Translating Jean-Patrick Manchette

Jean-Patrick Manchette, Self-portrait from 1964, © Estate of Jean-Patrick Manchette

After the protests of May 1968, Jean-Patrick Manchette began writing a cycle of hard-boiled romans noirs. Involved with the French ultra-left since his adolescence, Manchette aimed to rehabilitate the genre. Steeped in American crime fiction, Manchette’s work imported the Situationist critique and other ultra-left discourse into what was then considered perhaps the lowest of all mass-produced literature.

Translator Donald Nicholson-Smith has done more than anyone else to bring Manchette to English-language readers. Last summer, New York Review Books Classics published Nicholson-Smith’s translation of Nada, a story about kidnapping, anarchist illegalism, and left-wing insurrectionary violence. It follows a group of militants and their commitment to the abolition of capital at a moment when the Left found itself divided on questions of both strategy and tactics. The Nada group is a small and motley crew, comprised of: an anarchist militant in his fifties; a former French Resistance Communist, now jaded and corrupt; a young philosophy teacher and author of the group’s manifesto; a waiter and an alcoholic constitute a duo that has been cast aside by society; and a mysterious militant who provides the group’s hideout, the only woman in the group.

A longtime resident of New York City, Nicholson-Smith has been an academic and literary translator since the 1970s. Among much else, he has translated Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, and Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. In addition to translating works of psychoanalysis, he has been active in the field of noir fiction, translating Thierry Jonquet’s Mygale (aka Tarantula), Yasmina Khadra’s Cousin K in collaboration with Alyson Waters; and several novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette. He is a member of the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors and of the PEN America Translators’ Group. He has been dubbed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, and in 2015 was awarded the French-American Foundation’s fiction translation prize for Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad. We sat down with Nicholson-Smith to better understand Manchette’s approach to crime fiction and the problems of translating him into English.

How did you start translating Manchette’s work?

In the very late 1990s, considering how little French crime fiction was being translated into English, I tried to pitch the idea of a series to publishers that would highlight the French writing in the genre in the aftermath of 1968. In other words, to import the so-called néo-polar, along with its forerunners and inheritors into English. It was an idea, sadly, whose time had not yet come: In those days I was met with blank stares, or, if I was lucky, with the answer that such an idea was a commercial nonstarter. A few years later the phenomenal sales of Stig Larsson’s trilogy precipitated the “Scandi-noir” moment, and today a plethora of English-language publishers large and small are actively seeking crime fiction for translation. What did result from this otherwise fruitless endeavor of mine was that I began translating Manchette myself. Now, almost twenty years later, with the help of two collaborators, Jim Brook and Alyson Waters, nine of his novels will soon be out in English.

I could not have chosen a more difficult author in the field. Of course, as coiner of the label néo-polar and the supposed prime mover in the group of chiefly left-wing authors often gathered under this rubric, he was an obvious first choice. But I had another, more subjective reason for my interest in Manchette. He and I were born within a few days of one another, albeit on opposite sides of the English Channel. And while I can hardly be accused of astrological tendencies, I confess that I have always felt an affinity for Manchette that was uncannily reinforced when I read his Journal 1966–1974 and found that we seemed to have been reading the same books and following parallel cultural and political paths. We even discovered the Situationist International at the same time, in 1965. So I feel that Manchette is perfectly suited to my ideal goal as a translator: the successful “channeling” of an author—the ability, as it were, to get inside their head.

Would you say, then, that you and Manchette were of the same political persuasion?

Broadly speaking, yes. In his late teens and very early twenties Manchette was an oppositional communist belonging to the Voie communiste tendency founded by the Trotskyist Denis Berger. He contributed articles to that group’s paper using the pen name Jack Burden. The group dissolved in 1965, when Manchette was twenty-two, and by 1967, he was keenly reading the Situationist review. Thereafter, and for the rest of his life, despite an upsetting run-in with Guy Debord and Debord’s publisher Gérard Lebovici, he adopted a Situationist perspective, including the SI’s unrelenting critique of all varieties of neo-Bolshevism.

At the beginning of the 1970s, in the wake of May 1968, Manchette embarked on what would turn out to be a ten-novel cycle of romans noirs, mostly published in Gallimard’s famous Série Noire. These books made Manchette into the undisputed doyen of the gifted post-’68 generation of French crime writers.

Much has been written about Manchette’s love for American hard-boiled noir, including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. On the difference between the garden-variety mystery and the hard-boiled style, Chandler remarked that the latter assigns murder “to the category of individuals who commit it for real reasons, and not only in order to provide the reader with a cadaver.” Nada is exemplary in this sense. Could you tell us something about the aesthetic and political import of the book at the time of its publication?

