Lorin Stein on Translating France’s Most Dangerous Author

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Submission: a Novel will be published October 20.

Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, discusses tackling Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a novel set in a near-future France that has just elected a Muslim president.

English translation of the above: “It was arousing, in a way, to pick a Muslim, given the overall political situation.”

The scene: Here, the book’s protagonist, François, a professor who specializes in decadent 19th-century writer J. K. Huysmans, is choosing a prostitute online in the year 2022.

The problem: “The translation was finding its rhythm,” says Stein. “But very near to the end of the book, there was this sentence that hadn’t seemed funny to me and that I couldn’t translate.” He discussed the problem with his editor, Mitzi Angel, who grew up speaking French.

The first, failed attempt: “At first I wrote, ‘Given the political situation, choosing a Muslim turned me on.’ But this was very un-Houellebecqian. It’s too fast, the emphasis falls at the end of the sentence, the tone is ponderously casual.”

The aha moment: “One of us came up with arouse: ‘Arousing, in a way’ — for me, that’s how Houellebecq sounds. And even though the syntax doesn’t track the French exactly, it preserves the air of anticlimax, the slight fussiness, the stoicism of the original. The sentence became less brutal, less vulgar.”

The revisions: “Figuring out that one sentence made me go back to the beginning and try to preserve this tone that’s a bit Buster Keaton–ish. It’s a little slow, a little narcotized.”

The final result: “Houellebecq has the reputation of writing bad prose. The more time I spent with this book, the more impressed I was. He doesn’t put in extra brushstrokes.”

*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.