When Annie Ernaux received the Nobel Prize in Literature last autumn, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of her. Some French-speaking friends had loved her work for years. Two had learned French outside France, whereas friends who were born there had not read her. Yet she has been translated into dozens of languages.
Now Ernaux was on our radar, my international book club decided to read Les Années (Gallimard 2008). I read Alison Strayer’s English translation The Years (Fitzcarraldo 2018). Between us, we read Ernaux in French, English, Polish, and Turkish. We noticed how Ernaux’s use of “we” and “one” instead of “I” to describe her times worked in different languages. For some, it was easy to get hold of an electronic copy, even for free. Readers in French felt they were missing older cultural and political references. Whereas the translations had copious footnotes.
Accessing the English translations was trickier. Of course they were sold out, and posting books from the UK to the EU is getting harder due to Bre*. Admirably, Fitzcarraldo do their own e-books, but with Glasboxx, so I had to download a new app to get it read in time for book club. The electronic reading experience was a bit more disjointed, as the app kept synching online. But I had the text on time. I couldn’t lend it to anyone else though.
I had put my name down for Lotta Toivanen’s Finnish translation, Vuodet (Gummerus 2021) in the library. No surprise that the queue was long. By the time it was my turn, I had read it in English already, but at least the translator got something for me borrowing it. My hold on Toivanen’s Isästä / Äidistä (Gummerus 2022) had come through too. This is the Finnish translation of Ernaux’s 1980s works La Place and Une Femme, that she wrote after her father and mother died. After The Years I read them as a prequel, stretching back a half century before Ernaux was born.
There was a hold on Isästä / Äidistä, because it had that exciting “new” blue sticker on it. So I had to get on with it. Getting Lost (Fitzcarraldo 2022, original Se Pedre, Gallimard 2001) could wait. My subscription paperback was on my shelf, nobody was going to grab it as they didn’t know it was there. These books had only reached English and Finnish readers decades after Ernaux had written them in French. Would the 2022 translations have got as much attention if they weren’t by a Nobelist? Unlikely.
So I read Getting Lost last, as a sequel, that took me forward to 1990. I got round to it last month. Finally, not only a paper Ernaux, but one that was forever my very own, that I could lend and keep. Which I will. I was feeling bereft until I remembered that tucked away in Glassboxx was A Girl’s Story (Fitzcarraldo 2020, original Mémoire de fille, Gallimard 2016). So, even though that one is set in 1958, now I’m only 7 years behind.
My GCSE French isn’t good enough to try Ernaux in the original. So I knew I was approaching her through a glass darkly (will we all be perfect polyglots in Paradise?). And I picked up Toivanen’s Finnish Ernaux after Strayer’s English one with some trepidation. Would she sound the same? In the Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters magazine, Toivonen said the challenge was to keep Ernaux’s restraint in her translation. For me, it was still her. And though my English echoes farther back, for me now, Finnish is where I live the years.
Next time you pick up a translation – on screen or on paper – trace how you found it. That web of relationships, passion and work is the stuff of life – and of Ernaux’s books.
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