors in a translation, but there are far more than just a few in the American translation. The entire first chapter, one quarter of the book, has been translated in the past tense. The change of tense loses the narrator’s voice and destroys the immediacy and suspense of the opening section of the book. Some of the other errors are astounding. Mysteriously, it refers to ‘the hum of departing cars’ which ‘rattle’ their ‘gears’. At one point an ‘air-plane’ appears: this is Mauritius in 1892. Not one of the dozens of references to flowers and plants specific to Mauritius is properly translated. Patte poule, an aromatic liana, is translated as ‘chicken claw’. A bottle palm becomes ‘spurge’. The paille-en-queues are turned into ‘bosun birds’. They are in fact white-tailed tropical birds, emblematic of Mauritius, as anyone who has been there will know. The tendrec, an insectivore specific to Mauritius, is turned into a hedgehog. Silver sea-bream become catfish and red wrasse (vieilles rouges) become ‘old red mullets’.
The significance of Le Morne – an international symbol of slaves’ struggle for freedom – goes unnoticed. As do the pejorative naming conventions. There are passages where the translation makes no sense at all. Describing how he communicates with his friend Denis in the cane-fields, Alexis explains: ‘To signal each other we’ve agreed to blow twice on a blade of grass held between our thumbs.’ The American translation renders this: ‘To call each other we plucked twice on a grass harp.’ It describes the moment when ‘le capitaine Bras-de-Mer’ first speaks to Alexis: ‘He spoke with me for a moment and I learned that “Bras-de-Mer” was in reality Captain Bradmer, an officer of the Royal Marines who had just finished one of his solitary voyages.’ This is all wrong. First the French word marine (‘navy’) is mistranslated so as to give Captain Bradmer, one of the central figures in the narrative, a false station in life. In the previous sentence he has been introduced to the reader (‘with his huge body and his clothes, worn out like his ship, covered with constellations of indelible marks like scars’) in a way that makes it clear that he is an unkempt merchant navy man, the exact opposite of an officer in the Royal Marines, likely to have been impeccably turned out at all times. And so it goes, with errors and confusions on every page.
30 June. I have heard nothing more from Anne-Solange. Toby tells me that Ravi Mirchandani has not returned any of his calls. I decide to write to him directly and to copy my letter to Atlantic’s managing director.
6 July. Toby emails to say that he has heard from Mirchandani, who told him that he believes my translation would require a certain amount of editing. But he also feels that the American translation could be made acceptable if it was edited. In the circumstances he feels that the only honourable decision is to commission an entirely new translation and delay the book for at least another year. For me, this is not the end of the affair.