Translating Twisted Tales: A Conversation with Lara Vergnaud about Translating Life Sciences by Joy Sorman — curated by Tiffany Troy

Lara Vergnaud is a literary translator from the French. She is the recipient of the 2019 French Voices Grand Prize and two PEN/Heim Translation Grants, and a finalist for the 2022 PEN Translation Prize. Her translation of Joy Sorman’s Life Sciences was awarded the 2022 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. Lara’s other translations include novels by Zahia Rahmani, Ahmed Bouanani, Mohamed Leftah, and Franck Bouysse. She currently lives in southern France.

Life Sciences by Joy Sorman is a fictional exploration of disease, medicine, and healing through the female perspective. Joy Sorman is a novelist and documentarian who lives and works in Paris. Her first novel, Boys, boys, boys, was awarded the 2005 Prix de Flore. In 2013, she received the Prix François Mauriac from the Académie française for Comme une bête. Life Sciences is her first novel to be translated into English.

Tiffany Troy: What is the act of literary translation to you?

Lara Vergnaud: That’s so hard to answer. I was actually trying to explain this to my four-and-a-half-year-old this week, so maybe I’ll use that as a springboard. I told him, “Mommy takes books written in French and she changes all the words into English. They are different words but they mean the same thing.”

I asked, “Does that make sense?” And he goes, “Yes!”

On that very basic level, literary translation is almost like a mathematical equation. X = Y. But of course, this is a terrible response because it’s much more complex. I hate all the metaphors that are invariably used, but I still always end up using them (bridge, mirror, tunnel, porter, etc.) because they help convey the act of taking something that exists in one language and bringing it into a different language, where inevitably it’s completely different and all the same at once.

Tiffany Troy: How did you get into French? How did you get into translation?

Lara Vergnaud: French was the default. My family on my father’s side is Tunisian, so they all speak Arabic and French. I was born in Tunisia but because my mother is American, in our house, we primarily spoke English. When I started studying languages in high school (we were in the U.S. at this point), French was the natural choice—Arabic wasn’t offered—so that I could better communicate with my family. 

I often hear translators say they got into this job by accident, and the same is true for me. I moved to France after college, and I was only planning to stay a few months on a short-term student visa. Then I got a professional opportunity that prompted me to stay longer. But I needed an academic program to sponsor my visa, and the one with the least number of hours was a graduate program in technical translation. So I thought, I’ll just sign up for this and coast through it. But of course, I couldn’t really do that, because I’m type A and can’t coast through anything. I worked really hard in the program, and then kept going straight into a Master’s in literary translation, and that was over ten years ago.

Tiffany Troy: You translate quite a variety of different literary texts. What draws you to the work of Joy Sorman?

Lara Vergnaud: I love her because she’s so unexpected. In much of her work, she blends technical fields such as butchery or zoology or, in this latest novel, medicine into a fictional narrative, incorporates technical vocabulary, and then adds in some fantastical element. It’s a very unique style.

As a reader, I love what she does. I am always taken in by what I call her twisted fairytales. And as a translator, I really enjoy getting to play with language on those different levels, asking myself, how can I make this work in English, to create the same sort of jarring effect.

Tiffany Troy: How do you approach translating the jarring effect of Sorman’s unique style into English?

For instance, I was fascinated by the way in which the dialogue unfolds in the novel. For the majority of the time, when the protagonist, Ninon, is talking with her mother or with the medical professional, none of the dialogue are in quotes. I feel the dialogue as a result unfolds in a different way.

How do you approach translating that into English?

Lara Vergnaud: Sometimes, it’s about being comfortable with having the English be a little bit different and allowing for the syntax be a little bit odd and for unconventional punctuation maybe. It’s a practice that comes with experience and with great, understanding editors.

For the first few books I translated, I was very careful to stick to what’s acceptable in English and what Anglophone readers are used to. Over the years, from translating more books and reading what other translators are doing, I realized that the whole point is to show how other languages and cultures use and manipulate language. There’s always a back and forth, because sometimes as a translator you go too far. I know, of course, that I do have to respect a minimum of linguistic norms. Luckily with this book, I had an incredible editor in Alison Gore at Restless Books, who was as excited about Joy Sorman as I was. She recognized that there was some intentionally weird stuff in the syntax, punctuation, and format, and she let me bring that into English in a similarly unique way.

Tiffany Troy: My next question is related to that: how do you approach translating what is unique to Joy Sorman’s work into the English? 

A lot of the sections in Life Sciences begins with a backstory in italics and then the story continues to unfold in a chronological way. What you said about bringing the weirdness of punctuation and syntax is fascinating because a lot of the times, it’s almost like a stream of consciousness, which is rooted in the particular. An almost overwhelming flow of information with body parts and science. How did you bring all that to bear in the English translation?

Lara Vergnaud: I feel like you kind of answered the question for me. But capturing that uniqueness is a challenge. On the one hand, Sorman frequently uses almost-clinical language, drawing from a great amount of research, and the result is a very sterile, clean, and sparse way of writing, which is a style the reader has to get used to. Then she switches to long, rhythmical, and often lyrical passages that can go on for pages. And again, as reader, you just have to get into the rhythm and go with it.

But as a translator, I needed to dissect that free-flowing prose before reconstructing it, and then make sure the same effect occurs in English, which, to me, is the really fun part of translating Sorman. French prose can be very high register, verging on being formal, or even grandiose. I’ve translated a lot of texts like that. But Sorman’s writing moves away from that tradition; it’s very contemporary, very oral. Life Sciences has a 17-year-old protagonist, so the way that she speaks had to be natural, and young. I focused on making sure that even though the text is a bit unconventional, in terms of the clinical tone in particular, the translation maintained its forward momentum.  

