Translator Austin Denis Johnston has generously agreed to answer my questions about his work bringing 33 DAYS to life from French to English. In June of 1940, Léon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazi Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, including a never-before-published introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, recently out by Melville House to much acclaim. "Extraordinary... An invaluable document of history as well as a riveting literary narrative" says Kirkus Reviews.
You and your publisher Melville House got interested in 33 Days quite independently of each other. You had tremendous good luck and good timing! Can you describe how you got interested in 33 Days and how you then made a connection with Melville House?
I found out about 33 Days through history books. Books about the German invasion of France during World War II mention a massive civilian flight of eight million people. The French refer to it as l'Exode, "the Exodus," which reflects its biblical proportions. Descriptions in both French and English history books mention Léon Werth's 33 Days (33 jours is the French title), several quote whole passages and describe it as one of the most important single sources of information. I read the book and loved it. I also discovered that the manuscript had a fascinating backstory and that Werth was an important writer and an interesting guy. When I first began researching the exodus, there weren't any books in English devoted to it. I just started translating on my own, without a publisher lined up.
Near the end of the first draft, I contacted the French publisher, Viviane Hamy, to see if the rights were available and whether anyone else had inquired. After some back and forth, the rights editor at Hamy told me they were available and that Melville House Publishing in Brooklyn had also been asking. She also said, essentially, "You've got a heck of a chance here, make it count!"
Within five minutes of reading her e-mail, I was on the phone to Melville House (whose co-founder, as it happens, is named Dennis Johnson). I was put through to an editor who was herself a translator. I told her I'd heard Melville House was interested in a translation of 33 Days and that I had one. She said, "Send it over."
I did, they liked it and agreed to buy it. Melville House negotiated the rights and published the book. It was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Had I not called just then, they'd have used another translator. Melville House prints a lot of translations, and they've got a number of absolutely first rate French translators in their Rolodex.
(For anyone interested, there are now two history books in English devoted to the exodus, and they are excellent: Hanna Diamond's Fleeing Hitler and Nicole Dombrowski Ritter's France Under Fire.)
Do you know how 33 Days first came to the attention of Melville House?
I was told that someone who helps with acquisitions for them found it while in Europe and recommended it. But Melville is always on the lookout for quality foreign texts and authors that have been overlooked. Their website says they have a reputation for rediscovering forgotten authors, which is true.
You mentioned that the manuscript had an interesting backstory. What is it?
The short version is that the manuscript was lost for fifty years. But the story has a lot of interesting and poignant details.
Werth finished the book within weeks of the event (possibly from notes taken at the time). But he was Jewish and banned from publishing in France at the time.
In October 1940, his good friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to the house near Switzerland in the Unoccupied Zone where Werth spent the war. He came to say goodbye. Saint-Exupéry had flown reconnaissance missions for the French air force during the Battle of France and wanted to continue the struggle against Germany from abroad. He was already famous in America for his books (this was before The Little Prince; now it's hard for us to remember what else he wrote), so he had thought he'd come here to lobby the United States to join the war.
The two decided Saint-Exupéry would take a copy of the 33 Days manuscript, write an introduction and have it published in the United States. (Several New York and Canadian publishers became outlets for French writers during the war; they published more than 600 titles beyond the reach of the Occupation censors.) This would be the first time they appeared in print together.
By the end of 1942, Saint Exupéry had made his way to the United States, found a publisher--Brentano's in New York City--written the introduction and a French edition of 33 Days was in galley proofs. But the book was never printed. It's not clear why. (If anyone reading this has any information, there are a lot of people, including myself, who'd be delighted to have it.) My best guess is that, when the Germans invaded the Unoccupied Zone in late 1942, Saint-Exupéry and Brentano's decided publication would endanger Werth. (Klaus Barbie, who had been running the Gestapo in the Dijon region, was put in charge of the Lyon region, where Werth was living.)
No one seems to know what happened to Brentano's' copy of the manuscript. But Saint-Exupéry revised the introduction (and removed all references to Werth by name) into a stand-alone essay entitled Lettre à un otage (Letter to a Hostage). Brentano's published that, in French, in July 1943. (The Little Prince was also written in New York during this period. It's dedicated to Léon Werth.)
Werth evidently still had a copy of the 33 Days manuscript (probably the original), but, even after the war when he began publishing again, he never submitted it for publication. The October 1940 visit was the last time he saw Saint-Exupéry. In April 1943, Saint-Exupéry left New York for North Africa to rejoin the war, which he would not survive: He died on July 31, 1944, in the Mediterranean, when his plane crashed returning from a reconnaissance mission over southern France. Werth didn't know until the war was over. ("Peace, without Tonio, isn't really peace," he said, and I wonder whether he put the project aside because it was something they'd intended to do together.) Werth himself died in 1955.
In the early 1990s, the French editor Viviane Hamy came across an old edition of one of Werth's books and loved it. She was starting her own independent publishing house, so she contacted Werth's son Claude, who'd inherited the author's rights, and began reissuing Werth's major works. She heard about 33 Days and asked Claude to look for the manuscript in his father's papers. Hamy says it took them two years to find.
