5 questions to Jean Esch, the French translator of Stephen King
For ten years now, I have had the opportunity to take only books that I want to translate, says the French translator. He has translated many novels by American authors, including Michael Connelly, Don Winslow and Richard Russo. Stephen King is among the authors whose texts he gladly processes, tirelessly searching for the most accurate word or formula.
I hope to continue translating it for a long time. And I hope that he will write for a long timesays Jean Esch about the American master of the fantastic.
How long have you been translating Stephen King’s works?
I started four or five novels ago, for the book he signed with his son [Owen King], Sleeping beauties. That is, four or five years, which is nothing for King (laughter), because as you know, it exhausts one translator after another. I also translated his next novel, the so-called Villa Story. Recently published in the United States, it will be published in French next March. This is a book dedicated to Grimm’s folk tales. We are in pure fantasy.
How does translating King’s work compare to other authors you translate?
Paradoxically, it is more complicated. A reader might tell you:
King, it’s easy. It is easy to read, so it is easy to translate. But for the translator, it is surprisingly complicated. I can hardly tell you why. It is very minimalistic, every word is weighed. But as soon as you move to French, it becomes more difficult, it’s less connected, it becomes more painstaking. Sometimes there’s humor or little notes that get lost in French if you’re not careful.
It takes time to arrive, because not only is it long, but it is also difficult to find the right rhythm for King. Beneath the appearance of simple syntax, even loose, some would say, requires a lot of work to rewrite.
When you get a new novel for translation, how does your first reading go? So are you an ordinary reader or are you already in the role of a translator?
First I read as a regular reader, to see if I could translate it. Then, obviously at the same time, not afterwards, I try[évaluer] difficulties, deadlines, work. But after 40 years I have to say that I still cannot judge the weight of the text. So I still read like a regular reader, so much so that I never read the end of novels with suspense. Because if I work for four months on a book, there’s a moment when I want to be like the reader and find out what’s going to happen while it’s happening. I save myself from that in order to maintain some kind of artificial excitement during my work.
How would you rate Stephen King’s writing in 2022?
Age is very important. I think he’s as obsessed, quote-unquote, with aging and death as anyone else. This often appears in his novels. Now there is a kind of gravity, [notamment] on transmission. However, he did not give up talking about America. He always has very strong words about Trump’s America, especially. He does not miss an opportunity to throw a few blows at America, which, like many conscious Americans, he considers decadent on many levels. Now he has the position of a wise old man of literature. That’s how I feel, even though I haven’t had a chance to meet him, because he doesn’t want to leave the US anymore. He wants to devote the remaining time to work.
What Stephen King’s latest novel looks like, Billy Summersdifferent from the rest of his work?
It is very distinctly different in the sense that it has hardly any, if any, element of fantasy, which is usually a characteristic of Stephen King. That’s a real thriller, huh thriller which wanders into another story. Not to say too much, in the middle of the novel there is a radical change in the narration, which means that we move on to something else. In any case, this is not in the king’s spirit as far as we can tell, which surprised everyone a little. But more than a thriller, it is actually a dedication to literature. This is the story of a contract killer who is crazy about Zola and has only one desire in life: to write. It was a translation challenge, because at first he writes rather clumsily. And gradually, he learns to write. The ending, which we will not reveal, raises this question: what can a man do when he is a novelist? When you’re a novelist, you can completely alter reality and make people who have disappeared still exist. I think this is a book that can be read on many levels. And the ending, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful gifts that can be given to literature.
This text was created from an interview conducted by Kevin Sweet, culture reporter at Ottawa-Gatineau Newspapers. Comments may have been edited for clarity and brevity.