Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Translating Arsene Lupin: An Interview with Josephine Gill

As a collector of French pulp fiction of the early 20th century - by which I mean the novels of Gaston Leroux, the adventures of Fantomas by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the exploits of Judex and Belphagor and Chantecoq by Arthur Bernede and more - I am proud to have amassed most of Maurice Leblanc's novels and stories about the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin that were translated for the English market. Of all the novels in this sphere that I have read, Leblanc's are generally the wittiest - but collecting his work in English is not without challenges.

For one thing, the later translations can be devlishly hard to find and tend to be costly; for another, the early books exist in a number of different translations - the first Lupin book, Arsene Lupin - Gentleman Cambrioleur (1907), appeared under different imprints - and in different translations! - as ARSENE LUPIN - THE GENTLEMAN THIEF, THE BLONDE LADY, THE CASE OF THE GOLDEN BLONDE and THE ARREST OF ARSENE LUPIN. Although Leblanc concluded his book with the first of several meetings between the wily Lupin and Arthur Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes, some English publishers were wary of trading on that character's name, so he was introduced as Hemlock Shears. Then, when the second book Arsene Lupin contre Sherlock Holmes was translated, the book's title was twisted yet again in English to become ARSENE LUPIN VS. HERLOCK SHOLMES. Further down the line of Leblanc's 21 volumes of Lupin adventures, two very different novels appeared in English under the same title, THE RETURN OF ARSENE LUPIN! 

For these and other reasons, English-speaking connoisseurs of these adventures have long pined for some reliable consistency to be applied to these translations. Jean-Marc Lofficier of Black Coat Press has done some work in this area, recently publishing a volume entitled COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO, which includes THE COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO (previously translated as THE MEMOIRS OF ARSENE LUPIN in 1924) and the never-before-translated sequel COUNTESS CAGLIOSTRO'S REVENGE of 1935, but his approach has been highly selective and non-chronological. So you can imagine my joy when I recently discovered that someone by the name of Josephine Gill had apparently undertaken to translate the entire Lupin series in chronological order, as Kindle books, which are being sold through Amazon for the wonderfully reasonable price of only $3.00 apiece!

To date, there are a dozen of Ms. Gill's translations available, from the first through the first volume of a two-parter, THE TEETH OF THE TIGER (1921). Aside from the natural continuity that comes from sharing a constant translator, the best news about the series is that it has already yielded one entire novel not previously translated into English - 1931's La Barre-y-va (translated as ARSENE LUPIN AND THE LA BARRE-Y-VA MYSTERY). Thus, even the most seasoned and thorough collectors of Lupin in translation will find something unique and special at this bargain price.

I bought and downloaded all of the Gill translations that were available and was very pleased with how their texts compared to the sometimes century-old translations of the novels I already had. Ms. Gill translates the books into more contemporary language, which takes away some of the antique charm of these novels and stories - but not their charm, an important distinction. Furthermore, Ms. Gill's enhancement of their readability extends to filling in passages and sometimes presenting for the first time entire chapters that the earlier translations by Alexander Teixeira do Mattos omitted for the sake of expediency.

The more I looked into the Josephine Gill translations, the more impressed and curious I became about the industrious woman behind them. With the help of my friend David White, I was able to locate her website and invite her to be interviewed here for my blog. She graciously consented to reply to a set of questions, and the results appear below.

Translator Josephine Gill, photographed at the Saint Valery sur Somme in 2007.
First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself and your background. 

I first saw the light of day just before the onset of WW2, in an industrial town near Birmingham where my formative years were spent. I then moved away to Leicester University to study for a degree in modern languages. The course involved teaching English conversation in a French lycée for a year and it was during this time in Blois, Loir-et-Cher that I met my future husband, who was involved in a similar activity. We married and embarked on teaching careers, but unfortunately mine was curtailed when rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed after the birth of my first child. However, two more babies came along later and now there are six grandchildren to add to the family tree! For almost 50 years, we have been living in a small Essex village about 60 miles NNE of London.

Your translations are very well written. Had you done any writing of your own prior to this?

You say my translations are well written. That could be because I follow really closely what the author Maurice Leblanc has written. He deserves all the praise, not me! I have not done any writing myself to speak of – a letter to the press now and then!

What led you to the Lupin books in the first place? Did you begin at the beginning?

Arsène Lupin was just a name to me until... one Tuesday afternoon in July 2000. We were on holiday in Fécamp, a port on the Normandy coast with an important history of cod fishing in the Northern Atlantic. We were hoping to join a guided tour of the former cod salting factory but, as wheelchair access was impossible, I waited in the car on the quayside reading a book I had just bought - Arsène Lupin Gentleman Cambrioleur! I couldn’t put the book down. I was hooked there and then and my fascination increased as I read more adventures.

