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Interview with Alyson Waters

On the 23rd of March 2012, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, conferred the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on Alyson Waters. The following interview with Ms. Waters took place at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy before the ceremony.

Is this the first time you have received a medal from France? How does it make you feel?

Alyson Waters: I feel wonderful. When I got the letter I was in my office at Yale. I had no idea what it was, and when I opened it I burst into tears. I was so happy! It really means a lot to me, especially to be part of the order of “arts” and “letters” because this is where I feel I belong. It’s a great honour.

My relationship with France goes back more than thirty years. When I was twelve I began to study French, and then I went to France at eighteen and really fell in love with French literature. Later, I fell in love with a French man. But I hope this honour is for the work I have done as a translator; I am grateful for the way that France recognizes translation as an “art.”

Over the course of your career, you have translated many Francophone authors for whom French is a second language. What draws you to these works?

AW: I have always been interested in authors who have chosen another language to write in. My dissertation was on the work of Conrad, Nabokov and Beckett; the first two chose English, and Beckett chose French. I admired those writers very much because I found it hard enough to write in one language. I have always been interested in the question of losing a language and what it means to gain another one, especially in relation to the question of exile… but this is a dissertation topic!

As far as translating them is concerned, for me it’s a double pleasure. First, you get to know the culture of another country. For Albert Cossery, this is Egypt; for Vassilis Alexakis, Greece; with Yasmina Khadra, Algeria. Some of them, Alexakis for example, learned French the same way I did, it wasn’t a language he had since childhood.. So I recognize what that process is, and how to approach language in that way. On a thematic level, I am interested in Francophone writers, but I’m also interested in the materiality of language.

In American Novelists in French Eyes, published in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1946, Sartre wrote about French people’s "digestion" of Faulkner:

"We [French people] shall give back to you [American people] these techniques which you have lent us. We shall return them to you, intellectualized, less effective, and less brutal - consciously adapted to French taste. Because of this incessant exchange which makes nations rediscover in other nations what they have invented first and then rejected, perhaps you will rediscover in these new books the eternal youth of that ’old’ Faulkner."

In this quotation we see that a kind of “rediscovery” of the original text is possible, through translation. As a translator you are a part of that process. What do you think about this statement?

AW: I think it’s a fascinating intellectual idea, but one that is likely to be felt more keenly by writers and translators than by the average reader.. As a translator, I often look at other translations to better understand my own. Writings always circulate, and translations help that circulation.

Do you feel you are entrusted with a sort of mission?

AW: There is certainly a missionary aspect to what I do. When you have the choice as to what to translate, as I now do, you want to transmit something you believe is valuable from one culture to another.

Why should Americans read French literature?

AW: Well the point is to read anything good out there! Some people cannot –obviously– read French; that’s where I come in. I think there are ways of writing in France that are different from the ways we are writing here in the United States. Translation brings a new way of writing, and of seeing the world, into our own. It is always fascinating to discover, and then be able to share, how our neighbours see the world…