France’s Hervé Le Tellier: An Anomaly of a Residency for His Translators

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

‘You realize when you’re a writer that you don’t think of your translators,’ says the 2020 Prix Goncourt-winning author who used real-time collaboration to work with many translators at once.

Associates of Hervé Le Tellier are, from left, translators Jürgen Ritte and Romy Ritte (standing), German; Adrienn Gulyás, Hungarian; Anna D’Elia, Italian; Janina Kos, Slovenian, Jörn Cambreleng, director of ATLAS; author Hervé Le Tellier; translator Adriana Hunter, English; Ursula Burger, Croatian; Pablo Martín Sánchez, Spanish; Peer Bundgård, Danish; and Tânia Ganho, Portuguese. Image: Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

Using a Google Doc for a Collective Conversation
It sounds like a joke you might hear among literary circles: What do you get when you put an author into a room with nine translators

Hervé Le Tellier book L'anolmalieAs France opens its cultural venues, gradually emerging from a third coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown, the performance space La Maison de la Poésie on Friday (May 14) streamed an event with France’s 2020 Prix Goncourt-winner Hervé Le Tellier and nine of the almost 40 translators of his work, the culmination of a week-long translation residency with the author.

L’anomalie (Gallimard, August 2020) is published in Adriana Hunter’s English translation as The Anomaly (Other Press, coming on November 23). The book is a human comedy disguised as a sci-fi thriller, and it begins with a Paris-New York transatlantic flight that encounters a terrible moment of turbulence. Three months later, a baffling experience involving the same passengers occurs.

L’anomalie had an initial print run of 12,500 copies. By April, Gallimard had printed 1 million copies. According to market research by GfK quoted in Livres Hebdo on May 7, nearly 770,000 copies of L’anomalie have been sold in France–a literary phenomenon in the home market. Adding in Belgium, Switzerland, and Québec, total sales are at some 1 million units.

It’s now the second Prix Goncourt-winning bestseller in history, after Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant (The Lover, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984). A French television production company, 247 Max has optioned L’anomalie and is developing an international series. Le Tellier is represented by the Astier-Pécher Film & Literary Agency, which reports that Le Tellier will take part in Mexico’s Hay Festival Querétaro (September 1 to 5) and will be in Hamburg and Berlin for the International Literature Festival (September 8 to 18).

Adriana Hunter’s English translation

Le Tellier is the president of Oulipo, a group founded in the 1960s, bringing together writers who explore the possibilities of verse following a system of structural constraints. At 64, Le Tellier has published more than 30 books, and said in a recent interview with France Bleu Provence that he feels “stunned” at L’anomalie’s success. Previously, he said, he had a respectable readership of 30,000 to 40,000 people at most. Although L’anomalie’s launch was discreet, it drew good reviews and a word-of-mouth buzz, so that by the end of August, rights had been sold in seven languages, with Italy’s publisher La Nave di Teseo leading the pack with a translation by Anna D’Elia.

“That’s when I realized that with so many translators I might get into trouble,” Le Tellier told Publishing Perspectives at La Maison de la Poésie. He created a Google Doc on which all the translators working on his text could make comments and ask questions. It was a first for him, and translators agreed that it was a great idea.

Tânia Ganho’s Portuguese translation

“It was such a community-driven act of sharing and so generous on the part of the author,” said Tânia Ganho, an author and literary translator from French and English to Portuguese. She was part of the residency that took place in Arles, shepherded by ATLAS, the Association for the Promotion of Literary Translation. A number of translations, including Ganho’s Portuguese one—published by Presença—are already available, while others are still in progress.

L’anomalie is a page turner in which Oulipian constraints, anagrams, and wordplay are hidden in the text, making it particularly difficult for translators. Moreover, said Le Tellier, who is a trained mathematician, the five childhood years he spent living in England means that some of his turns of phrase are not typically French, complicating matters further.

“You realize when you’re a writer that you don’t think of your translators,” quipped Le Tellier.

The tightly packed 75-minute event began with Le Tellier reading the opening line of his novel, Tuer quelqu’un, ça compte pour rien. (“It’s not the killing, that’s not the thing,” in Hunter’s English translation).

Pablo Martín Sánchez’s Spanish translation

The nine translators (Jürgen and Romy Ritte co-translated into German) each read their translation of the line and explained why it was complicated.

“There are a lot of problems involved in translating this sentence into Portuguese,” said Ganho. “But I was able to keep the rhythm, and the t’s and the s’s, but I didn’t keep the rhyme.”

“I was able to keep the two-times-four syllables,” said Peer F. Bundgård, the Danish translator. “I couldn’t keep the rhyme but found one for the next paragraph.”

The Spanish translator and a fellow Oulipian, Pablo Martín Sánchez, said he wasn’t able to keep the rhyme, either. “My sentence is a [classical] Alexandrine. But I didn’t do this on purpose.” The Spanish edition of L’anomalie, published by Seix Barral at the end of March, is already in its fifth print edition, with close to 20,000 copies sold.

The calligram from the end of ‘L’anomalie’

If the opening line of L’anomalie was complicated for translators, the end was equally so. Le Tellier finishes his novel with a calligram shaped as a funnel, or an hourglass, into which letters and words disappear, with just one word, fin (end, or fine) remaining.

He chose not to reveal the text from which he had gradually removed certain words, opening up possibilities for invention for each translator, as for readers–a very Oulipian approach.

Le Tellier and the translators discussed subjects that had come up during their week-long residency.

Jürgen Ritte and Romy Ritte’s German translation

They included cultural appropriation and political correctness and hesitations on the part of certain publishers to use racial epithets, something Le Tellier does intentionally to shock the reader and evoke empathy. The translators agreed that they had no intention of acting as censors for an author’s text.

On a lighter note, they discussed many of Le Tellier’s wordplays, including a sentence in which one of his characters, Victor Meisel, says, while drinking Bordeaux from the Haut-Médoc, Je suis sous haut-médoc, a play on words with sous meaning “under” or “drunk,” and médoc as slang for medication. Le Tellier’s English-language translator Hunter deftly resolved the problem by having Meisel say “It must be the ‘medocation,’” as did his Spanish translator, using the word “medocamento” instead of medicamento.

It was not so easy for Ursula Burger, the Croatian translator, who said that Médoc is an unknown quantity in Croatia.

The evening ended with a multilingual reading from L’anomalie, which not only paid tribute to wordplay, but also to playing with languages.

Below is a video of the evening at La Maison de la Poésie:

More from Publishing Perspectives on translation and the work of translators is here. More from us on the French market is here. More on publishing and book awards is here

More from Publishing Perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic is here.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.