Tiffany Troy: One of the influences of the novel is Kafka’s Metamorphosis. How do you go about capturing that sense of transformation and dread, where the protagonist is clearly aware of a matrilineal curse that’s afflicted her family for centuries, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap in your translation?

Lara Vergnaud: To be honest, while the Kafka influence is there, it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. It’s just such a well-known story. I’ve seen Sorman’s novel described as a sort of feminist Metamorphosis, which is an interesting comparison, but what guided me more during the translation was the idea of a new kind of storytelling. Because while Sorman does reference classic (male) authors like Kafka and Fitzgerald, for example, what interests her more is the act of passing on stories, and how that can profoundly shape an individual, for better or worse.

In Life Sciences, this translates to a radical questioning of one family history—tales of witches and hysterics and so on—handed down through the women. So yes, The Metamorphosis is a clear influence, but what Sorman is really grappling with is: What do we do with the stories we are told, especially as little girls? By the way, Catherine Lacey wrote an amazing introduction about this exact point, which helped hone my thinking about the novel’s aims and themes, long after I actually translated it. 

Tiffany Troy: I really love the voice of the protagonist. She goes on this journey where her tone shifts over time. Life Sciences had a different tone in the beginning, and then towards the end it’s almost like this high flung, and tragic comic. How do you capture that difference in tone or the humor in English?

Lara Vergnaud: These are such good questions and I want to have a more specific answer, but so much of it is instinct. Which is not to say that I have a perfect, magical sense that guides me; maybe it’s more that as a translator, your main job is actually as a reader. You have to be an incredibly studious and close reader. I think I developed my instinct for what makes a good translation by reading so many novels, both in English and in French, and of course all of Sorman’s novels. Because she is one of my favorite French authors, I’ve made an effort to follow her career, starting when I read her first published novel ten or so years ago. Because I am so familiar with her work at this point—as I should be!—I can translate the varying voices and styles in her writing rather confidently. 

When you mention the shift in tone, I think what you’re talking about is the fact that Ninon is basically growing up. Except that she’s being forced to grow up very, very fast because she’s in horrible, debilitating pain (the mysterious “curse” at the heart of the novel). I’m so glad that you picked up on this because it’s a subtle point. I think Joy Sorman might hate Life Sciences being called a coming-of-age story, but Ninon does “come of age” by the end of the novel.

Tiffany Troy: How do you choose what to gloss and what to leave and the original French?

Lara Vergnaud: That’s always tricky. I don’t usually retain a lot of the original, French text because while the reading experience doesn’t have to be comfortable, and I’m very much okay with it being unsettling, it shouldn’t be confusing. So I typically won’t leave anything in French, unless I feel like the place or term or whatever is really recognizable or if there’s a particular element of form that I’m trying to replicate, which would be aided by use of a French term. 

But I also don’t necessarily go out of my way to explain things to the reader. This is another element of literary translation that I’ve picked up from reading other translations, from other languages: it’s okay for things to be ambiguous. As a translator, the instinct can sometimes be to explain everything, even if the authorial intent was not necessarily evident in the original. Sometimes, during the editing process, I’ll find instances when I’ve overexplained (or glossed), which I will then ruthlessly cut out. 

Tiffany Troy: What do you hope that the English-speaking reader gets from your translation of the novel?

Lara Vergnaud: I want the readers to be so absorbed in the story that it doesn’t even occur to them that it was written in a different language.

Tiffany Troy: What was your process of collaborating with Joy Sorman on the translation?

Lara Vergnaud: Joy Sorman is the perfect author to work with. I wouldn’t call the process collaborative because she was happy to leave me on my own, which I think is what most translators prefer. With the option to reach out when you get stuck, which is what I did with this translation. Each time, Joy was responsive but not at all proprietary. In an event we did together a few weeks ago, she said of the translation: “I don’t consider [the novel] mine anymore, the translation is a new product, and I have total faith in you.” And my reaction was of course: “What better author can I get?!”

Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today?

Lara Vergnaud: I am in the final stages of translating a novel by a Moroccan author named Mohamed Leftah. Stylistically and thematically, the book is as far away as you can get from Joy Sorman. It’s very intense, with lots of shifts in linguistic registers as well, but more so between two languages (Arabic and French).

Tiffany Troy: What advice would you give to future translators?

Lara Vergnaud: There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the realities of being a literary translator, meaning the lack of representation in publishing in general, and more specifically within the world of translation, plus the low pay, scarcity of opportunities, etc. All of which are very real and overwhelming constraints and obstacles. It’s a tough field.

All that said, I would still like to encourage aspiring translators—with the caveat: Always have a Plan B, a day job. I had a day job for years and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to do literary translation (almost) full time. Something else that helps is mentorship, especially since we’re all more isolated than ever. (Speaking of! I’m offering another free mentorship to emerging translators. I did this last year with two very talented young translators, and the whole experience was immensely rewarding.)

And maybe I’ll end with a reminder that being a literary translator really is a wonderful job: You get to read beautiful books and spend your time translating them. Then, because of you and a whole team of invisible people, namely editors and publicists, people who would never have read the book in question get to have that experience. That might sound a little naive, or at the least Pollyanna-ish, but I think it’s important to stress the nice parts, that we are lucky to do what we do.

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.