Maylis de Kerangal and Jessica Moore discuss Mend the Living with the Man Booker International Prize.
MAYLIS DE KERANGAL
What has it been like to be longlisted?
I was thrilled to learn that Mend the Living was featured on the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize 2016. What particularly resonated with me is the fact that this prize recognises the translation by Jessica Moore. Beyond the widening of the sphere of influence of a novel, there is a specific adventure inherent in a translation, and the changing literary reality it entails. I consider translators as writers, and therefore a translation takes on the dimension of a co-creation. So this gives this recognition an extra layer of significance – and it is not by chance that Claire Méjean, the woman who receives Simon Limbeau’s heart in Mend the Living, is herself a translator.
Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Mend the Living?
A 19 year-old surfer named Simon Limbeau is brain-dead when he arrives at a hospital in Le Havre, Normandy, after a traffic accident. His brain has been destroyed, but his organs are still functioning, which makes it possible to donate them for transplants. Mend the Living is the story of a heart transplant that takes place over the course of 24 hours. It focuses on the process as it unfolds, on the space and time required, on the actions and the words revealed, on the knowledge it involves, on the heroes that come to the fore. The heart here is seen as an organ, but most of all as a symbol of all our emotions, and the place where love lives in the human body. It is a novel that questions the body, the notions of otherness, of giving and empathy. What it means to be alive. What I had in mind was the idea of a cardiograph, and exploring what it would really mean to write from the heart: how could a story circulate, palpitate, pulse, beat, breathe.
Is there another author from France that you think should be translated into English?
I am fond of Olivia Rosenthal’s books. Her literary work encompasses many different forms — novels, short stories, theatre, performances — and her fiction imports many non-fiction subjects such as science, philosophy, interviews and investigations.
Where did you get the idea for the narrative structure of Mend the Living?
The narrative arc in Mend the Living follows the protocol of a heart transplant. It is this motion, and the different stages of the process – considered here as a collective action and a contemporary chanson de geste – that gives the novel its structure, its literary form, its heroes, and its pace.
What has it been like to be longlisted?
Like a quiet little pearl that I have to remember to take out of its box from time to time. I got the news via a message from my oldest, dearest friend, who had seen the announcement and sent me a dispatch from the other side of the world. I was absolutely thrilled.
What did you like most about translating Mend the Living?
Diving into Maylis de Kerangal’s long sinuous sentences. Lately I’ve been referring to this novel as a strange, sad, beautiful river, and there really is something liquid and fascinating about her use of language – a fluid musicality that had to become new in English. When I could match that music, or feel myself moved by the words in translation – these were the most satisfying moments. I particularly loved translating passages in which she practices her exquisite contraction and expansion: focusing in on minute details, and then expanding out to a wide-angle lens of philosophy or metaphysics or universality. I love her language, and I love the truth of humanity – emotion, obsession, habit – laid out in her work.
You are also a singer-songwriter. Do you think there is also a need to translate music lyrics?
There are songs I love in languages I don’t speak a word of, songs that tell a strong story just through melody and harmony (I’m thinking of Rokia Traoré), and of course there’s great emotion in wordless music as well (Oliver Schroer, for example). But generally, for me, being able to understand the words is important, because I like to connect to songs on two levels – the level of music and the level of meaning. When I’m writing my own I place great emphasis on lyrics. There have been times when loving the music of someone else’s song has pushed me to learn words in another language – like Lhasa de Sela’s music – I learned many sorrowful pretty Spanish words through her songs! Her liner notes are printed in all three languages she sang in (Spanish, French and English) – this makes a good case for translating lyrics.
I personally have never had a song of mine translated, and have only translated lyrics for someone else once (into French) when a musician I know from Chicago was supposed to join me for a show in Montreal. He got turned back at the border, though, so we never got to sing about a cat named Walter in translation.