Research Scene

The beginning of The Book

Jamais je n’avais vu autant de haine dans le regard d’un homme. Devrais-je parler de moi, faire le récit de ma vie, je crois que je commencerais par évoquer ce regard, dont la férocité semblait ternir la blancheur immaculée de la chambre ...

Never had I seen so much hate in the gaze of a man. If I had to talk about myself, recount the story of my life, I believe I would start by mentioning that gaze, whose ferocity seemed to taint the room’s immaculate whiteness ...

Experiencing more intellectual and cultural stimulation in five weeks than he had ever thought possible, Associate Professor of French Dr. Alexander Hertich (at right), returned to campus this fall from a prestigious sabbatical, eager to enrich the lives of his students. The World Languages and Cultures department chair was the lone American recipient of a translation residency in Lyon from the French Embassy’s Cultural Services Office.

Sponsored by the Villa Gillet, a quasi-governmental organization, Hertich spent the residency housed in a former convent built in the 17th century at Les Subsistances, an international creative research laboratory — “kind of an artists’ colony that houses École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Lyon (a national university of art and design) and large practice spaces for performance artists and musicians,” he explained. There, the sole academic working on a literary project amidst numerous creatives, Hertich completed the first draft translation, a little more than 50,000 words, of contemporary French author René Belletto’s novel, Le Livre (The Book). He had read the book during the summer of 2014 and thought it would be ideal for translation and publication, like his earlier translation and publication of Belletto’s novel Dying.

“Translating is like swimming; you have to jump in and experience it,” he said. “It’s quite a different exercise from writing a scholarly article.”

Hertich conducted his research in a studio apartment furnished with a desk, printer, kitchenette and no interruptions. “While I greatly missed my family, I could work 24/7 on translating,” he said. “The idea of a residency is that you have a dedicated space and dedicated time to work on a project without distractions.” Hertich loved being in Lyon, the third-largest city in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Exercise of Translation

A translator’s job is to make the finished work sound good, an arduous task. Hertich works with the syntax to make it as close to the original as possible. Before he was selected for the Lyon sabbatical, he taught a course on translation during Bradley’s spring semester where his students translated a variety of texts, including magazines, newspaper articles, advertisements and movie reviews. Since Hertich studies contemporary French fiction as a literary critic, students also studied literary translation to explore distinctly different uses of language.

Hertich’s Short List of Translations

  • Dying by René Belletto 
  • A Walk Through the Land of Old Age by Simone de Beauvoir, in Political Writings
  • An Unexpected Return by Nicolas Bouyssi, in Best European Fiction 2015
  • The Wheel by Christian Gailly, in Best European Fiction 2016 

“Translating a novel or poem is not just about taking word ‘A’ in French and putting it into English. It’s incredibly difficult,” Hertich noted. “You must think of the construction of the sentence, the syntax. How are these words chosen? What is the feel here? Is this an idiom? Of course, it’s a very enriching experience for the students.”

Hertich also presented his students with specific details he found challenging when translating Dying, a finalist for the 2010 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. He wanted them to understand the process professional translators experience as they move from the original text to a published novel in English or another language. Describing how translators write multiple drafts as they proceed from French to a natural-sounding English version, he emphasized, “It’s not just sitting down and translating. The translation must sound like it comes from a natural speaker, not from someone translating.”

Lyon’s Cultural Offerings 

While he spent his days thinking about translation and language, Hertich attended several international festivals including Les Nuits Sonores, a music festival with more than 129,000 visitors, and the World Rose Convention in Lyon. He participated in the Assises Internationales du Roman, an international forum on the novel, which was, according to Hertich, “an amazing experience.” Sponsored by the Villa Gillet and the newspaper Le Monde, the forum took place about 50 feet from his apartment. He heard many famous international writers speak, including the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oë.

“I was fortunate to meet and dine with several authors,” he said. “Needless to say, my reading list has grown considerably. I am now sharing these experiences, along with the history and culture of Lyon and the region with my students.”

Never too Late

The Illinois native took his first French class as a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. He found the class interesting, so he took another … and another. “I always enjoyed English and reading English literature,” he noted. “For translation, I would say that the ability to write well in English is more important than the ability to speak perfect French.”

Living in France for a year as an undergraduate helped him decide to enroll in his alma mater’s master’s program. Hertich then spent a year in Paris before pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. “I like to encourage my students by sharing my journey into French for the first time at the college level, letting them know it is possible to reach a high level of competency in a language such as French without necessarily being born there … or having a French mother,” he added with a smile.

—By Karen Crowley Metzinger M.A. ’97
Photo credit: Lyon, France: Dr. Alexander Hertich; Hertich portrait: Liza Decoteau.