Interview with Robert Soubie: Translator of Stanley Weinbaum into French
| Stanley Weinbaum (1902-1935) had only a handful of science fiction short stories published in his short lifetime, but his stories had a major impact from his first effort, "A Martian Odyssey," which introduces the alien Tweel - an alien that exists for its own sake, and not simply to provide an enemy to the hero of the story.
|| Indeed, Weinbaum's treatment of aliens, and of alien planets (the nine planets of our Solar System (Pluto having been discovered in 1930)) was so radical for the time that Isaac Asimov has termed him "the Second Nova," "a new writer [who] burst into the field like a nova, capturing the imagination of the readers at once, altering the nature of science fiction and converting every other writer into an imitator."
Weinbaum died of cancer at the early age of 33, and his short stories have only been rarely published since his death, and indeed are in the public domain in most countries. Robert Soubie has translated Weinbaum's stories into French, and he shares the story, and his plans, below.
| Before I ask about your background and other matters, let me ask this. Why translate Weinbaum?
|As an adult, I did not read much science fiction; however I read some, and, around 1973—I must have been 25—I bought a reprint of the 1952 translation of The Black Flame. I still have the book, and all pages are now separated from each other, because it really was a low quality paperback book (recently, I found another copy of this same book, but in a better shape). The novel has not been reprinted since then. I read it, was intrigued, and gave a look at the blurb that said:
“Stanley Weinbaum died too young, at the age of 33, one of the most surprising SF author of the thirties. He was the first to ignore the traditional standards for SF.”
And that was it! At that time, there was no Internet—and in France, there was nothing more to be learnt, except that a couple of short stories has been printed in our “pulps”.
When I pre-retired, 3 years ago, I found that book on my shelves and reread it. Having plenty of time, I was in no hurry for that, and I discovered everything I probably had ignored the first time, about its style, inspiration, humor, strong characterization, maturity. Now the internet was there, and it allowed me to conduct deep searches on the man, his works, his epoch and inspiration, etc. I found about the “long” version of The Black Flame that has been discovered in the so-called “Denver Trunk”, and ordered it. I realized that while a perfect unknown in Europe, he actually was famous in the US, and considered by many as a precursor of the Golden Age. I bought the 1974 Hyperion anthology that collected all his short stories.
From there, I really developed a strong interest in the man, his personality, and the strange destiny he had. To my surprise, I found that strictly no one had tried to disseminate his works, to have them translated to other languages; as far as I know, Weinbaum was only very partially translated to French, German, Spanish and Russian. One short story, "The Mad Moon", must have been translated into Czech.
Since I had time and the ability to do it, I decided to translate as much of Weinbaum as I’d be able to handle.
So far, I have translated all the SF short stories and La Flamme Noire; I have also translated half of The New Adam; I still have to translate "The Mad Brain" (aka "The Dark Other") and the romance "The Lady Dances". Also two detective stories, "Murder on the High Seas" and "Yellow Slaves."
The New Adam and The Mad Brain are available in English with Leonaur Publishing.
As for The Lady Dances, it was never published as a book, but as a series in syndicated newspapers. I obtained copies of those newspapers pages from Temple University in Philadelphia, and OCR’ed, then proofread them; the novel is now in the ultimate editing stage, nearly ready for publication; it is a Southern Seas romance with some strong characterization. A good read, indeed, that will probably appear first at Lulu, at least until some “real” publisher—who knows—asks for the right of reprinting it.
I also have collected all of Weinbaum’s poetry (including what can be found in his novels) into a 90-pages book I am also going to publish at Lulu.
[Editor's note: When these volumes are available, we'll let our readers know!]
| How big is the science fiction 'scene' there, do you have a lot of conventions, etc. Do you personally belong to any SF clubs or organizations? And finally, Please explain your difficulties getting Weinbaum published in France.
||Pretty small, and mostly through the internet, email groups, a few
forums, and one newsgroup in french. SF is drowned in the middle of
other genres, and most of what is published here is translated from
the US SF.
As for conventions, not many; nothing comparable to what you have in the States. This is
obviously a problem of critical mass. I have met the same phenomenon
in amateur astronomy: the USA have many huge star parties, and we have
very few in any given country.
