TamTam Books News

Saturday, November 29, 2003:

The following is an interview with Brian Harper, who translated the TamTam edition of L'écume des jours (Foam of the Daze): (due to computer difficulties, I had trouble capitalizing an accented E in 'L'Ecume des jours - so the "E" should have an accent over it).

1) What led you to the works of Boris Vian, and why specifically 'L’écume des jours' (Foam of the Daze)?

A friend of mine here in Paris asked me if I’d heard of Boris Vian and I told him no. Since I was supposedly in school studying French at the time, he was rather taken aback and suggested I read 'L’écume des jours' and 'J’irai cracher sur vos tombes' right away. I read them along with other Vian novels but 'L’écume des jours' is the one that stayed with me. That book represented for me my first window into the disillusionment of growing older. I was 25 at the time and I think this is an age when the last throes of wondrous, childish irresponsibility are dying out and the harsher realities of life as an adult come more and more into focus. For me, reading that novel is like reliving the loss of childhood and I think it is a very beautiful, delicate experience, full of sadness and nostalgia.

2) I have been told that the title is very difficult to translate. The book has been translated twice before: the U.S. edition title was 'Mood Indigo,' and the U.K. translation is 'Froth on the Daydream.' How did you decide on the title?

The translation of the title posed somewhat of a problem for me. At first I wanted to go with a song title found in the book. I was leaning toward In the Mood to be Wooed ('Mood Indigo,' by the way, appears nowhere in the novel). I’d also thought of several ideas making use of the words dream, foam or bar (as in a sandbar along the shore of an ocean), all of which are words found in the 33rd chapter of the book. This is the key chapter of the book, central both physically and in terms of the novel’s underlying theme concerning the loss of innocence, and incidentally the only place in the text where the word écume is found. I didn’t want to translate the title literally however because I thought Foam of the Days looked a little flat (almost like the title of an American soap opera). But when I saw that Vian had played around with the spelling of different words in the title (at one point he thought of calling it 'L’ékume des jhours') I thought maybe I could do the same thing. I’m happy with the solution because it retains the meaning of the French title while introducing a play on words in English that relies on the French. The novel itself is littered with plays on words, including bilingual ones (Vian himself had practiced the métier of translator and was no stranger to the possibilities the English language provides when set against French). Furthermore, the word "daze" fits well in the universe of the book: throughout the story the characters are in a progressive state of disarray as their universe and illusions break down.

3) Did you read the other translations of 'L’écume des jours?'

I read 'Froth on the Daydream' and I read portions of 'Mood Indigo.' 'Froth on the Daydream' comes across as a very playful, light-hearted, slightly over-the-top farce that’s often more British than French. As such, it’s a fine novel, smartly written and consistent within its own world. However, 'L’écume des jours' is, in my opinion, too dark for such a treatment. Its action, set in post-WWII Paris, is projected, "in a biased and heated atmosphere, onto an irregularly undulating reference plane, resulting in some distortion." And one could take Vian’s characterization of his work to argue that a translation automatically distorts a book even further, but in my own work, I tried to be careful to introduce nothing that emphasizes or overstates this distortion process. And instead of trying to falsely create a purely American reading experience, I wanted the reader to feel the action taking place where the author had intended it to (though the book is also very much a dream of jazz-age America), and I wanted the reader also to experience the underlying dread that was a part of the world Vian happened to be living in when writing the novel and dreaming up its universe.

4)What are the difficulties in translating 'L’écume des jours?'

Since 'L’écume des jours' is such a respected and well-known book here in France, anyone who happens to hear I translated it always asks me two questions. The first is: "Wasn’t it already translated"? (See above.) The second is: "With all those plays on words, wasn’t it very difficult?" Well, yes and no. The plays on words are tricky, because you’ve got to come up with something that works in English, but in fact those occurrences are rather sporadic. You’ve only got so many "untranslatable" jokes, and, with an entire novel to go through, you’ve got plenty of time to think about solutions. The real difficulty in translating 'L’Ecume des jours' was trying to get the mood right. The mood comes through in the book as much from place setting and events as it does from sentence structure and vocabulary. But in another sense, the book was easy to translate. Vian’s use of language is so specific, almost mathematical, that it is also very clear. The most difficult text to translate is the one that is unclear, in other words, the one that’s not well written. So on that level, 'L’écume des jours' afforded me some translation breaks, because it was always very easy to understand what Boris Vian was trying to say. The trick was to figure out how to say it in English while preserving Vian’s own special way of looking at the world.

Tosh // 11:57 AM

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