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Translating Beside The Sea: An Interview with Adriana Hunter

Véronique Olmi’s Beside The Sea has been garnering praise and best-seller credentials in Europe for over a decade, butuntil todayit’s been unavailable in the States. We’re thrilled, at long last, to introduce American readers to this novel. Beside The Sea follows “a single mother as she takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to a carnival. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.”

I can’t tell you how much this book affected me, how often I felt the needand still feel the needto bring it up in conversation (which may account for the decline in dinner party invitations I’ve been receiving as of late). Thankfully, I found someone who was willing to engage with me about this beautiful, harrowing book. Adriana Hunter is responsible for Beside The Sea‘s remarkable English translationfor which she was given the 2011 Scott-Moncrieff Prizeand was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and about the translation process.

Tony Perez: How did you first discover Veronique Olmi’s work, and what drew you to Beside The Sea?

Adriana Hunter: I went on a “scouting for new fiction” trip to Paris in 2001. One of the publishers I visited was the (wonderful) Actes Sud, and one of the titles they suggested I have a look at was the newly published Beside The Sea. I must have skimmed through upwards of 30 titles on that trip . . . but Olmi’s book was the only one that stood out, and wow did it stand out. The narrative voice was so distinctive, so believable, I could picture the narrator’s apartment, smell the old cooking smells in her kitchen (these aren’t even things referred to in the text, but they were evoked for me by that voice).

I was also drawn into the book and its terrible sense of foreboding, by the featherlight but very telling clue that the author drops into the second sentence about the unfinished jar of jam. I had a long hard struggle finding an English language publisher for this book, sending sample material left, right, and centre to no avail. A few years later I was on a translator’s residency at the Villa Gillet in Lyon, France, and it was during my stay there that I took the risk of translating the book without a commission. Even with the finished translation in my back pocket, I couldn’t find a publisher until I met Meike from Peirene Press at the London Book Fair (at a seminar on “marketing difficult books”). Within weeks we had a contract, within a few short months we had a book.

TP: Beside The Sea leans heavily on voice; the reader is deep, deep in the narrator’s head. Did this provide a particular challenge in the translation?

AH: No, I didn’t experience it like that. As I said, I was incredibly drawn to the narrative voice, it made it so easy for me to see this woman, picture her life, imagine her aches and pains and, more significantly for a translator, hear her voice in English. I really heard her very clearly inside my own head, and I found it easy to translate, I zipped through the translation very quickly, immediately achieving a fluency that can take 50 pages to establish with some books (and is sometimes, sadly, never established). I feel a bit of a fraud when people compliment me on my work on this book, and I want to say: “I just said what she said.”

TP: What if any liberties did you have to take with the text? Were there any references—cultural or linguistic—that would have been lost on American or British readers?

AH: I took very few liberties with the text, if any (it was a few years ago now so I don’t remember many nitty-gritty details). I think that’s one of the book’s great strengths: it’s so universal. As for cultural references, the character is so isolated from society, she feels so cut off from a hostile world that she doesn’t have the cultural references that might not work in translation.

TP: Does it trouble you to sympathize with the character of the mother? Do you read the book as an indictment of the individual, or a commentary on the society that produced her?

AH: It doesn’t trouble me at all that I sympathize her. I’ll go one further than that and say that many of us feel elements of her despair when grappling with young children, but not many of us are prepared to admit to it. People are often afraid or ashamed to admit that they aren’t coping and, thank goodness, most of us have a good enough network of support for things not too get this out of hand.

The narrator’s appalling act is a terrible extrapolation of her feelings of isolation and helplessness. It is actually a misguided act of love because she believes she’s protecting her boys in two ways: protecting them from a hostile world and protecting them from the people that this world will turn them into (when Stan is aggressive towards her on the beach she wonders whether it’s already “too late.”)

So I certainly don’t see the book as an indictment of the individual. Yes, it’s more of a commentary on society… but I don’t feel that the society in which she lives “produced her”. It’s more that she’s someone who fell off the grid or slipped through the net, and the crushing indifference of the world around aggravates her despair.

TP: The book often feels like it’s hurtling toward its conclusion, and much of the discussion will likely focus on those final scenes. In spending so much time with this text, are there any scenes that you found particularly warm or particularly harrowing?

AH: There are plenty of sequences that I find very warm and touching, tiny moments like when she encourages Kevin up the dark hotel staircase by talking about seashells, or persuades him to use the bathroom by teaching him to pee standing up. Even the harrowing final scenes are incredibly tender because she’s concentrating so hard on her boys and affectionately remembering incidents from the past such as when Stan said Kevin wasn’t his half brother but his “whole brother”. I find the sequence on the beach distressing because the sea is so hostile and the narrator feels she’s losing touch with Stan, and the sequence in the café is typical of the narrator’s awkward and intimdating exchanges with other people.

TP: Where do you think Olmi fits into the current French literary scene? Are there authors that you might recommend to her fans? Any books that you feel are particularly due for an English translation?

AH: It’s hard to say where Olmi fits into the French literary scene because her books are all quite different so she’s difficult to categorize. Beside The Sea, her first novel, is certainly the edgiest and most challenging. If readers like that feeling of getting right inside the narrator’s head I would strongly recommend the work of Christian Oster who uses a similar technique to comic and thought-provoking effect. I’ve translated a couple of his books, The Unforeseen and In The Train, and I would dearly love to translate his latest book Rouler (On the Road) which uses this very distinctive narrative technique in a story about a man who’s bereft after a relationship break-up. The book is funny on several levels and it’s an interesting exploration of how little free will we actually have in a world full of social pressures.

Adriana Hunter spent four years at a French school as a child, and took a 1st (magna cum laude) in French & Drama at the University of London. She worked as a film publicist and freelance writer before “discovering” the first book she was to translate. She has now translated 50 books including works by Agnès Desarthe, Véronique Ovaldé and Hervé Le Tellier. She won the 2011 Scott-Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Véronique Olmi’s Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea), and has been short-listed  twice for both the French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.She lives in Norfolk, England.

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