Friday, June 12, 2009
Had A Job, Lost a Job: Some Notes on my Recent Translation Work
On March 31, 2008 I composed a silly parody poem called “The Flood of Love,” which I photoshopped up to appear as though it had appeared in a collection of Victorian poetry. I posted it to my blog and it became, for a long time, my most-visited posting. It still gets a lot of hits (there are a surprising number of people who do google searches for “erotic enemas”).
I decided it would be a good idea to have another “enema” related posting, so I figured I would try to write another such poem, but I couldn’t come up with anything enema related. So I decided to cheat a little bit, taking something I’d done back in college, and attributing it to the “Victorian” writer I’d created as the author of my enema poem.
I attended the University of New Mexico, where I audited a few French classes. I was interested in the language primarily because I’d just discovered the works of Arthur Rimbaud, and I wanted to read him in the original. But I knew enough about myself to know I’d never really learn it, so I didn’t actually take the classes for credit.
As part of my “independent study,” I decided I’d try to translate something on my own. Too intimidated to start with poetry, I looked for a prose novel, and I happened to pick a book called “Arsole Fantüme, Monsieur de Immoralité.” I had no idea what the book was about; believe me.
It took me about two months to get through the first chapter. Translation is an exhausting business, especially when you really don’t know the language. Also, there was the fact that the book was totally demented, being as it was about a master criminal who murders by enema.
Eventually, I finished the first chapter and gave up. The book was never reprinted in English, so I was never really able to tell how well I did. I asked my girlfriend at the time, who knew a little French, to check my work, but she read the translation and said, “That is the stupidest, sickest thing I’ve ever seen,” or words to that effect, and told me to go soak my head.
Anyway, flash forward to September 2008, and I was trying to think of something enema-related to post next. I remembered the weird chapter I’d translated way back when, dug it out of a storage box (I actually still have short stories I wrote back in junior high school- I am a hoarder of material related to myself and my history), and photoshopped it up to look like it maybe might have been published in English a long time ago. I made up some nonsense about it being the first of a series of 275 novels written in three years, and attributed my translation to the fictional “author” of my erotic enema poem.
I didn’t know anything about the book, except that the title character was a master criminal who committed enema-related crimes (although I got the title character’s last name wrong- I missed the “e” at the end in my original translation, for some reason). I also knew the names of the credited authors (sort of- I inadvertently added a last name to the author listed as “Pierre”). But that was it. I figured, it’s a funny little thing, and I’ve gotten some use out of a translation I did as a lark many years ago.
Well, in January 2009, I was contacted at my hotmail address (see my profile information at right) by someone who said he was president of something called Obscurinati Publishing. He said he was dedicated to collecting strange and esoteric literature, and he asked me how I’d come to know about Arsole Fantüme, since the book was so incredibly obscure. I related to him the story of my auditing the French class, etc (see above).
We traded a few more emails and got along pretty well. He told me that the “history” I’d created for the character and the book was totally wrong- not exactly unexpected, since I’d made it up out of whole cloth. There was actually only one book published, although the authors wrote four other complete novel-length sequels. He also told me that the authors, Marcel Maurice and Pierre Grégoire (who is credited only by his first name), were a pair of very close friends who lived in a polyamorous relationship with several different women (actually, it was sort of a “revolving-door” series of polyamorous relationships- apparently they ended up living with many women at one time or another). Intriguing stuff.
Anyway, after a couple of weeks of correspondence, he mentioned that he had a copy of “Arsole Fantüme,” and he was thinking about having it translated, in the hopes of publishing it as a limited edition hardcover. Would I be interested in translating it?
Yes, I would. My French was bad, but I’d stumble my way through it. I have some English-French dictionaries, and there’s always babelfish.
He sent photocopies of the pages by FedEx. I was excited. I started with the first chapter, even before he’d sent me a check. I couldn’t wait to see if the story was as insane as I remembered it.
Oh, boy was it. The “murder by enema” stuff is only the beginning. This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever read in my life. Murder, crime, bizarre psychology, secret organizations, hypnosis, mind control, necrophilia, and of course a series of enemas of ever-increasing invention and weirdness. The wonder is not that the sequels weren’t published- it’s that the first novel was published at all. It makes “Torture Garden” and “The Story of O” look like- well, it makes them look really tame.
In March, he sent me a check for about one-quarter of the agreed upon rate for my translation. At that point I had completed the first five chapters (my French was a lot better than it had been back in college, and I was excited- also I was out of work and had nothing better to do, other than watch VH1 reality shows).
Then he mentioned that he’d come into possession of manuscript copies of the unpublished “sequels,” and maybe if the first one did well, he and I could work out some kind of deal for publishing those translations, too. I was now even more excited, with visions of fair compensation dancing in my head.
In late April, he told me that he was killing the project. He was out of money. Without going into too much detail, he was a young guy (mid-20s) who came from a fairly wealthy family, and he wanted to get into publishing weird literature and comics. But the recession has hit him pretty hard, so, no more translation project. He told me to keep the money he’d already paid, as a sort of “kill fee.”
But of course by this time I was hooked. This is one really, truly weird book. I decided I would finish the translation, and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind letting me buy back the copyright on it. He graciously agreed, and I returned the money he’d already paid me. Now I own the copyright on my translation.
I’m coming up on the end of the novel, and I’m trying to decide what to do with it. I was thinking about maybe a print on demand situation, although I don’t really know much about how that works. I can’t imagine there are too many publishers who are going to be clamoring for a book about a man who, in the words of one character in the book, “sees goodness and decency as forms of constipation!” But, I guess you never know.