Back in January, I enjoyed Alison Anderson’s excellent literary translation of French author Hélène Grémillon’s psychological thriller The Case of Lisandra P., a stirring exploration of Argentina in the 1980s. The novel is told from the perspective of a therapist and his patients, many of whom grapple with the traumatic legacy of Argentina’s CIA-backed dictatorship. Gremillon uses an inventive mixture of recorded therapy sessions, police interrogations, and first person perspective, layering multiple perspectives to slowly round out the murder plot. The therapist, accused of murder after his wife’s fatal plunge from a high window, enlists one of his patients to assist in his own investigation into the murder.
Alison Anderson has translated numerous works of literary fiction, including the bestselling novel Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry. She has also written her own works of fiction, including most recently The Summer Guest, a historical re imagining of a young Chekhov, the novel he might have written, and the work’s unintended consequences. In honor of International Crime Fiction Month, and as part of our blog’s support for fiction in translation and the professionals who make that happen, I asked Alison if I could send along a few questions. She was kind enough to let us interview her on about her work on The Case of Lisandra P. and about translation in general.
Interview with a Translator: Alison Anderson on Hélène Grémillon’s The Case of Lisandra P.
Molly Odintz: The Case of Lisandra P. has an Argentinean setting, yet a French author – does it feel different to translate a book that takes place where the author lives, versus a setting somewhat foreign to the author?
Alison Anderson: This did feel somewhat unusual; I couldn’t say that I could “hear the Spanish” behind the French – I don’t even know if Hélène speaks Spanish (and I don’t) – but I do remember one passage where I had to contact a French-speaking Argentinian friend to untangle what might be the best translation in English for a tricky cultural issue.
What is great about translating mysteries and crime novels is the suspense: I don’t read the whole book first anymore, as I used to, before translating; this keeps the language fresh, and above all the suspense keeps me going and I look forward to my daily “installment” of work. So certainly work-wise mysteries may be my favorite genre!
MO: How did you come to translate The Case of Lisandra P.?
AA: I had translated Hélène’s previous book, The Confidant, for the same publisher, and they contacted me regarding this new one.
MO: The Case of Lisandra P. has a number of character perspectives with unique voices – did any pose a challenge to translate? Which character’s perspective most interested you?
AA: I would say they were each challenging in their own way—to keep their specific voices, to convey their character just through dialogue and the briefest of descriptions (Hélène uses very little description). I felt the most sympathy for Eva Maria, and tended to get quite impatient with Vittorio and even Lisandra herself, but I suspect this is somewhat intentional on the author’s part.
MO: The Case of Lisandra P. mixes all the domestic problems of a wealthy, dysfunctional couple with the more politicized problems of their clients and cohort. Did translating the novel change how you think about Argentinian history?
AA: To some degree. I remember the period; I had friends from Argentina who were political exiles in Europe. However what Hélène’s novel shows is the aftermath and just how entangled people’s relationships with politics became, how you never knew if the person you were dealing with was guilty of some horrible crime or mute collaboration, or how much, on the other hand, they had suffered from the regime. She shows all the moral ambiguity and cowardice—and courage—both on very personal and more general, social levels.
MO: You have an incredible translation resume including a wide variety of genres. Do you have a preferred genre to translate?
AA: Not really a genre, but I always prefer translating women, both because I usually find it easier to slip into the voice, and also because women are underrepresented in terms of works translated, just as in other areas. Only a quarter, roughly, of the translated books of fiction published in English in a given year are by women. So I try to let publishers know this preference of mine, and there have been periods when I was able to translate almost exclusively women, but I won’t turn down an interesting book by a man for all that. What is great about translating mysteries and crime novels is the suspense: I don’t read the whole book first anymore, as I used to, before translating; this keeps the language fresh, and above all the suspense keeps me going and I look forward to my daily “installment” of work. So certainly work-wise mysteries may be my favorite genre!
MO: As a writer and a translator, do you draw inspiration in your writing from the linguistic quirks of the languages you translate? How those two professions strengthen and compliment each other?
AA: I’m sure I do, but on a subconscious level. Particularly as I am surrounded by French speakers where I live, French is always in the background, in the rhythm of the language, in certain turns of phrase, and this may well influence not only translation but also my own writing. It has also made me see English more sharply, as if from a certain distance, which can be helpful.
I always prefer translating women, both because I usually find it easier to slip into the voice, and also because women are underrepresented in terms of works translated, just as in other areas…There have been periods when I was able to translate almost exclusively women, but I won’t turn down an interesting book by a man for all that.
MO: Since this is a mystery blog, I should ask you about the French obsession with mysteries. What do you think their abiding interest in crime fiction comes from?
AA: Inspecteur Maigret…? To be honest, I don’t really know; do the French love their “polar” (crime novel) more than the Brits or the Scandinavians do? I know they do credit the “grandes dames” of British crime fiction (PD James, Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie) with arousing their own interest but I get the feeling this huge love of mysteries has come in the last twenty years or so with authors like Fred Vargas. I remember being surprised, when I moved here 8 years ago, to see the local bookstore in Lausanne with its huge section devoted just to crime novels and thrillers, in the past there wouldn’t have been a whole section, just a few shelves…I think it’s a global phenomenon, really; you’ve got these great crime novels coming from places like Iceland and South Africa, so France of course is bound to have some good crime writers and plenty of atmospheric settings.
I think it’s a global phenomenon, really; you’ve got these great crime novels coming from places like Iceland and South Africa, so France of course is bound to have some good crime writers and plenty of atmospheric settings.
MO: Have you done new translations of previously translated works? How is the experience similar/different than translating a work for a new audience for the first time?
AA: Actually that is something I have never done, although I would like to. I was approached once for a Maupassant novel, but the pay was so dismal I couldn’t afford the time to do it… some publishers seem to think translating the classics need not be paid on the same scale as a contemporary thriller! although the text is often much more difficult. If some day someone makes me a good offer… or if I have the time to do a favorite book on my own initiative, as a labor of love, then yes, I’d love to try some Flaubert or Madame de La Fayette…
MO: You’ve translated a number of books – do you also translate other forms of media?
AA: I once translated intertitles for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival! That was a lot of fun.
You can find copies of Hélène Grémillon’s The Case of Lisandra P., translated by Alison Anderson, on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
You can find copies of Anderson’s latest novel, The Summer Guest, on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.