As to SF clubs or organizations, I belong to none; I will probably be more active on the groups and fora in the
Regarding Weinbaum, only the novel The Black Flame (in the abridged, incised version) was ever translated to French; among the short stories, "A Martian Odyssey" and its sequel "Valley of Dreams", "Pygmalion’s Spectacles" and "The Lotus Eaters" were printed in French pulp magazines such as Fiction and Galaxie (the US Galaxy was a department of this magazine, I think). A couple of the “Van Manderpootz and Dixon Wells” stories must have also been translated recently in a confidential edition which is out of print.
Why is it so? Just because much of the science fiction of the Golden Age was never translated to French ; for example, only a few novels by E. E. Doc Smith have been translated to French, mostly the Lensman series. The Skylark series has not been translated, nor has the rest of what he wrote. And the situation is the same for many authors before and even after Weinbaum.
At the time American science fiction soared, there was a surge of translations and publications in those magazines, which were the French equivalent of the american “pulps”; many of the people who translated and published were themselves “fans,” the way Moskowitz or Bradbury had themselves been. They wrote French SF, but never reached a level in quality and inspiration such as was seen in the US. The same happened in other countries (Germany, Italy); only the British has some success in that Golden Age movement; and the market was too small, and soon dominated by the low quality SF I wrote about previously.
Now it is too late. Books are perishable items here—and I suspect the situation is even worse than it is in the USA, where you can at least find books in hardback version, something that has all but disappeared here.
There are SF collection that (re)publish that kind of texts—and especially if they are PD, as is the case for Weinbaum—but they have to be convinced. So far, only one clearly showed they were interested in what I was doing—but obviously disturbed by the way I did it—and I keep in touch with them; I have contacted about 12 known publishers having a significant SF collection; among them, only one answered favorably; the rest did not even answer, except two who said they did not publish that kind of stuff—but I know very well that they do since I have their books. A letter I received from the second one (a very big name in the French publishing world) says:
“Dear Mr. Weinbaum,
The manuscript you sent to us, “The Mad Moon” received our full attention; however, we do not publish unpublished texts etc…”
They did not even read the text, nor did they read my letter. Simply said, the system is such that if your name is not Dan Brown, you don’t exist. But there are ways to circumvent them, given some time and energy.
|Have you written any books? What other authors have you translated? How many languages do you know?
||No. I do not think I could do that very well, or at least, it would be artificial. It is a gift, and you have it or not. I think I don’t.
I have not translated other writers so far; however, I do that for my pleasure, and I am tempted to translates things I like that have not been translated yet; so when I’m over with Weinbaum (which should well take a couple of years), I would like to translate some texts I like, and especially Robert F. Young’s stories.
But there is a catch: while Weinbaum’s works are in the public domain in France and elsewhere (and mostly unpublished in French, which makes translating them useful), most of Young’s short stories have not been collected (and there are many I have not read); also I have been unable so far to find the Robert F. Young Literary Estate — if there is such a thing.
I know French, English, Greek, a good deal of Italian (I can understand it but I do not really speak it). All this helps, because Weinbaum was a man of high culture, and he obviously spoke French ("The New Adam" was written on a notebook he used for that language) and had notions of other languages, such as Dutch. I learnt ancient Greek with my father as a teacher, and modern greek by myself, after a discovery travel in Greece at the age of 29.
I already knew my future wife, who is French by law but one hundred per cent Greek by blood, but I did not know at that time I would marry her; so I am still improving my knowledge of Greek, which I feel is very important for mastering languages such as French and English and translating from one to the other.
As for English, my first teacher, Jean Cellié, was a friend of my father, whose dedicated classroom was above Mr. Cellié’s: On my very first day of English course, at the age of 12, I was following the swallows’ flights through the window, hence he made me sit just in front of him, so I had to study English; then, for the next summer vacations, I spent a full month as a paying guest in a popular London suburb; the same thing happened the following summer, and when I came back to France the second time (I must have been 13, in 1961), I could speak English fluently, though with a quite limited vocabulary... And my very last English teacher, at the age of 22, also was… the same Mr. Cellié; I owe to him the familiarity I have with the English language.
