Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Lehbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This poem is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Bernard Gabriel Josipovici
‘I THINK I’VE FOUND the right translator for you’, my French publisher, Pascal Arnaud said. ‘His name is Bernard Hoepffner and he’s recently translated Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.’

This was in 2010. Pascal had just taken me on. He said he was interested in eventually bringing out all my work in French, but he wanted to start with my 1994 novel, Moo Pak, which has the young Jonathan Swift at its heart. Since one of Swift’s favourite works was Burton’s Anatomy, Pascal’s suggestion made perfect sense. And Bernard, when I met him (tall, stooped, balding, with large intense eyes behind thick glasses and a large sensual mouth, a ring in his ear, an airman’s leather jacket and a rucksack on his back, a sort of hippy Giacometti), turned out to be a fan and translator of another of my much-loved authors, Sir Thomas Browne. I asked him if he knew Borges’ story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, which ends with the narrator retiring from a world sliding into totalitarianism to devote himself to a translation of Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial. ‘It was reading that story which made me want to translate Browne’, Bernard said, and I knew we would become firm friends.

Since taking me on Pascal has published five of my novels, and Bernard has translated three of them: Moo Pak, Goldberg: Variations, and Infinity: The Story of a Moment, which won the Laure Bataillon Prize in 2016. The Prize is given to the best translation into French, taking into account the quality of the book as well as of the translation, and it is divided into two categories, ‘contemporary’ and ‘classical’. Bernard is one of only two people to have ever won the prize twice, the first time, in the classical category for his Thomas Browne, and the second time for Infinity.

At the publication in French of each of my books Pascal has been keen for me to come to France and do readings in various bookshops, mainly in Paris. Bernard, naturally, was also involved. We would both read, talk about the book and answer questions. He was much more than a translator, he was a passionate enthusiast and a brilliant communicator. He somehow always managed to introduce topics for discussion which allowed us to talk about the essence of what the book was trying to do. In talking about books to British audiences I find I have to fight hard to get past the trivia, while in France the problem is oversolemnity and abstraction. Bernard had spent enough time in Britain to know the dangers of both extremes and in our bookshop events he always managed to keep the tone light while not eschewing seriousness and depth. And his translations were so good that my partner Tamar, hearing us both read from Goldberg: Variations, was led, on one occasion, to say to me: ‘You know, I think it reads better in French than it does in English.’ This was not entirely a surprise to me as I had tried to write that book in an English that would feel slightly ‘translated’, but it did highlight the fact that Bernard managed, in book after book, to appropriate totally the work he was translating and make it a new and living thing.

After these readings we would go out for a meal. He loved women and Tamar enchanted him. ‘What a shame,’ he exclaimed on one occasion when she couldn’t be there, ‘I was so looking forward to seeing her. She brings light wherever she goes.’

Pascal also sent us off by train to other cities, and in one or two – Tours and Brussels – we stayed the night. I was on my own with Bernard on the trip to Brussels, and in the train he talked about himself. His father had been an engineer turned wealthy industrialist from Strasbourg, who had fought for the Free French and had firm views on what his children should do with their lives. He wanted his son to become an architect but Bernard baulked at this. At school in Paris’s smart XVI arrondissement, he had been taught by the fiercely independent Surrealist Julien Gracq, who had famously turned down the Goncourt Prize in 1951 because he felt prizes were incompatible with the vocation of the artist, and who confirmed him in his sense that to live properly you have to find your own way. So, after a year of architectural study, and with national service looming, he decamped to England. This naturally caused a breach with his father and meant that he would be faced with a court-martial and possible prison should he ever return to France.

In London he lodged in Spitalfields and earned his living restoring Far Eastern artefacts. Not that he knew anything about the subject but he would read it up in the local library and improvise. ‘It was too easy to make money that way’, he told me. ‘I was twenty-two and didn’t know what to do with my life, I only knew it was not this.’ His landlord knew of a cottage overlooking the sea at St. David’s Head, in Pembrokeshire, without electricity or running water. ‘Just the thing for me’, Bernard said. So he upped sticks and went off to Wales. ‘They were among the happiest days of my life’, he told me on that trip to Brussels. ‘Girl-friends would come every now and again and stay for a day or two and we grilled the fish we’d caught and made love overlooking the sea, and then they’d go and I’d be alone with only the sea and the sky for company. I loved it.’ But then one of the girls stayed, they married and eventually left Wales and settled in a barren island in the Canaries, where the only water came from the sky and when the rains failed the farmers had to slaughter their cattle. ‘I learned how to be a subsistence farmer’, he said. ‘We made a bare living from the soil and were happy. But when our child came along we discovered there was only one midwife on the island and she almost arrived too late, so we decided to head back to civilisation.’

Through his father’s intervention (he had come round to accepting that Bernard would never be the son he had hoped he would be) he was given a conditional pardon by the military authorities and the family settled in Lyon, where Bernard decided to try his hand at translation. After all, he was trilingual, with a father and mother who spoke German as well as French, a French education and an English wife. Soon he was in high demand. In the course of his career he translated classics like Burton and Browne, a lot of Mark Twain, including Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and became the main French translator of Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino and numerous other avant-garde American authors, with many of whom he became friends. He rendered Jacques Roubaud into English. He was involved in the Pléiade Ulysses project, translating the Ithaca, Aeolus and Circe chapters. More recently, he tackled my novels and those of Will Self. When he worked on the Burton he did not simply provide a French version, he consulted the Oxford editors of the Clarendon Anatomy of Melancholy and produced an annotated, scholarly tome of over a thousand pages. He regularly gave classes and workshops at French universities and at the Arles Centre for Translation At the time of his death a book of his is scheduled for publication with Editions Tristram in the spring of ٢٠١٨. The title is characteristic: Portrait du Traducteur en Escroc (Portrait of the Translator as Crook or Con-man) a homage to Melville and Joyce, of course, but also a signal that he, who had done so many different things in his life and eventually found his true vocation in the art of translating, did not take either himself or the practice entirely seriously.

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image