In this interview, Claire Foster spoke to writer and translator Katie Shireen Assef about her recent translation of Black Forest (Deep Vellum), a slim, quiet book of ghosts and grief by French writer, filmmaker and visual artist Valérie Mréjen.
Katie Shireen Assef translates and writes on a tiny balcony in Los Angeles and at a kitchen table in Marseille (and is happy to divide her time between these two wonderful cities). Black Forest is her first full-length translation. A fan of international noir fiction, she also translated the French-language stories in Akashic Books’ anthologies Brussels Noir, Montreal Noir, and Marrakesh Noir. Assef holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, has a decade of experience as a bookseller and is working on a novel.
How did you come to literary translation?
I didn’t start translating until my mid-twenties, in graduate school. I’d been working in France for a few years as a teaching assistant, and had moved back to the States to do an MFA in fiction. About halfway through the program, I negotiated my way into a translation workshop with the German translator Susan Bernofsky, whose translations of Robert Walser I had read and adored. I was so excited by the discussions that were happening around that table and I had great fun translating excerpts of some of the weird contemporary novels I’d brought back from France. It felt more and more like the thing I wanted to do.
What was it about Valérie Mréjen’s work that made you want to create the space for her to find an Anglophone audience?
What I encountered in Mréjen’s books—and later, in her films and videos—was a kind of ongoingness; a patient, intent approach to writing that goes hand in hand with a deep affinity for the quotidian. There are all these continuous threads that run through her work, these themes she’s always circling—dailiness, the ephemeral, memory and its fallibility, loss, silence, the failure of language—and at the same time, it never feels repetitive, regardless of the medium. Everything she makes, to me, feels so alive in the moment and yet she goes about this work in a quiet, precise way that I think can teach us a lot about living. And I like that you think of the act of translation as creating a space, because I feel like that’s also what Mréjen does—she leaves space and silence in her work to let the reader, to let the viewer in. I wanted Anglophone readers to be able to find their way into those spaces too.
And what was it about this text in particular that made you want to pursue it so deeply? How did your relationship to the text change over the course of its translation?
I’m always drawn to slim books that feel like they took the author years to write, and to novels written in carefully curated fragments or vignettes. The books I love most also tend to be very bleak and yet written with a certain lightness of hand—that dissonance often feels very true to me. Forêt noire is a novel that manages to pull off all these things with a fluency and a fluidity that I found exhilarating. Translating it was a way of thinking through how it did what it did. Having started this translation in my mid-twenties and worked on it sporadically over a number of years, I inevitably grew more intimate with its subject matter. It became one of the books—along with Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Susana Moreira Marques’s Now and at the Hour of our Death, and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, to name a few—that I knew I could always turn to in a time of need.
What did you do in-between bouts of translating this text? Were these breaks intentional—motivated by a desire, or need, to step away from the text—or simply because you had other work to do?
I would have loved nothing more than to be able to immerse myself fully in translating Forêt noire from start to finish, but I’ve always had to have another job, or jobs. If anything, it was the tricks I used to re-immerse myself in the work that ended up informing the translation in non-straightforward ways. For example, re-watching scenes from Raymond Depardon’s Faits divers and Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait—the two main film references woven throughout the text—gave me some clues about the way Mréjen is playing with tone and register, while the opening segments of Six Feet Under (the HBO series that inspired the novel’s form) helped me think about the pacing of some of the shorter vignettes. I did a lot of reading aloud from the French and from my drafts, and was lucky enough to have a few wonderful readers offer feedback at different stages of the process; going back to their comments was a way of re-zooming in on the intricacies of Mréjen’s sentences, the nuts and bolts. I also had the opportunity to attend a translation residency in Arles in the summer of 2018, during which I completed final edits on the manuscript, among other Mréjen-related things. These few weeks of uninterrupted time to focus on my craft were truly a gift, and I encourage fellow translators to apply: https://www.atlas-citl.org/citl/
You write in the afterword of Black Forest that the hardest part of translating the novel was “finding the right way to carry [its] strangeness over into English.” Can you say a little more about how you first discerned this strangeness in the French and consequently rendered a version of it into your English translation?
Early on in the process, I tried to pinpoint what felt truly strange, versus what might just be a turn of phrase or a construction in French I wasn’t familiar with. My husband is French, so I’ll often ask him or one of my French friends if something strikes them as odd. Over time, certain idiosyncrasies of the text started to emerge. Mréjen’s descriptions of bodies, for example, are often very strange: a father emerging from the family car takes an eternity to “déplier son corps”—to unfold his body from the car seat; a description of a girl holding back tears likens her lower eyelids to dams about to break. There’s something hauntingly not-quite-human about these images, and it was important to me to preserve that in the translation.
So much of Black Forest is situated in and around Paris, glimpsing the ways in which its cultural, or literal, currencies change over the years. What challenges did you encounter in translating this world to an audience less familiar, perhaps, with the colors of metro tickets and the connotations of the Grands Boulevards?
The challenge was to add just enough context to avoid unnecessary interruptions in the flow of reading, without sounding like a corny tour guide. I’m a big fan of the strategy coined by Susan Bernofsky as “stealth gloss,” which means that you sneak a little explanation into the text in a way that feels fluent and natural. In one of the sections you’re probably thinking of, the narrator imagines how she would tell her dead mother about all the little ways in which Paris has changed over the years. The city now has “une grande bibliothèque,” which any Parisian would know is a reference to the Bibliothèque François-Mitterand, the ultra-modern research library that took so long to build that the president who commissioned it died before it was inaugurated. Readers who can make that association will appreciate the irony of the passage a bit more, but to weave in that context or to name the library, even, would have been overstepping. I made it “a vast national library”; I tacked on the word “pass” to “Carte Orange,” and so on. These are tiny changes but I hope they give the reader who may not know Paris well a sense of familiarity.
When I first started reading Black Forest, I remember being reminded of Edouard Levé’s brilliant Autoportrait, which is similarly attuned to death, detachment, quotidian particularities. And your afterword reveals that he and Mréjen were actually friends and collaborators! How else may his ghostly influence be perceived in the text other than as “the man who decided one day that he’d lived long enough?”
I love that you thought of Autoportrait; it’s my favorite of Levé’s works and the parallels you draw are certainly apt. I think his presence can be felt in so much of Mréjen’s writing but especially in this book, which feels in some ways like a direct homage. Just as Levé set out to do the impossible—to write an inventory of the self—in Autoportrait, here Mréjen sets out to write an impossible inventory of ghosts, and both writers acknowledge the futility of their project and the frailty of existence with wry, absurdist humor. This writing towards or in memory of Levé becomes all the more poignant when one considers that the man who published both books, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, died in a car accident last year.
How do you feel now that the translation is finished and out in the world? What is it like to be without these page-hauntings after having inhabited this universe for six years?
The hauntings are still very much with me as Valérie and I are preparing to do a mini-reading tour in the US! I’m living in France now and haven’t yet had the chance to spot Black Forest on bookstore shelves. The publication still feels a bit abstract to me but the book itself is forever in my bones. I’m just hoping I don’t get hit by a truck or die in some dumb kitchen accident before we get to New York.
What are you working on now?
More Mréjen! I’m translating her most recent novel, Troisième personne, in which she uses the first few years of motherhood as a prism through which to explore the experience of awe. It’s a marvellous book in its own right, but it feels particularly moving as a follow-up to Forêt noire. I’m also putting together samples of her earlier books that I’ve translated over the years, and preparing to pitch those. And I’m working on something of my own that is, in a way, a response to Black Forest.