This helped me a lot in my carrier as an engineer, at a time where very few French people could actually speak English. In my specialty (electronics, programmable controllers and computers), most technical information is in English, so I read much of it. Also I happened to spend a few months on business in Salt Lake City between 1986 and 1990, where I had the opportunity to “refresh” my English.
Consequently, when I began to translate the unabridged version of "The Black Flame" (and to retranslate "Dawn of Flame", which can be considered as the first part of the novel,) I did not wonder whether I could do it. I just did it; there is nothing I can’t do with a computer, a couple of dictionaries and an Internet connection. I do not think one needs to be a scholar to translate, even if the person you translate is a scholar.
|Are you a fan of all science fiction, or just the works of Stanley Weinbaum. If you like all SF, give some examples. Name some French writers and their works, or is everything imported and translated from English?
Am I a fan? I would rather say that I am an amateur, and have always been; also I am, and want to remain eclectic; here is a list of my last reads:
Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol, The Little Lady in the Big House, The Mitinees of the Elsinore, The Sea Wolf, The Iron Heel, The Scarlet Plague (both are SF), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Rider Haggard’s She and Ayesha, Conan Doyle’s Lost World but also Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, Robert Reed, Robert Silverberg, Simak’s Fantasy and… Victor Hugo’s poetry! I still have to read Valley of the Moon, and many other books.
As for French SF, and apart from Jules Verne, I could name a few authors such as Gérard Klein, Alain Dorémieux, Jean-Pierre Andrevon , René Barjavel; in my opinion, none of them could compare to American authors. It may sound surprising and difficult to explain but it is so. So if I were to name one single French SF author, that would be Francis Carsac, who of course was never translated to English.
Not that I like everything the American wrote: I like Weinbaum, Bradbury, Simak, Pour Anderson but I do not like “Doc” Smith. I like Delany’s Nova but none of the rest of his opus. I love Sturgeon –and in fact I am discovering him. I like Heinlein – or Silverberg - but not everything they wrote is good. I appreciate Vinge and Robert Reed; I do not like Alastair Reynolds at all, and I still have to discover others—there are so many—such as Nancy Kress or Dan Simmons or…
|How long did it take you to translate each short story, on average?
||I began translating Weinbaum at the beginning of December 2005, when a knee problem showed I’d better stay home rather than climb to Pic du Midi Observatory, in the Pyrenees, for practicing astronomy (at an amateur level): the observatory is like a 10-stories concrete building with many long corridors but no lift.
After 18 months, I have translated the novel The Black Flame and all of Weinbaum’s SF stories, and half of the novel The New Adam. In terms of the number of pages translated, this amounts to about 1400 pages in French, equivalent to about 1100 pages in English. Since I do not have to work for so many hours a day, translating takes… the time it takes. It’s a hobby after all, even if I am being serious about actually publishing the books, in French and, for some of them, in English.
I still have to translate "The Dark Other" and "The Lady Dances"; also a couple of detective stories, "Murder on the High Seas" and "Yellow Slaves" (a cooperation with Ralph Milne Farley)
| What are the difficulties of translating English science fiction into French?
||I would say none specific of the genre, really. The cliché says “Traduttore, traditore”, and of course, it is more than a cliché, it is the truth. When you undertake the huge responsibility of translating a text of such beautiful style as Weinbaum’s, with so much humor, with such a fertile imagination, you simply must “render” all of that, by using the different tools that your native language gives you—and that you must master, of course. This is possible indeed, and sometimes it takes some imagination, patience, reworking and rewording; for instance, the long English sentences that Weinbaum affectionates must be interrupted by semicolons in French. A few examples:
How do you translate “shenanigans” to French? You don’t. The dictionary says “espièglerie » but that is not good. You use a French equivalent, which may be “raffut”, “chambard”, or “bazar”, or any of other popular terms that all French-speaking people will accept without a second thought just because they are adapted to the vivid flow of the story. Even with “raffut”, which I chose, it is still Weinbaum’s style.
What is more difficult, and very often implies a lot of research, is to translate what was, at the time of his writing, understandable to the American public of the epoch; for example, in The Black Flame, old Marcus Orm, in the year 2200 or so, wonders what a bootlegger, a speakeasy, a stoolpigeon, a bozo or a sap were.
