by Frank C. Bertrand
Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contributing this interview to philipkdickfans.com.
[Note: This interview was conducted by email in June of 2001. My sincere thanks to Pierre-Paul, a French translator of PKD and other writers, for taking the time to answer my questions.]
FCB: When and how did you first become aware of Philip K. Dick? Did you discover him on your own, or did someone suggest you read him? What was the first PKD story and/or novel you read?
P-PD: I really became aware of PKD during the summer of 1978, through sheer luck, I’m afraid. I was 15, getting into science fiction like crazy, and I found those two books with strange titles (and stranger, semi-abstract covers) published here by Le Livre de Poche: En attendant l’annee derniere (Now Wait for Last Year) and Le temps desarticule (Time out of Joint). I checked the back cover texts. Yeah, this definitely looked cool, so I bought them, read them and was hooked instantly.
It is quite possible that the first item by PKD I ever read was “The Infinites”. That had been anthologized in a French “Best of Planet Stories” collection the year before, and I remember buying every single of those magazine anthologies in a few weeks, during the fall of 1977. Or it might have been “The Preserving Machine”, from another anthology series which I was buying at the same time. (Gee, books were cheap and days were long, in this dim distant past.) Of the first two novels I bought, I recall I read Now Wait for Last Year first.
FCB: After this, how did you then pursue your reading interest in PKD?
P-PD: During the following months, I grabbed, through bookshops and libraries, all of PKD’s novels available in French, and there were a lot of them (i.e. every novel he’d written up to that point, minus three or four items such as The Cosmic Puppets and The Ganymede Take-Over which were published later). Some were disappointing, such as Vulcan’s Hammer and Dr. Futurity, but even those had something going on, I thought — and the others just blew my mind.
Just after buying my first two PKD novels, I found out that one of the public libraries in my hometown owned complete runs of both Fiction and Galaxie (French editions of F&SF and Galaxy: in 1978, the former had been going on for 25 years; the latter had run from 1964 to 1977). And the editors of those, Alain Doremieux at Fiction and Michel Demuth at Galaxie, had been in love with PKD from the start! Doremieux was even able to obtain permission to publish stories from other sources than the magazine of which Fiction was contractually a foreign edition, so when he ran out of F&SF stories by PKD, Amazing, Astounding, Beyond and the like were plundered instead. Dozens of short stories to read along with all the novels…I’m telling you, that public library was like Heaven to me.
FCB: How and when did you first get involved with becoming a translator of PKD in France? What was the first PKD book you translated?
P-PD: In 1981, I was your typical SF fan, writing reviews for fanzines, etc., when I was fortunate enough to land a reviewer’s spot with Fiction, which Alain Doremieux had just started editing again after an eclipse from 1975 to 1981. We hit it off, my reviews were noticed (what for, I cannot imagine when I reread them now, which is not often) and, with a little help with a friend of mine, a writer and critic called Emmanuel Jouanne, landed me a part-time job with editions Denoel in Paris, as what would probably be called a “junior editor” in the States but was in fact just a notch above “slush-pile reader”, except for books. That was in 1984, when coincidentally my first translation (not a PKD item, but close enough: a short story by John Sladek) also appeared.
In 1981-82, Emmanuel Jouanne and I had started work on a special issue of a fanzine on PKD, something ambitious (we wanted to publish a few never-before-translated stories, along with “The Umbrella of Light” and other critical pieces), but then PKD died, and we freaked out and buried the project. At the time, we thought we didn’t want to look like “vultures”, capitalizing on the publicity Dick’s death had attracted. Now I think we were just shocked out of our wits, and tried to rationalize our grief that way.
In 1984, Alain Doremieux, who’d already edited two superb PKD collections, offered editions Denoel two or three new collections, mostly never-before-seen or hard-to-find material, just as Emmanuel Jouanne and I were unearthing our PKD project, dusting it off and pitching it Denoel’s way too. We were both good friends with Doremieux, so we decided to join forces, and sold the idea of a Complete Stories of PKD to the publisher. Unfortunately, other publishers who owned French rights to PKD’s stories wouldn’t relinquish or lease them, so we had to satisfy ourselves with a series of nine planned colections, of which eight actually appeared (the last one, miscellaneous material such as the epistolary novel The Dark-Haired Girl, correspondence, Exegesis extracts and such, was canned later by the publisher.)