After Melville House acquired the translation rights, they decided to look for the Saint-Exupéry introduction. They found it in the archives of a French-Canadian magazine, L'Amerique française, whose March 1943 edition, with permission from Brentano's, printed from the "unpublished preface that Mr. de Saint-Exupéry wrote for a book by one of his friends in France, [which] should appear soon in the United States," and secured the rights.
So, 75 years later, these two friends finally appeared in print together as they intended. There are Spanish, German and, of course, French editions of 33 Days, but only Melville House's English edition includes Saint-Exupéry's introduction.
Why would this book interest Americans?
Well, it's a good read. At every level of experience, the stories that come out of World War II are potent and compelling. And Werth is very good at putting you there.
It's also an opportunity to learn something new about the war and to think generally about the issue of civilian displacement in war. L'Exode is one example of how World War II was a radically different experience for Europeans than for Americans, and why we each take somewhat different lessons from it. And 33 Days shows us some of the issues faced by millions of displaced civilians in war zones today.
In France, 33 Days is required reading for all high school students. Why? And how does it fit into their curriculum?
French government has made a concerted effort to educate the public
about World War II, to keep its memory and its lessons alive. The
government funds everything from advanced research centers for scholars
to young adult books on the subject. Werth's is the only book-length
eyewitness account of the exodus ever published in French; including it
on the syllabus is part of that effort. And French public schools work
from a common curriculum, so all students read pretty much the same
of my copies of 33 Days is the student edition. (The text is complete,
but questions, exercises, insights about the text and about writing,
etc., are included.) The cover says it's for teaching World War II
history--"a lesson against hate and an invitation never to lose faith in
humanity"--to students fifteen to eighteen, depending on whether
they're college-bound or getting a vocational degree. Werth assumed his
audience knew as much as he knew about politics and history, so he
doesn't explain his references. For teachers, those are good starting
points for guided historical discussions and further reading.
student edition also says it's for teaching autobiography and writing,
"to work on clear, poetic language." Werth is a model of that. He wrote
the book for adults, but his prose is simple (though far from
simplistic) and efficient. A book review in the French newspaper Le
Monde put it nicely: "[Werth] renders in just a few words a character or
situation ... [and] the precious singularity of each."
What were some of the challenges of translating 33 Days? Any general and/or specific examples?
There were several. For one, Werth was born in 1878, so he learned to read and write in the 19th century, and some of his vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and sentence structures are archaic. I quickly discovered that if a word or phrase made no sense, it was generally an old usage or construction, and I'd get out the big dictionary. (An easy example is "ne ... point." He used it a lot. It's just an old form of "ne ... pas"; meaning "not.") And many of the archaic words and constructions can sound formal today, but, overall, formality was clearly not Werth's intent; just the opposite. So I often streamlined and rephrased to maintain a more casual overall tone.
Another challenge was military slang. Werth did two tours in the army (two years' compulsory service around 1900 and two years at the front in World War I). Some expressions clearly resonated with him (though the military itself certainly did not). But, as you can imagine, French military slang from 1900 isn't in most dictionaries. Luckily I have access to some really good ones, and military-history buffs preserve certain kinds of detail. (An easy example is "boite de singe," literally "can of monkey." It's what French soldiers in World War I called the canned corned beef they were given as cold rations. Corned beef was unfamiliar to them, and the main supplier to the French army had named its brand "Madagascar." So the grim joke was that strange meat "from Madagascar" must be monkey meat.)
Then there were quirks of the historical context. Werth's background notwithstanding, 33 Days is very much a product of interwar France. More so because he was such an engaged writer. To put it mildly, France in the 1920s and '30s was in ferment--politically, economically, demographically, linguistically, etc. (as was much of Europe). The big issues of the times shaped Werth's thinking, his references and his language. (For instance, Werth says that someone uses words imprecisely. As an example, he notes that she referred to a French politician whose knowledge of foreign customs she admires as "très cosmopolite," "very cosmopolitan." Cosmopolitan is exactly the right word, which most dictionaries will confirm. But it would not have been when Werth wrote. Until the 1930s, France encouraged immigration and absorbed more immigrants than any nation except the United States. During the Depression, France began questioning its immigration policies, and more than a little xenophobia emerged. Cosmopolite became subtle slur for someone who not only wasn't a "real Frenchman" but also whose origins were deliberately obscured because his or her "race" [which back then meant nationality, but nationalities were thought to have definite characteristics], allegiances and even ethics were suspect.)
