Khan's L'Echarde, Lenoir's Le Christ philosophe and Caraës' Images de pensée

June 24, 2014 | By Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer has, as he calls it, "that gleam" in the eye for several translation babies. On his dream list for My French Library this week: Madeleine Kahn's L'Echarde, awarded the Prix Littré in 2001 (Editions des Ecrivains); Frédéric Lenoir’s Le Christ philosophe (Points, 2014); and Images de Pensée co-authored by Marie-Haude Caraës and Nicole Marchand-Zanartu (RMN, 2011).


Translatable Books / Jeremy Mercer

I am not a traditional translator in the sense that it isn’t the book that is important but the overall project. A good example is my first major translation, L’Abolition by Robert Badinter. It wasn’t so much that I thought Americans absolutely needed to know this book; yes, it is a stunning narrative and an important chapter in European history, but the details are so rooted in the French culture of the 1970s that it doesn’t resonate with many non-French readers. Rather, I undertook this project because I felt that America absolutely needed to know M. Badinter, one of the underappreciated figures of the 20th century who has worked valiantly to end the death penalty and is one of those rare statesmen respected across the political spectrum. Ultimately, with the help of the book office, we able to translate M. Badinter’s book into French and organize an American speaking tour for him.

So, I don’t see my role ending once the text is translated, I want to champion the book and its author, to get up on any soapbox available and shout, ‘Hey, Anglophone world, you really need to know this person.’ That said, I am currently involved in several projects that I hope to be able to shout about in the near future.

The first involves the French writer Madeleine Kahn and the breathtaking story of her childhood. When Mme Kahn was a six-year-old girl living in Paris, she was sent to Romania to stay with her grandmother for the summer when her mother was expecting a second child. The problem? It was the summer of 1939 and Mme Kahn was Jewish. In the end, she was separated from her parents for nearly seven years and witnessed mass murders, deportations, and concentration camps before finally being sheltered by Catholic nuns in Bucharest. After the war, her reintegration into her family was almost as fraught as her long absence from it.

Beyond the power of the story, there are two things that especially marked me about this book. First, Mme Kahn’s age at the time these events began. My daughter will celebrate her sixth birthday this November so the ordeal is all the more evocative for me. The second thing is the process behind the book. Mme Kahn first attempted to reconcile herself to her past with therapy, then by studying for a doctorate in Romanian history. She finally turned to writing and is now on the third version of the book. She initially wrote a thinly veiled fictional version of this story which was awarded the Prix Littré in 2001. Then, she assumed her true identity in an emotionally raw memoir. I am now working with Mme Kahn on a translation of her third version and I am hoping it will be ready by the end of the year. Needless to say, I am excited to both shepherd the manuscript to the American market and to help in its promotion to make sure the author gets the American readers she deserves.

Another project simmering away is an English translation of Frédéric Lenoir’s Le Christ philosophe. This is an engaging look at the philosophy of Jesus and how it underpinned the Enlightenment. But that’s not why I want to translate it. Like many, I have been troubled by the occasional wobbles in the relationship between France and the United States (Freedom Fries, anyone?). I’ve always thought that part of the problem was a lack of understanding when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in specific. In the United States, Christianity tends to be celebrated in an emphatic and highly public manner and many Americans are skeptical of those who don’t embrace Christianity with their same vigor. I’d always fantasized about having an ambassador who could speak on behalf of French Christianity and help emphasize the shared cultural and spiritual bonds between the two countries. And what if that ambassador was dead handsome and had an easy charm?

Enter M. Lenoir. After reading his oeuvre and listening to his radio program, I could see him holding forth on CNN or Fox, each bon mot weaving another strong thread into the cord that binds France and America. I contacted M. Lenoir’s editor at Plon and she was equally enthusiastic about the project. A proposal was readied and a good chunk of the translation completed when we realized that the author’s spoken English is, well, let’s just say rudimentary. Which means this project is on hold and, sadly, M. Lenoir remains known to American readers mainly for a Dan Brown-esque thriller he wrote long ago.

Finally, I have this tremendous book on my desk entitled Images de Pensée. It was put together by Marie-Haude Caraës and Nicole Marchand-Zanartu and it reproduces and analyzes the sketches and jottings that were the seeds of famous ideas. There are pages from the notebooks of Sigmund Freud, Paul Klee, Fritz Lang, Dmitri Mendeleev, and a gasping array of other luminaries. This book is something I obsess over as I have always been fascinated with the schemata of genius and the attempts to wrestle ideas into comprehension on paper. (As a young man, the first art exhibit that truly mesmerized me was one featuring the intricate conspiracy charts of Mark Lombardi). But, that lingering, vital question: would the fundamental concept of Images de Pensée translate into English? This is the least developed of my three projects, just that gleam in a translator’s eye that could one day lead to a beautiful baby.


Jeremy Mercer is an award-winning author and magazine essayist whose work has been translated into a dozen languages. As a translator, he undertakes major manuscript projects and works on photography book for the German publisher Kerhrer Verlag. He also served as translator for Marseille-Provence 2013, European Capital of Culture. More information at www.jeremymercer.net

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