What Manchette did in the wake of 1968 was politicize French crime writing, which had largely lapsed into a dusty and conservative proceduralism, while at the same challenging the formulas of the genre in many other ways. His novels of the decade of the seventies constitute an experiment, and a conversation with himself about the possibility that such commodities of a consumer society could serve the subversion of that society.

As for Nada, this “anti-caper” novel recounting an ill-starred kidnapping of the American ambassador to France by a ragtag band of anarcho-communists constitutes something of a prophetic cautionary tale, a warning to Manchette’s acquaintances on the Far Left that the temptation of terrorism was to be resisted at all costs. Years later, in 1994, addressing students at a technical high school, Manchette recalled his satisfaction upon learning that “some young extremists whom I did not know who were envisaging violent action had read Nada and treated it as a theoretical text and abandoned their plans.” (Among those who did not learn the lesson of Nada were future members of the group known as Action directe.) Manchette was quick to note, however, that “a novel cannot be a pamphlet.”

Interestingly, Manchette expressed reservations about Nada sixteen years after its publication. As Luc Sante notes in the introduction to your translation: “Manchette acknowledged that its political argument was ‘insufficient and obsolete,’ because it ‘isolated’ the gang from the broader oppositional social movement, and furthermore failed to account for the ‘direct manipulation’ to which the State would have subjected such a group.” Why did Manchette criticize his own depiction of the Nada group?

His self-criticism, voiced in 1988 in a preface to the Spanish translation, was quite simple. As he continued, “The reader might well argue that if in 1972, writing a novel on terrorism, I dealt with its indirect exploitation by the State and neglected its direct manipulation, this was because I could not have foreseen the great increase that such direct manipulation was going to see in the years to come. The fact is, however, that as early as 1969 the Milanese had been bombed [in a frame-up] by the Italian secret police. And I could have considered the host of comparable instances that history offers . . . And the great defect of Nada is that it remained utterly silent on this issue.”

Then, to what extent does Manchette himself hold open the possibility that the path of revolutionary violence might once more be reconnected to popular support? It’s striking to realize the book was published half a decade before the height of operations of the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, for example.

Here again, in the same preface of 1988, he was quite clear: “In Spain in the 1930s the group Nosotros was able to demonstrate what armed action can achieve when it accompanies a social movement without seeking either to provoke it or to seize control of it.”

Manchette’s other novels, such as Fatale, The Mad and the Bad, The Prone Gunman are not as explicitly political. Typically, Manchette paints a world in which gangsters, capitalists, politicians, and militants all vie for power. Why is Nada different?

It is true that the “politics” is far more subtextual in many other novels in his 1970s cycle, although Manchette has many ways of telegraphing his social critique to the reader, including subtle or blatant détournements.

You’ve said previously that there is a difference between translating during the “heat of battle” and translating after the fact? Could you elaborate?

In late 1965 Guy Debord had written a text on the Watts riots which he wanted to get into English as soon as possible, and I was able to do the job. In revising my English version many years later I found that I needed to hew far more closely to Debord’s text. By “translating in the heat of battle” I meant the production of textes de combat—versions that are less concerned with accuracy than with advocacy. When Tim Clark and I translated the Situationist pamphlet on the poverty of student life (1967) as Ten Days that Shook the University, our task involved adaptation as much as translation, because the publication was, precisely, a pamphlet.

Speaking of what is and is not possible in translation, we were struck by another remark of yours from that interview: “As a kind of go-between trying to convey—to translate—the Situationist critique of modern society to English readers, I ran into the brick wall of the strictly untranslatable! This was doubly unfortunate in that as Situationists we were—well, internationalists!” Could you say more about how what remains untranslatable?

Let me quote some recent words from the brilliant Irish translator Frank Wynne, who is presently busy with the fabulous Vernon Subutex, by Virginie Despentes (France’s answer to Valerie Solanas). Apropos of Robert Frost’s much-abused phrase “lost in translation,” Wynne writes that it merely:

highlight[s] the fact that certain aspects of language (sound, rhyme, rhythm, etc.) cannot be directly mapped between languages. Frost was not the first to voice the thought; indeed, it was rather better expressed a century earlier by Shelley when he wrote: “the plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.”

The hackneyed theme of traduttore traditore has of course been chewed over for centuries. When I noted in a somewhat playful way that “I ran into the strictly untranslatable,” I was referring not to any issue at the level of language as such but rather to the fact that one must sometimes accept the rock-hard reality that different cultures can embody differences of worldview that no translation can transcend.

Jose Rosales is a researcher and coeditor of Hostis: A Journal for Incivility.

Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in New York. He is the editorial assistant of e-flux journal.