Well, the French public knows a couple of things about the prohibition—but almost nothing about the Great Depression,—they may have read Raymond Chandler, and after all, there are French equivalents to those terms; but when, in the very next sentence, Weinbaum alludes to the “sticky bills”, and says the term served as a nickname to some political movement of the forties, he clearly refers—with the same kind of humor and irony— to something very precise, that must have been understood by all American readers in 1934.
However, this is something that I do not really understand, hence that I could not translate properly. I asked many times on the SF newsgroups, and nobody would explain what the author meant, even knowing the context, and what that “political movement” could have been. My best guess is that the sticky bills must have been just that, the bills stuck on windows prohibiting alcohol, and that maybe the “political movement” names after them were, after the end of the prohibition, a bunch of dye-hard teetotalers. This is about the only case where I had to translate “word for word”. But unearthing all this information took me tens of hours using search engines on the Internet; and in the process, I evidently learnt a lot.
Quite often, Weinbaum’s stories are built around some scientific discovery of his time, or some real-life fact:
For instance, I have discovered—and most probably I was first in this—that The Circle Of Zero, whose yarn at first appeared to me to be somewhat weak, something that surprised me in the part of Weinbaum (never underestimate the enemy!), is built around something real that happened just a few weeks after the 1929 stock crash; starting from December 1929, there was a rebound that lasted until the end of April 1930, after what the stocks plummeted again until the summer of 1932. I found a diagram with the Standard and Poor index between 1928 and 1932 that shows that Weinbaum was very well documented, and I included it at the end of the short story’s text.
The revolution of 1950 was written after the (American, ta da!) discovery that the hormone testosterone could be synthesized from cholesterol.
Also, Weinbaum often refers to eugenics, which were supposed to be desirable and “scientific” in a time where science appeared to be for the best of mankind, even if a few years later—-but he did not live to see it-—the Nazis used them for their own ugly ends.
In The Black Flame and in several short stories written in the years 1933 to 1935, Weinbaum describes the “vision" -- I kept the term, because using “television” would have been an anachronism in reverse, since it had not been coined in yet. However the description of an invention that was for him in the future—-and, again, he did not live to see it—-was quite accurate.
This is why I made the decision that for the French-speaking readers to understand what all this was about, I had to inform them of those numerous details; the America of the Great Depression and of the Dust Bowl, the 1929 financial crisis are far and remote for them.
This is why my translations are annotated; I know that some people think that footnotes distract the reader, but you can’t please all.
Can you present the first two paragraphs of "A Martian Odyssey" in English, and your translations of those first two paragraphs, and explain why you chose various words.||
Here is the English version with the French version underneath, but there is nothing special in those two paragraphs, and translating them is quite straightforward; please note that the French typography is very different from the English; and that is a real big difference. |
|Jarvis stretched himself as luxuriously as he could in the cramped general quarters of the Ares.|
'Air you can breathe,' he exulted. 'It feels as thick as soup after the thin stuff out there!' He nodded at the Martian landscape stretching flat and desolate in the light of the nearer moon, beyond the glass of the port.
The other three stared at him sympathetically - Putz, the engineer, Leroy, the biologist, and Harrison, the astronomer and captain of the expedition. Dick Jarvis was chemist of the famous crew, the Ares expedition, first human beings to set foot on the mysterious neighbor of the earth, the planet Mars. This, of course, was in the old days, less than twenty years after the mad American Doheny perfected the atomic blast at the cost of his life, and only a decade after the equally mad Cardoza rode on it to the moon. They were true pioneers, these four of the Ares.
||Jarvis s'étira aussi voluptueusement qu’il lui était possible dans les quartiers exigus de l’Arès.
— De l’air respirable, exulta-t-il. Il me semble aussi épais que de la soupe, comparé à ce truc raréfié qu’il y a là-dehors ! Il désigna du menton le paysage Martien, plat et désolé à la lueur de la lune la plus proche, de l’autre côté du hublot.
