New York in French; or the Possibilities of Translation

I was in New York this past weekend for a French Graduate Conference at CUNY and so, like many of my visits to the Big Apple, I speak French about as much as English. While most of my trips to NYC revolve around Francophone academic conferences and workshops, the rest of the city is teeming with French speakers as well as speakers of various Creoles––Martinican, Guadeloupian, Haitian, and so on. I heard French on the subway, in tourist spots like the MoMA, and even in dive-y Brooklyn sports bars. The French I heard was accented, like mine, from France, from Canada, from Africa, and from the Caribbean.

One of the places I always hear French in NYC is in The Strand bookstore in Union Square. The quiet whispering of French as customers pick up, weigh, and decide which books they will or will not eventually buy. Encouraged by the bilingualism of the clientele, I cannot help but think naïve thoughts like “the world would be better if we all read in two or more languages…” As a language learner I know this is no simple matter, creating a whole society of bilingual or polyglot folks would not ensure cultural exchange, dissolve elitist education practices, or erase socio-economic, racial, and gendered boundaries to language acquisition.

So, in the middle of the store, I started wondering how translation as a project could help topple some of these (language) barriers. The Strand is a unique institution itself and has a robust collection of literature in foreign languages, as well as vast sections of poetry, drama, mystery––everything under the sun, including a curated section of literature in translation. The store seeks to guide readers to works in translation just as they do with award winners, thought-provoking essay collections, and books recently released in paperback.

Translation display at the Strand


As I observed the works in translation, I noticed a few things about the books represented. First, the languages most represented were French and Spanish––celebrated novels by Victor Hugo, Albert Camus, Patrick Modiano, Gustave Flaubert, Julio Cortázar and Juan Gabriel Vásquez––feature prominently on top of and in front of the display. Camus and Modiano have both won the Nobel Prize, Cortázar is frequently associated with the highest literary ranks of Argentina and Latin America, Vásquez has taken the reigns of Colombian fiction in the US literary market, and Hugo and Flaubert are two of the most celebrated French novelists of in the world. There are many other languages represented on the table, as well as writers writing in a language other than that of their native country like Milan Kundera. The books shown are also largely male authors, and writing in European languages, with the exception of Haruki Murakami and Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese), and A.B. Yehoshua (Hebrew).Strand2

Bookstores can only do so much to bring their readers to works in translation, and The Strand definitely succeeds in doing so. However, what would it look like to have a selection of books from non-European languages or countries, and how can the bookstore amplify the voices of non-male authors in their displays? I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, for they are systemic problems. But, I think, by amplifying publishers and specific works that run counter to heightened presence of male European authors in translation we can help bring readers to both new books, and publishers, that deserve to be on full display. Today, I’ll focus on Archipelagos Books.

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Archipelagos lately. I’d be lying if I didn’t say part of what lures me in about Archipelagos editions are their covers. These beautiful editions give off the rich simplicity of a denuded French publisher with the artistic flair of the US publishing market.

Angot, Frankétienne, and Laâbi translations by Archipelagos Books

The last three books I’ve read from Archipelagos are Incest by Christine Angot (Trans. Tess Lewis), In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), and Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (Trans. Kaiama L. Glover). Lewis’ translation will shock you in how she is able to capture the abject violence in Incest; this tiny book was a hard-read in that it pushed my limits of comfort, regarding form as well as content. Nicholson-Smith translates the voluminous poetry of Laâbi with striking intimacy, each page of this massive volume feels like a personal aside. Glover’s translation of Ready to Burst is perhaps the most poetic translation I have read in a long time. To translate Frankétienne is a masterclass in interpretation and feel; thanks to Glover’s translation you will be swept into his world without so much as a bump along the way.I have my eyes and heart set on their edition of Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Ultravocal by Frankétienne, coming later in 2018.

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