But by far the trickiest parts were because Werth was a very smart guy, an original thinker and an economical writer. His prose is deceptively simple, but can be "as difficult to penetrate as Mallarmé's hermetism," as Saint-Exupéry put it. (Saint-Exupéry admired Werth's writing; Werth was a mentor as well as a friend. Stéphane Mallarmé--whose L'après-midi d'une faune inspired the Debussy music of the same name--was a famous Symbolist poet who wrote very metaphorically.) There were sentences that took multiple tries to parse. When I checked with French speakers, they'd say, "yes, that's a hard one," and not have a definitive answer. I'd finally crack them after sitting with the context and Werth's line of thought long enough that it just came to me. Then it was so obvious that I couldn't understand how I could have read the sentence any other way. Hiding in plain sight.
Was it a help that you know a lot about WWII? Any examples?
My interest in the war helped me appreciate in the first place what a rare item a full-length, eyewitness account of the exodus is. My interest in the war and in France between the wars also helped me appreciate the context of the book; it made me more comfortable and confident translating it. And in turn I learned new things about a favorite subject.
Those interests also enabled me to write the footnotes myself and to provide background information on Werth, the book and the Saint-Exupéry introduction that I understand was very helpful to Melville House. I think the backstory I provided made the project more attractive to them and to the Cultural Section of the French Embassy, which awarded 33 Days a Hemingway Grant. And what I knew helped produce promotional materials, cover copy and the preface.
That said, I don't think a deep knowledge of the war is necessary to be engaged or moved by the book. Werth writes at a very human level. The essence of his story is very accessible.
Léon Werth is very specific about his journey and it is interesting to follow his progress on a map. Can you recommend a site to go to for this, which also shows the occupied and free zones of France at that time?
Yes. The government of the Department of the Indre in France has a map that traces Werth's route, the stops he made and includes the nearby sections of the Demarcation Line. http://www.indre.fr/lecture-scénarisée-sur-lexode-de-la-grande-guerre.
For a really specific map of the line, there's a site of World War II–vintage Michelin maps that includes an interactive facsimile of Michelin's 1941 map of the Demarcation Line. (Scroll about one-third of the way down to find the Demarcation Line map.) http://cartesmich.free.fr/ww2_a.php.
For more information on the Demarcation Line itself and how it functioned, the French government has a site in English.http://www.cheminsdememoire.gouv.fr/en/demarcation-line-1940-1944
Werth's memoir takes place at the same time as Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française and Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (both fiction). The German invasion and the exodus from Paris are central in all three. What is special and illuminating about Werth's memoir that makes it a perfect complement to these fictional accounts?
I think they all complement one another. Werth had no idea what the event "meant," so he simply bore witness. Comparing his account to what appears in Némirovsky and Doerr highlights how the novelists "read" the event, what it meant to them, because it highlights what they included, what they emphasized and how, and what they excluded. In turn, their narratives throw light on aspects of the exodus Werth did not experience, and they interpret what he did experience from another perspective.
I don't mean to imply equivalence, though. Each brings something different to the table. 33 Days has what historian Joan Scott calls "the authority of direct experience." But no one person's account of such an event can possibly be definitive (for example, Werth left Paris for his summer home; most refugees had neither second homes nor relatives' or friends' to go to). Through art, Némirovsky and Doerr can create a higher truth than personal accounts. But with historical fiction, we're often left wondering where the border between truth and fiction is.
Hopefully, a point will come when we have a comprehensive understanding of the exodus, a "collective memory"--what historians call a "meta-narrative." Then, whether a detail in a historical fiction is literally true or not will be less important than how well it communicates the meta-narrative.
Why is Léon Werth an important writer? Do you hope to translate more of his work? Are you working on a next project?
Werth influenced a generation of French writers, Saint-Exupéry among them, who said they admired Werth's talent, "like children watching a carpenter."
Important writers also write important books. Werth's first novel was one of four Goncourt finalists in an exceptional year, 1913. (Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, which was number nine on Le Monde's 1999 list of the "100 Books of the Century," and Proust's Swann's Way were two of the others. There were something like twelve rounds of voting before a winner was chosen--Marc Elder's Le Peuple de la mer.)
His novel of World War I was described by the foremost expert on French Great War literature (Jean Norton Cru) as "worth more than all the other trench novels put together."
In the 1920s Werth wrote a book about Indochina that was called "a model of the genre." The head of the French government asked to discuss it with him.
Werth's diary of the Occupation was described by one of the most eminent French historians of all time (Lucien Febvre) as "essential to understanding the Occupation as it was lived." Oxford University Press is negotiating for the English translation rights.
Yes, I am working on my next project. It's a collection of short stories by an emerging female French writer, Junie Terrier, who was a 2014–15 Visiting Scholar at Harvard.
For my next Werth project, I have in mind his World War I novel, Clavel soldat. And I hope to translate more Werth after that.
For more information from Melville House click here
From The Times Literary Supplement:
lives in France, where he is hungry and cold", wrote Antoine de
Saint-Exupéry in his dedication of Le Petit Prince to his "best" friend,
the Jewish writer and art critic Léon Werth (1878-1955)....33 Days, admirably translated by Austin
Denis Johnston, is a beautifully written portrait not just of the shock
of sudden occupation, but an eloquent essay on the meaning of how to
remain human, even in the face of such confusing adversity.