Getting the Knife.

Wyatt Mason’s NYRB review of a number of translations of Pierre Michon (an author with whom I was unfamiliar) is an interesting read (as is pretty much everything Mason writes); Michon doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I love the anecdote that introduces the review. Mason begins: “When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English.” He asks around and is told repeatedly that Pierre Michon is “one of our greatest living writers”:

In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.

I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. [He met with the author each time.] These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.

The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. […] And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

Ouch! Many thanks to Trevor Joyce for the link.


  1. It would serve Michon right if Mason had only translated half the pages.

  2. But it’s L’empereur d’Occident that was uncut…

  3. marie-lucie says:

    What the translator would have needed to cut the book’s pages was not an actual knife, but the similar-looking tool called in English “letter opener” and in French le coupe-papier ‘paper cutter’, made to cut folded paper like envelopes or livres brochés. But using this tool in a bookstore would have been an absolute no-no, marking the book as used (some pages would still be readable if all one wanted was a peek). It is still surprising that in 1989 a recently published book would have been issued uncut.

    It looks like by 2003 the author had read about the quality of English translations of his work, and opinions of this translator’s work were not very positive.

  4. What the translator would have needed to cut the book’s pages was not an actual knife, but the similar-looking tool called in English “letter opener”

    Such a tool can also be called a “paper knife”…or, at least, they were so called in the era when newly-printed books required such an implement.

  5. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    (I am happy to inform the assembled that should one for whatever reason happen to lack a paper-letter designaturing implement a common or garden kitchen knife can, with care, be substituted.)

  6. Beginning with my own and continuing with those of my well-meaning successors, these translations haven’t adequately conveyed Michon’s qualities.

    As a translator—a sometime literary translator, even—this is excruciating and wonderful to read. Is this what the new Buruma-led NYRB is going to be like? Can it be a coincidence that they sent me a special offer that just arrived today? (In an actual envelope, with little boxes to write my credit card number in. Opening it was like falling into Lascaux Cave.)

  7. Yes, so far I’m cautiously pleased with the new Buruma-led NYRB. I will even renew if they send me a decent offer!

  8. In Ian Serraillier’s children’s book “The Silver Sword”, the titular sword is actually a paper knife. After some confusion I deduced that this did not actually mean a knife made of paper.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Squiffy-Marie van ‘t Blad, Dutchman-at-large:

    Of course you can use a kitchen knife to open a letter, but a coupe-papier ‘s blade (often not made of metal) will not cut your hand if you make a wrong move.

  10. “That blade is pure silver, Master [Sorcerer] Sean?” Lord Bontriomphe asked.

    “Pure silver, my lord.”

    “Tell me: how do you keep a razor edge on anything that soft?”

    Master Sean smiled broadly. “Well, I’ll admit it’s a hard job getting the edge on it in the first place. It has to be finished with jeweler’s rouge and very soft kidskin. But it’s only used as a symbolical knife, d’ye see. We never actually cut anything material with it, so it never needs to be sharpened again if a man’s careful.”

    “But if you never cut anything with it,” said Lord Bontriomphe, “then why sharpen it at all? Wouldn’t it work as well if its edges were as dull as, say, a letter opener?”

    Master Sean gave the London investigator a rather pained look. “My lord,” he said with infinite patience, “this is a symbol of a sharp knife. I also have a slightly different one with blunt edges; it is a symbol for a dull knife. Your lordship should realize that, for many purposes, the best symbol for a thing is the thing itself.”

    —Randall Garrett, Too Many Magicians, a murder mystery set in a world in which the Laws of Similarity and Contagion are laws of nature, and the sun never sets on the Anglo-French Empire.

  11. a world in which the Laws of Similarity and Contagion are laws of nature

    Readers might be interested in Emily Short’s Savoir-Faire, one of the greatest interactive fictions of history, which takes place in a world with similar characteristics.

  12. Lord Bontriomphe, by the way, is the bagman of the Marquis de London, a sedentary fellow and herb fancier who enjoys using words like flummery, imbecilic, tomfoolery, and pfui! His cook, of course, is Swiss, and goes by the name of Frederique Bruleur.