Approbateurs, les autres trois le contemplaient — Putz, l'ingénieur, Leroy, le biologiste, et Harrison, l'astronome, qui était aussi le capitaine de l’expédition. Dick Jarvis était le chimiste de cet équipage célèbre, l'expédition de l'Arès ; c’étaient les premiers êtres humains à poser le pied sur la planète Mars, la mystérieuse voisine de la Terre. Bien sûr, tout cela se passait autrefois, vingt ans à peine après le premier vol à propulsion atomique par cet américain cinglé, Doheny, qui du reste y avait perdu la vie, et moins de dix ans après que Cardoza, cet autre fou, s’en soit servi pour conquérir la Lune. L’équipage de l'Arès était donc bien constitué de quatre authentiques pionniers.
||What is actually a bit more difficult to translate is the fact that Weinbaum makes fun of the German engineer’s and of the French biologist’s English and accent, and at one point, he writes this:
'… Well, I was just about to turn in when suddenly I heard the wildest sort of shenanigans!'
'Vot iss shenanigans?' inquired Putz.
'He says, 'Je ne sais quoi',' explained Leroy. 'It is to say, 'I don't know what'.'
'That's right,' agreed Jarvis. 'I didn't know what, so I sneaked over to find out. There was a racket like a flock of crows eating a bunch of canaries - whistles, cackles, caws, trills, and what have you. I rounded a clump of stumps, and there was Tweel!'
Obviously, it is difficult to imitate a Frenchman in French! So I had to make more fun of the German in other parts of the text, and I suppose that a German would make more fun of Leroy. So my translation is:
Donc, j'étais juste sur le point d’aller dormir quand soudain j'ai entendu un raffut de tous les diables !
— Was ist raffut ? S’enquit Putz.
— Il veut dire — je crois — du chambard, lui expliqua Leroy. C’est pour dire qu’il ne savait pas ce que c’était.
— Exact, convint Jarvis. Je ne savais pas, donc je me suis approché furtivement pour en savoir plus. Il y avait autant de vacarme que si un vol de corneilles avait été en train de boulotter un vol de canaris — des sifflements, caquètements, croassements, des trilles, et j’en passe. J'ai contourné un tas de branches, et là, j’ai trouvé Tweel !
As you see, « wildest » has been translated by « de tous les diables », and “shenanigans” by « raffut. »
Putz’ German is somewhat modified, Leroy’s answer is different, with the addition of a second term, « chambard » that renews the « shenanigans » thing; in Jarvis’ answer, I have replaced “eating” by “boulotter”, which is more colloquial, but not slang as “bouffer” would have been (there is strictly no vulgarity at all in Weinbaum’s works). The crows versus canaries image is easily understood in French; “et j’en passe” is a very good replacement to “and what have you”, and that’s about it. Oh yes, “vacarme” is a good replacement for “racket”. However, this kind of dialogs is what takes the most time to translate, because you have to reword them more than once to have it right. And when it flows the way it does in English, then you are done.
|How does Lulu work?
Currently, I have done five books: two volumes in French, A Martian Odyssey and The Red Peri for the short stories (760 pages in 6” by 9” format as a whole), one volume in French for The Black Flame, one volume in English for The Lady Dances, and one (slimmer) volume for Stanley G. Weinbaum’s collected poetry, in English of course.
Now that I have fully understood what “trying to get published” means—but I knew it beforehand, from excellent books that describe very well the whole situation for would-be authors—I have tried to find out a way for my books to actually come to existence, and I believe I found it. POD (printing on demand) is, and will be a solution, because
1. it is so easy to use—and fun—
2. it is cheap—even if one may consider that the production price of the books is a bit high—because you do not pay for a full initial printing run.
What use is Lulu? With Lulu, you can actually produce and publish a book of near-professional quality that could actually be sold either on the internet or in bookstores. Of course, “real” publishers sneer at the very idea of POD.
But it is the trend of the future, or will be pretty soon, once Lulu has “fastened bolts” on the quality of their subcontractors—some printers out of the USA sometimes do a lousy job—and their own software—which is currently still buggy, ill-translated and sometimes not very well adapted to non-US authors (in particular, the Standard Copyright License is tied to the US law; suppose you have been plagiarized and you try to explain that before a French court).
