M. Frédéric Grellier, The Blind Book Translator of Paris

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By David Fulmer

In the spring of 2006, I heard the exciting news that my first three novels — Chasing the Devil’s Tail, Jass, and Rampart Street – would be published in French translation by Rivages. It had been a long time coming, but the wait was worth it. Not only was France a natural fit for books set in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, Rivages also boasted a long list of fiction authors whom I admired.

The deal was done. The only question was the identity of the translator. I knew that whoever it was would need to bring something special to a book that was so deeply immersed in French culture –- in this case, its American cousin. Eventually, I learned Frédéric Grellier would be my translator. A few weeks later, I received a call from him.

“I want to tell you two things,” he began. “First, I love jazz and New Orleans. Second, I’m blond.” Blond? I didn’t get it. He wants me to know he’s blond? What, before I made any jokes about his IQ? Then I got it: he’d said blind.

After a stumbling moment, my next thought was blind as in Ray Charles, Willie McTell, Willie Johnson, and George Shearing blind and all the better for an author who writes books awash in music and the sounds of the city.

He explained how he worked at the time. His wife Armelle, who is also fluent in English, would read Chasing the Devil’s Tail onto tape. Fred’s computer would take it from there and allow him to turn my American into a French that would do the book justice. The more we talked, the more intrigued I became by him and his method.

We discussed Storyville, the music called jass, and Valentin and Justine and the other characters, real and imagined. Once we got into the book, he would email questions about specific points and I was happy to be able to share bits of period French-Americana with him. He was sharp and I never had to explain anything twice. He was particular about the context, which convinced me that as a writer of period fiction I was in good hands. I could sense that he wasn’t just putting in the hours; he was re-creating a work of fiction for a French audience. I had gotten the same intuitive talent from Seba Pezzani, who translated my first book into Italian and is a professional musician. For my novels, it’s all about the ears.

I later found out why I so rarely had to explain an Americanism to Fred. He was born in France, but left at the age of seven to spend nine years in the U.S. — Bethesda, Maryland, to be exact.

He recalled that his immersion was complete. “I was a regular American kid,” he says, which included a native ease with English. “I sounded like a regular American teenager, too. I had no trace of an accent.” At the same time, he attended the French School attached to the embassy where his father was assigned. “I had the best of both worlds.”

He returned to France at sixteen with a superior command of the language. He went to college to study political science and law, but his head kept pulling him in another direction. “I knew I wanted to work with words.” Though, he says, “It never crossed my mind to become a translator.”

That happened by way of a back door – the cinema, to be exact. With his fluency in English, he was asked by producers to read American books for possible film adaptations (at the time, he could still see, as his blindness is progressive). He found he had an innate sense of what and how much would be lost in translation, a skill that producers with big money at stake valued. This work had him reading a lot of crime fiction and he next found himself reviewing American mysteries and thrillers for possible French deals.

“There was one I really loved,” he recalls. “And the editor said, ‘Are you interested in doing the translation?’”

He was, and within a couple years was busy working on mysteries, delivering Paretsky, Block, Kellerman, and other stars of the genre to French readers. As a go-to crime fiction translator for Rivages and the other houses, he was seeing some of the best work on the market, and learned that a superior genre work never seemed to garner the respect of a mediocre literary novel. This was clearly a man after my heart.

He was in his late 20s and his sight was still strong enough that he could work with pages. But his blindness was progressing and a few years later, he turned to new technology, barely skipping a beat. He now utilizes a Windows program called JAWS (Job Access with Speech), which synthesizes voice from text and is known to sight-impaired readers around the world. Depending on the project, he will combine the technical with human assistance, with his wife Armelle reading. Or maybe he just likes the sound of her voice.

In any case, Jeanne Guyon, his editor at Rivages, recognized his unique talents early on. She says, “To tell the truth, before anyone else, a translator is a book’s best advocate, not only because he is the author’s voice in another language, but also because of his own vision of the book, which is often illuminating and thought-provoking. It certainly is in Frédéric’s case.”

The more he and I worked together, the more I understand what Ms. Guyon means. It’s far more than a matter of words on pages and a good dictionary.

“I want to bring out the best of the two languages,” he says. “That’s my goal with any book I translate.”

David Fulmer is the author of seven critically-acclaimed and award-winning novels with, Poisoned Pen Press, Harcourt Books, and Five Stones Press. He has been nominated for a LA Times Book Prize, a Barry Award, and a Falcon Award, has won a Shamus Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and AudioFile Golden Earphones Award, and has been nominated to numerous “Best of” lists, including Borders Books “Best of 2003 List,” Atlanta Magazine’s “2008 Best of the Shelf” and New York Magazine’s “Best Novels You’ve Never Read.” Mostly recently, The Blue Door was nominated for the 2009 Shamus Award for Best Novel. His seventh mystery, The Fall, was released in March. He lives in Atlanta with his daughter Italia. www.davidfulmer.com

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.