  13. January First-of-May says:

    My own kitchen has a large variety of what I believe to be Soviet butter knives (most of them between 40 and 80 years old) – though perhaps some of them are just plain knives that hadn’t been sharpened properly.
    I commonly use them to cut potatoes by holding the potato in my left hand; the knives are just sharp enough to cut the potato but not the hand, so it all works out nicely.

    I’m not sure if they are sharp enough to work as a letter opener, however – I’d probably expect them to rip the pages!
    The item I recall as a “paper knife” is a retractable blade that is very much sharp enough to cut if used incorrectly.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Frederique Bruleur

    Brenner is a perfectly cromulent surname, not even that rare. But less common than Brandstätter, which might mean “was there at the site of the fire, but we can’t prove anything”…

  15. There’s a famous anecdote of the young Jean-Paul Sartre first hearing of phenomenology — “you can do philosophy about this cup of coffee!” — and being so excited that he bought Levinas’ translation of Husserl & began to read it walking back from the bookstore, in the boulevard, without cutting the pages.

    But my favorite reference to cutting pages, or not, comes from The Great Gatsby, when a character, commenting on Gatsby’s nouveau riche library full of essential titles in good editions, observed that the appearance of the spines is clearly the important thing for the impression Gatsby is going for: “He knew when to stop… the pages aren’t cut.” Actually reading the books is not the point.

  16. When I took Introduction to Phenomenology, taught by Gian-Carlo Rota, who was the only person who had ever been a joint professor of mathematics and philosophy MIT, we were advised that there were no good translations of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations in English. Rota himself had at least two English versions, and he pointed out some passages where, comparing the translations, it hardly seemed possible that they had started from the same original. I think he mostly read Husserl in a French translation himself, since his German was not good enough.

  17. which might mean

    I can’t figure out if this is really Stout’s joke: to have the best cook in America called “burner”. It can’t be coincidence.

    the appearance of the spines

    Hence the expression, and reality, of buying books by the yard.

  18. I think I remember coming across some German pun from the 1930s about Brenner Pass burning. It would have been referencing German-Italian-Austrian intra-fascist conflicts from ca. 1933-1936. Googling has not turned it up, but I learned that “Brenner” is actually cognate to “pruner,” which seems obvious in retrospect, but which I had never before realized.

  19. Etymonline disagrees, s.v. prune:

    early 15c., prouyne, from Old French proignier “cut back (vines), prune” (Modern French provigner), of unknown origin. Perhaps [Watkins] from Gallo-Roman *pro-retundiare “cut in a rounded shape in front,” from pro “forth” (see pro-) + *retundiare “round off,” from Latin rotundus. Klein suggests the Old French word is from provain “layer of a vine,” from Latin propago.

    As for the pass, per WP:

    Prenner was originally the name of a nearby farm which derived from its former owner. The farm of a certain Prennerius is mentioned in documents in 1288, a certain Chunradus Prenner de Mittenwalde is mentioned in 1299. The name Prenner is traced back to the German word for somebody who clears woodland [presumably by burning it off]. A name for the pass itself appears for the first time in 1328 as ob dem Prenner.

    How did the /p/ revert to /b/, though?

  20. David Marjanović says:

    It didn’t. Following the infamous consonant shift, High German simply didn’t have a /p/, but this constituted a hole in a system that had a /t/ and then reacquired a /k/. So, when the first Romance/Latin words with /p/ came in, they filled this gap and kept their /p/, but confusion began to reign over the native words. It’s still there; my dialect has a few words with /p/ from etymological /b/, and a few where I’m not sure which one they even have (prunzen ~ brunzen “to piss”). Place names are a mess (Perg < *Berg “mountain”, Pyhrn < things man wasn’t meant to know), and to a lesser extent so are surnames (Puchberger < *Buch(en)berger “beech mountain man”).

    Edit: Alemannic and Tyrolean turn every /sp st/, not just word-initial ones, into /ʃp ʃt/. That includes Augsburg and Innsbruck, which surprised me a lot when I found out. I don’t know what they do to |sd|, though…

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