Address by Frédéric Mitterrand, Minister of Culture and Communication, on the occasion of the launch of the operation Les Belles Etrangères, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France
Nicolas GEORGES, Director of Books and Reading and President of the CNL
Mr. Chairman, Bruno RACINE, President of BnF,
Dear American friends: Charles D'AMBROSIO, Percival EVERETT, Forrest GANDER, Andrew Sean GREER, John HASKELL, Matt MADEN, Jack O'CONNELL, Eleni SIKELIANOS, Hannah TINTI, Richard WHITE, Colson WHITEHEAD and Yuri ZLEZKINE,
Ladies and gentlemen,
You know that in English, in French, in the Romance languages and already in Greek, “stranger” also means “strange”, unusual, surprising, even bizarre. That what is “foreign” – and therefore “strange” – can become “beautiful” is therefore a victory over this reflex of prejudice, which too often is the first movement. Well, language and its supreme expression, literature, has always been considered the very heart of this fascinating otherness and “strangeness”, the place where the identity of the Other seemed to be collected, where it could be approached in the deepest and most intimate.
This is why the work of the translators, the work of these smugglers from one world to another – because in reality these are worlds which their work allows to communicate – has always been one of the paths par excellence of the learning of the Other. But the best translators are undoubtedly those who know both how to acclimatize a style and how not to reduce the share of the strange and the foreigner whose style is also the bearer and, so to speak, an emissary.
You know this Italian proverb: traduttore traditore, but this proverb is itself a bit of a betrayal of what translation really is. For it does not betray more, in a sense, than any reading, which is always distorting, which always transforms an original by accommodating it to the sensitivity of the reader. And it is happy because it is thus, by successive and intertwined «translations-betrayals», that the works live. Translation does not always give birth to what has been called “beautiful infidels”, but also, and you are demonstrating this with passion today, to “beautiful strangers”, that is to say to beauties who have kept their attractive share of strangeness. This strangeness is so mesmerizing that I even wonder if beauty is not always a bit of a stranger and a strangeness in this world. And this is no doubt what BAUDELAIRE meant, this poet who was also, like many poets, is not dear Forrest GANDER, a great translator, a great smuggler of American literature, of Edgar POE in particular, when he said: «Beauty is always weird». Perhaps it is the mission of beauty to point us to another place whose promise it embodies. And I am convinced that a culture is alive only if it knows how to open its eyes to those "passers-by" who have come from elsewhere, from whom it draws a "new thrill" which it already possessed, virtually and without knowing it, in the depths of itself. Translation from AMYOT, then PERROT from ABLANCOURT to NERVAL, BAUDELAIRE and MALLARME has always been one of the most effective detours to renew the vein of a national literature.
That is why nothing is more necessary for creation than exchange, and this manifestation of the "BEAUTIFUL FOREIGNERS", which I have the great pleasure and honour of opening with you today, has been for more than twenty years, one of the most relevant expressions of this necessity. I am also pleased to see that Belgium has joined us this year.
Today, dialogue is taking place with twelve of the most talented and promising American writers, twelve apostles of literature in a way, may I warmly thank them for their presence among us and for the availability and generosity with which they are going to meet the French public. I would like to thank the National Book Centre (CNL), the organizer of this event, which is implementing the Ministry of Culture and Communication’s policy of supporting translation, publication and dissemination with the success we know. I remind you that no less than 13% of the translations made in the world are done here, in France, in our small country closed and full of aggressive Gauls, as everyone knows... Translation is an issue that the public authorities take very seriously and we look forward to the conclusions of the mission entrusted to Pierre ASSOULINE on the profession of translator, at the 2010 Book Fair.
I particularly welcome the remarkable work done by the President of the CNL, Mr. Nicolas GEORGES, as well as the President of the National Library of France, Mr. Bruno RACINE, who is pleased to welcome us here today, without forgetting Professor Pierre-Yves PETILLON, one of our best specialists in American literature, for his work and his always difficult choice of the twelve ambassadors of American literature today.
France has always had a relationship of particular fascination with American literature, one that is nourished by what is both different and similar and which resembles, to paraphrase VERLAINE, a «strange and familiar dream». Because the American dream is at the same time something intimate in us, by our common history, by our shared values, but also, of course, made interesting and sometimes confusing by a «I don’t know what» that distinguishes us.
I will spare you the «vertigo of the list» of which Umberto ECO makes known to us the charms at the Louvre at this time, and I will only mention some great names of this fascination often reciprocal: Edgar POE and all the symbolist tradition, WALT WHITMAN and Jules LAFORGUE, HEMINGWAY and MALRAUX, William FAULKNER and SARTRE, and, more recently, Paul AUSTER and the French poets DUBOUCHET and DUPIN, or Toni MORRISON, who was in residence here in Paris at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Jean-Yves PETILLON probably remembers… It would be too long to evoke, beyond these proven exchanges, the influence of American literature on French writers and its ever growing prestige among our readers. Thanks to them, the American myth of big cities and open spaces has never ceased to inhabit us, to haunt us, to be both the call of the stranger and as a part of ourselves.
To this American myth answers of course in the United States a French, literary but also philosophical myth: I think of Jacques DERRIDA (especially present in your home, dear Percival EVERETT), but also Michel FOUCAULT and the late Claude LEVI-STRAUSS, who has just left us, who seem to have touched you and perhaps influenced you both, dear Richard WHITE in your Middle Ground and dear Yuri ZLEZKINE in your Jewish Century.
In the anthology of your works prepared with care by the CNL, what struck me is that you carry within you this dialectic of the strange and the familiar, which you turn into a game between rooting and opening on the great horizons, between the perimeter of a terroir and the indefinite extent of the territories.
This is the subtlety of an identity that, to be without borders, nevertheless has its center of gravity, and that allows you to question yourself and even to trace your past, collective or personal: I think in particular of the poignant quests of Andrew Sean GREER, of Colson WHITEHEAD and Forrest GANDER, whose works have not finished calling out to us.
You also explore, and cross, the boundaries of genres: those of the short story and essay by John HASKELL and Charles D'AMBROSIO, the genre novel and experimental novel by Jack O'CONNELL and Hannah TINTI, the poem and world novel by Eleni SIKELIANOS, or comics and literature in Matt MADEN’s 99 Exercises de style, which apply to this genre the Oulipian principle of Raymond QUENEAU’s famous work.
On the other hand, your works, as far as I have been given to know them, offer an original way of prolonging the great American myths by re-examining and reinterpreting them, sometimes critically, and, by that, you know yourself-even carry at the same time that part of identity and strangeness that makes you accessible to others, to all others.
I know that from tomorrow you will go all over France to meet audiences, schools, bookstores and libraries. I am sure you will find the way for these audiences eager to know the new authors of America.
We know that they need the help of these “beautiful foreigners” to get to know themselves better and to build themselves better. For much of what literary America brings to us, French and European, would not have in our eyes this attractive strangeness if it did not also draw one of the possible faces of our own future.