We would edit the collections jointly, translate three each, and generally have good fun. Well, life interfered, in the form of other commitments and such, and Doremieux didn’t work as much as he should have been able to, but that’s how I got to translate three collections by PKD, of material written 1952-1953. I’ve never translated a PKD novel, and unless I can do Voices from the Street someday, or someone decides this or that old translation was bad and needs to be redone, I never will. (sob)
FCB: Regards translating PKD, did you encounter any particular “difficulties” in doing so? How would you compare translating PKD to other American authors you might have translated? Is there anything about PKD’s style, word choice, etc. that presents difficulties translating into French?
P-PD: I was lucky. I was a young translator, very inexperienced, and Dick (and the SF series’ editor at Denoel) taught me a lot. What you have to do to translate PKD faithfully, is to be faithful. Now, that might sound like a tautology, but it’s not, really. To be faithful to other writers, faithful in spirit, you have to somehow rewrite them, adapt them just a little, change a sentence here, reorganize two sentences there, cosmetic changes to make them look good. Not so with Dick. Except in the last years of his life with books such as Valis and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, he often has this kind of grey, drab, deceptfully simple style that’s so evocative at the same time, so you have to be very faithful. You don’t make Dick look good, you make Dick look like himself.
That’s in fact quite a lot of work, as French tends to sound rather different than English. You have to find the low keys and keep at them, so to speak.
Alain Doremieux would have told you much more about translating PKD, but, alas, he died of heart failure a few years now. I remember he told me once that he couldn’t remember how he had translated Ubik: the experience had been so harrowing, coming at a time in his personal life that was so difficult, that he had somehow blanked the whole thing out. But his work is splendid. Nobody, ever, was better at giving a French voice to Dick than Doremieux. He also did The Divine Invasion and Timothy Archer and Maze of Death, among others. He didn’t simply understand PKD, he empathized with PKD, he knew where PKD was coming from, what he was doing and where he was going. Man, was he good.
I’ve translated other writers, yes, and the ones I’ve found I can be totally faithful to, the ones I translate with no embellishment nor tinkering at all, are Robert Silverberg and Kim Stanley Robinson. Californians, like PKD. Silverberg wrote a moving eulogy to Dick in Locus, and later a superb hommage with the story, “The Changeling”. Robinson, of course, did The Novels of PKD. Who knows, maybe there’s a connections there.
FCB: What is your perception and assessment of how PKD is received/perceived in France? Why does he seem to be so popular there?
P-PD: When Dick was alive, it was said (including by himself) that he was more popular in France than in his own country. Indeed, in 1978, all his novels bar three or four were in print here. Today, they’re all in print, and have been continuously for about fifteen years. Now that his mainstream novels have been translated (all except Voices from the Street, that is), now that his best SF novels are reissued as classy, glossy paperbacks lacking even that infamous brand of SF that is as good as an anathema for the Establishment, even said Establishment has discovered him. Denoel was finally able to do a real The Complete Stories of PKD as a four-volume set from 1991 to 1993; they’ve just reissued it as two monstrously fat books which are just plain gorgeous (but somehow hurt your wrists and arms when you read them for more than a few minutes). A mainstream house has issued a collection of four of his longer essays/speeches in a series of philosophical texts. He’s more popular than ever — though now, notably with the good work Vintage has done, he’s quite popular in the US too, of course.
Why is it so? Several reasons. In the 70s, when the greal bulk of his novels appeared here, he was perceived as counter-cultural, and the counter-culture embraced him. The leading French counter-culture magazine of the mid-70s, Actuel, did a feature on him the way Rolling Stone did, at about the same time. The mostly fictional drug aura probably helped too, in a country where Baudelaire, Thomas de Quincey and others have always been held in high regard. Also, Kafa is popular here; so is Borges, so are all the absurdists; and isn’t Dick an absurdist of sorts? There’s his fascination with la femme fatale, too…The way he was, as he said, doing a kind of novel that was part French novel, part Japanese novel…His politics, or the way his politics were perceived here…Yeah, many different reasons, I’d say.
Also, and in my opinion that’s the main reason, we do seem to entertain mixed feelings about the U.S. I’m not going into that, because it would be too long to explain, but, briefly: to me, we seem to like most what the U.S. themselves are unfamilar or uncomfortable with (or so we think), the U.S. of the losers, of the downtrodden, of the little people that the system might crush, reject, or ignore. The French have made cult heroes of David Goodis, Jim Thompson and William Irish, of Edgar Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, of various black jazz musicians and black-listed American film-makers of the 50s. In a sense, we’re prone to, we may even be bound to, look at the U.S. “in a glass darkly”.
Even if its appeal is even more universal, as it surely is, can you think of a better mirror than Dick’s oeuvre to do that?