When my translations—or publications in the case of The Lady Dances and The Poems will be available on Lulu, I will have the possibility to actually show them to publishers and tell them “this is the book you could have published, and the rights are still available; just make an offer”. Some people are doing just that and get published afterwards.
|Do they design the covers, or did you?
||Their system is quite efficient: your book has default covers (front and back). You may choose among pre-defined covers, that you may modify, or you may upload your own cover; you only have to respect a few criteria on size and definition of the images. Quite flexible, in my opinion. For the two volumes of short stories, I use images of Mars by the European Space Agency (I have been working for them), and for the second book, I used the very high resolution NASA/JPL (I have also worked for them a few years ago) image of Saturn, modified by adding a little crescent in the background, Titan. I used Photoshop. For The Black Flame, I uploaded a full image for a jacket also created with Photoshop.
| Have you read French translations of SF books that you've also read in English, and how is the quality in general? Have you read English translations of Jules Verne, and what do you think of them? (I have heard that there is some criticism of the English translations as not having the same 'magic' of the original versions.)
||I have not read such translations; though I could do just that; when the French version is available, I read it; if it is not and I want to read the stories bad enough, then I’ll read them in English. This is how I discovered Robert F. Young, and believe me when I say that I had to use a dictionary for about every paragraph: his English is very rich, indeed!
In fact, I trust the translators even though I know that sometimes they allow themselves much freedom in the way they translate, just for the sake of… who knows what? Political correctness? For example, in Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frodo is the archdeacon of Notre Dame, a priest, and he is infatuated with Esmeralda. Why did Disney make him a judge in the movie? To ask the question is also to answer it.
I suppose this can happen everywhere, and I am sure that in the fifties and even before, they took a lot of freedom in translating. The Black Flame is a good example of a work that was sabotaged in order to fit its footprint into a smaller shoe (and I have also translated Sam Moskowitz’ introduction to the unabridged version of the novel, The Saga of The Black Flame, where this is described in detail).
In my opinion, Jules Verne’s style is quite outmoded and somewhat heavy; Verne’s interest is more in the situations he told that in his literary style, and the ‘magic’ mostly was in the setting. His “love affairs”, such as in Around the World in 80 Days, are really Victorian… I recently read Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and found the style was also outmoded; Jack London’s The Iron Heel and The Scarlet Plague better stood the passage of time, I think. The same holds true for Rider Haggard’s She and Ayesha, that I recently discovered.
|Please give a bit of biographical detail. When and where you were born, your education, etc.
|I was born in 1948 in Bordeaux, France. My father was a teacher in a Bordeaux Lycée, and taught French, Latin, Greek, and Civic instruction; at home, books were everywhere, and in the beginning, I only had to choose them on the shelves.
This is how I began to read Jack London (in publications for young people, including the Gold Rush tales and some Southern Seas tales such as Adventure, but no science-fiction), Jules Verne (Mysterious Island, Robur the Conqueror, Around the world in 80 days, etc.), Hector Malot (Sans Famille), Erckman-Chatrian (L’Ami Fritz), Rosny-Ainé (La Guerre du Feu), Théophile Gauthier (Capitaine Fracasse), Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac, and many others I forget.
Later on, I was also introduced by my father to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, H. G. Wells (he also told me about Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast), but I do not remember when and in what order. He never made me read Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I think he did not think much of him.
Later on, he made me read Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kafka, Han Suyin, Malraux, Dos Passos and others. Therefore, my readings were somewhat eclectic, and SF was only a sub category among them. I had my share of French writers such as Albert Camus (La Peste and others), André Gide (Les Caves du Vatican, La Porte Étroite), Jean Gireaudoux, Marcel Aymé, Jean Giono, but also lighter literature such as Marcel Pagnol’s novels, movies and theater —much of it inspired by Giono.
But when I had read all what I found interesting on the family shelves (and the rest of it was mostly Latin, Greek, philosophy and other “serious matters” that were my father’s everyday intellectual food), he told me to go to a town library where I found the rest of Jules Verne. This is where I discovered my first “real” science fiction books, in the form of paperback books published by “Le Fleuve Noir”. I read that, liked it though I now know it was second-rate SF, even if some Gold Age authors such as John Taine and Van Vogt have been published there), and searched the shelves for more, and pretty soon I found Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, Clifford Simak’s City, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. This is how I discovered Science Fiction.
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