At what point did you commit yourself to translating the series?

I wondered why Arsène Lupin was not so popular in Britain as he once was, especially as the British are such great fans of other crime fiction characters like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Poirot etc. Having seen one of Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’ translations - in which the English is somewhat old fashioned - it occurred to me that more up-to-date versions were needed which might renew some interest.

I assume, before you did commit to translating the series, that you looked into the state of the existing translations of these works. How much did you investigate the original translations and in what way did you find them lacking?

Not only are some of de Mattos’ expressions outmoded, but I have discovered that he occasionally takes liberties with the text. Books by Maurice Leblanc are few and far between on the shelves of bookshops in the UK.  I found eBay to be my best source of finding them.

Ha! Then you and I may have been bidding on some of the same titles at some point! What was it about Maurice Leblanc's writing that spoke to you? If someone were to ask you why they should care about these books - some of which were written more than a century ago - what would you say?

Maurice Leblanc is a brilliant story teller. I enjoy the coups de théâtre, the humour, the suspense, the mystery, the variety of characters and situations, the romances, the ingenuity of the plots, the games with the police, the occasional horror, and even the ventures into fantasy! The passage of time does not alter the appeal of his books.

Some of the Lupin novels - such as THE HOLLOW NEEDLE - involve actual geographic locations. Does this complicate your task as a translator, or do you stick strictly to the original text?

The fact that so many locations are actual places is a great attraction to readers who enjoy literary trails. THE HOLLOW NEEDLE has made Etretat a huge tourist centre. French author Patrick Gueulle has written a book, Carnet de Route d’Arsène Lupin - available on Kindle - which covers all sites of interest and includes directions on how to find them, opening times and other bits of information.

At the moment you are translating the second volume of THE TEETH OF THE TIGER. Are there any Lupin books you have still not read?

I believe I have read all of the Lupin novels.

Do you have a personal favorite?

My personal favorite is ARSENE LUPIN ENCOUNTERS SHERLOCK HOLMES. It is perhaps the most amusing because of the interaction between Holmes and his hapless assistant Watson, quite apart from the constant games the two protagonists play as they attempt to outwit one another.

When did you first set out on this project?
Circa 2000. I bought a laptop computer specifically for the purpose.

What is your process as a translator? Which editions are you translating from? Once you have a first draft, how extensively do you polish? How long does it generally take for you to complete a translation?

I translate from the ‘Livres de Poche’ editions. After my first draft, I go through the whole thing carefully and then again using the Word Review programme. A translation can take up to a year to finish depending on the length of the book and on my state of health.

Are there any particular challenges in adapting Maurice Leblanc's work to the English language?

I find translating the expletives the most difficult part - 'saperlipopette’ ["Goodness gracious!" or "Gadzooks!"], for example - not being used to using them myself! They need alternatives, but I don’t feel I can use the F-word! 

Do you in fact intend to translate all of the Lupin books?

I will continue translating as long as I am able. I hope I can do more.

Did you make any attempt to find a publisher that might be interested in issuing your translations in print form?
It takes energy and stamina, which I lack, to find an agent or a publisher - sending off chapters and receiving rejection slips. After ages, becoming increasingly dispirited in the UK, I thought I would try Wildside. Imagine my delight when John Betancourt offered me a contract after reading the first  three chapters of my translation of Arsene Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes! However, little happened after that. In the meantime, Mme Florence B. Leblanc [the granddaughter of Maurice Leblanc] had put me on to an Italian agency who were also doing their best unsuccessfully for me. I kept asking John Betancourt what was going on and he would reply that the contract would be ready soon but he had been very busy, overworked, taking on new staff, etc. Once I even got the promise that he would complete things "tomorrow." Then... silence. Maybe it was all too complicated with four nationalities being involved. I'll never know. This took place in Autumn 2006.

How disappointing!

After the Wildside flop, I gave up translating for a couple of years, thinking I had failed. Only the coming of Kindle and the end of the copyright made me think again. I think my Kindle contract forbids me from publishing my work elsewhere. 

I wanted to ask you too about the distinctive logo art that adorns your Kindle editions. Where did it originate?

I found it right at the end of a long list of Arsene Lupin images on Google! It was in the public domain. 
Have you read any of Maurice Leblanc's non-Lupin novels? If so, I was wondering if you had any favorites among those.

Translating Lupin takes all my time but I have read a few of Leblanc’s other novels, some of which can be quite erotic, and others supernatural. Voici des Ailes (We’ve Got Wings!, 1898) was written to celebrate the innovation of the bicycle at about the same time as H. G. Wells wrote THE WHEELS OF CHANCE.

Of the books you have translated thus far, which one has given you the greatest personal satisfaction?

Pass! I have greatly enjoyed translating all of them.

Josephine Gill's Arsene Lupin Kindle books can be found and purchased here.

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