Wednesday 14 November 2007

Writing in English in Paris

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish symphonist, an anniversary in which I participated in two different ways. Firstly and modestly by attending a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen play the 4th and 7th symphonies of the great man. Secondly by completing the translation of a huge and remarkable biography of Jean Sibelius by Marc Vignal, written in French and published in France by Fayard.

Now coming back to this specific page, which was prompted by Joseph Hayes of Inked-In when he mentionned to me he would be interested in seeing a blog posted on writing English in a non-English speaking city: I live in Paris, which can be described as a non-English speaking city par excellence, and am therefore confronted daily by the dilema that writing in English presents.

It may surprise readers to know that most French people speak English to some degree and some very well. However, it’s rare that they use it and often only when forced to. This is for complex reasons, but essentially it’s all a question of culture, by that I mean the almost inbuilt culture acquired from our parents that conditions the functioning of each of our individual and collective minds.

After living in France for more than thirty years, I can say, after much reflection, that there is an incompatibility between French minds and Anglo-Saxon minds, in both directions, it’s a fact. Both parties, when they try to get to grips, remind me of two armless men trying to wrestle. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but the fact is it’s like that. You may retort why do German’s manage to speak reasonably good English? Well first English is a Germanic language, the same goes for most Nordic languages with the exception of Finnish.

So let’s get back to writing English in Paris. First I must point out that I don’t write English for Le Monde or Le Figaro or any other form of news media, for the simple reason they use French. Then secondly books published in English by French publishers are non-existent, whilst almost fifty percent of books you will find on bookshop shelves are the translations into French of American or British books. As to the number of English bookshops in Paris, to my knowledge, there is about five…plus a couple specialised second hand English books (where I recently acquired a copy of the out of print Golden Gutter Life of Francis Bacon and a 1935 edition of a biography of Lawrence of Arabia).

So what am I doing in the middle of all that? That’s a good question. As you can see from the forgoing there is a big demand for translations. So that is where one of my few talents are employed – the most recent example of my work is the translation of a biography of Jean Sibelius written by Marc Vignal and published by Fayard. This work is 1,176 pages long and quite technical since it not only deals with the life of the composer, the history of the Nordic region of Europe, the musical world of his life, but also offers a technical examination of many of his works. In addition to that I have translated various specialised works for different foundations and businesses.

Just one point concerning translation work: this is fairly poorly paid in France, there is a plethora of expats and students willing to work for almost nothing, so I wouldn’t encourage anyone to jump on a plane in the hope they could survive on nothing in The City of Light (the title of a book I have been writing for too long now). The days of George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), James Baldwin, Hemingway, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg have long passed.