A MATTER OF STYLE
Bear with me, though, for the story is quite convoluted.
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.”
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 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
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:
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
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,”
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
Which would explain the pain all these writers took to disguise
themselves. And didn't Joe Lucas notice the same thing re
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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