We spoke with Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, about his new translation of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. On October 22nd, he'll be appearing at an NYIH-sponsored event with Emily Apter, Eric Banks, Tom Bishop, and Adam Shatz to celebrate its release and continue the conversation. For more information about the event, click here.
How did you learn French and start translating literature?
I took French in high school. Then after I became a book editor, there was a French book I wanted to publish and the agent encouraged me to translate it myself.
What do you think makes a good translator?
Ideally, an easy command of the "target" language, a flair for the sort of writing you translate, and a serious grasp of the language and culture that produced the original. If the text is easy and short, I think you can sometimes do without the last, but that makes it harder.
Submission has been fairly controversial as a satire of Islam. As the translator of a book, do you implicitly endorse its content? What’s your relationship to the ideas of the original author?
I certainly don't endorse its content - I don't even know what it is. None of the characters strikes me as reliable. To whatever degree the hero may be a mouthpiece for Michel Houellebecq, he's also a clown and a fool. In general, I don't think the book is much concerned with Islam.
Is translation more like editing or writing (or both, or neither)?
The thing it's most like, in my experience, is college theater. You have to inhabit the narrator and the other characters, you have to come up with a network of line-readings that are specific, dramatic, and consistent, and you can't change the script. For me, translating is playacting.
Interview by Molly Long