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I've a story to tell you, and—with luck—an insight or two to share with you, about style. Which is a roundabout way to say this column is a comment on Dan's “Writing Well, Installment Four.”

Bear with me, though, for the story is quite convoluted.

A long, long time ago—in 1989, to be precise, and don't tell me some of you weren't born yet—I was contacted by translator-turned-editor Homais (all the names have been changed to protect the guilty) who asked me to translate a short story collection by American writer Jack Martin (a nod to those in the know). Now, Jack Martin was, and still is, one of my favorite writers, a master of elegant, chilling prose. I accepted with glee, though there was one small problem.

A two month deadline.

But I was young and cocky in those days, and I rolled up my sleeves, booted my computer—an Amstrad PCW8512, and doesn't that take us back—and started translating. When came the delivery date, I mailed my printout to Homais and waited for his judgment.

And waited.

And waited again.

When said judgment came—many months later—it was a shocking one. I had done a rushed job, said Homais. So rushed, in fact, that he'd asked a colleague of mine, Louise, to correct and rewrite my translation. “Enclosed is your edited printout, please process your files accordingly and send me the disk. Of course, given the amount of work Louise had to do, you'll have to renounce to a third of your fee.”

I reacted as any sane human being would do in the same circumstances—I went berserk. When I'd somewhat calmed down, I had a close look at the “edited” printout.

Louise's corrections fell into three categories, each one amounting to roughly one third of the whole:

• mistakes of mine she'd corrected;

• mistakes of hers she'd added to the text;

• arbitrary changes.

Now, I could have—I should have—held my ground, fought for my work and protested vigorously. But I was not sure of my worth in these days, I had made some mistakes, the job was a bit rushed—a two month deadline, remember—and I was already immersed in the next project, so I decided to chalk it up to experience, process the files and send the disk. But I asked that my name be removed for the printed book, and I decided not to work with Homais any more.

This story has not one epilog, but three:

Epilog One: Homais' publisher went bankrupt, and he had time to publish only three books-which was a shame, since his intended line-up was interesting. A few years later, the Jack Martin collection was reprinted by another publisher, who bought back my translation—so that I made some money out of the deal.

Epilog Two: I didn't know Louise at the time. I met her a few years later, and she apologized, for she had come to realize she had been used by Homais to do his dirty work. We're friends now.

Epilog Three: When the book came out, my friend and colleague Pierre-Paul Durastanti—real name here—bought it, read it, liked it and couldn't identify the translator—of course. But he asked me if I'd done the job, and I told him the whole story. “I thought I'd recognized your style,” he said.

Now do you get my point? “We decided that we really didn't have much style,” writes Dan as a conclusion to his workshop anecdote. But style isn't in the clothes, since Pierre-Paul could recognize mine under a pseudonym and a botched editing job. If I may be allowed to quote Léo Ferré , a French poet, singer and songwriter: “Ton style, c'est ton cul.” (“Your ass is your style.”)

Which would explain the pain all these writers took to disguise themselves. And didn't Joe Lucas notice the same thing re Papa Hemingway?

And since I'm in the mood to quote French geniuses, here is the original text of the Gustave Flaubert quote mentioned by Dan.

Les ombres du soir descendaient; le soleil horizontal, passant entre les branches, lui éblouissait les yeux. Çà et là, tout autour d'elle, dans les feuilles ou par terre, des taches lumineuses tremblaient, comme si des colibris, en volant, eussent éparpillé leurs plumes. Le silence était partout; quelque chose de doux semblait sortir des arbres; elle sentait son coeur, dont les battements recommençaient, et le sang circuler dans sa chair comme un fleuve de lait. Alors, elle entendit tout au loin, au delà du bois, sur les autres collines, un cri vague et prolongé, une voix qui se traînait, et elle l'écoutait silencieusement, se mêlant comme une musique aux dernières vibrations de ses nerfs émus. Rodolphe, le cigare aux dents, raccommodait avec son canif une des deux brides cassée.

I'll let you count the words, or rather the T-units, but I notice the English translator—Dan, you should've mentioned his name, you know—was very faithful to the text.



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