This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
The French-speaking Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz was born in Lausanne on 24 September 1878. Just five months earlier, in the bilingual city of Biel/Bienne, the German-speaking Swiss writer Robert Walser was born. The two men came of age in their respective cities, and then both spent the turn of the century travelling between Switzerland and a great European city (Paris for Ramuz and Berlin for Walser) as their writing careers gathered momentum and their first full-length works were published. A different kind of essay could go on to point out the similarities and fascinating differences between these two writers – in their backgrounds, biographies, their style and focus. But I am more interested in the simple fact of their nearly perfect contemporary status. Born the same year and interested in literature from an early age, both men published a recognized oeuvre during their lifetimes and each left behind a marvellous archive. Ramuz died in 1947, followed by Walser in 1956, although Walser had gone into a different kind of public retreat as of 1933. Similar lifespans. Similar literary legacies. Similar status in Switzerland.
A key difference remains. Walser is known outside of Switzerland, is a writer whose name has been often included alongside other canonical names of the Modernist period like Kafka, Joyce, and Eliot, and whose work is discussed and lauded by writers, academics and critics. When I came to Switzerland in 2005, Ramuz’s untranslated archive appeared to me like an unexpected but incredible gift. Here was this immensely famous individual, and nearly all of his work was just sitting there, waiting for an interested translator to casually drop his name to a publisher. Of course it is never this easy. Literary translation is still a small niche of publishing in English, and there will always be far too many deserving authors waiting in the wings. Still, Ramuz’s case intrigues me, mostly because of the existence of a peer like Walser.
Despite a considerable amount of French-language interest in his work*, Ramuz is virtually unheard of outside of Switzerland. For an admirer of Modernist fiction, the reasons for the difference in English-language interest between Ramuz and Walser is a subject for amusing dinnertime speculation. Does it depend on early support for their work-in-translation? On the number of other writers of the time period who name-dropped each man? Differences in management of their literary estates? Stylistic variations in their work and its appeal to English-language readers? Differences in Swiss Arts Council funding in a country with a majority language and a minority language? The understandable romantic appeal of a mad genius, versus a stable one? There are myriad possibilities, and some inevitably overlap. But for a translator interested in helping to make Ramuz’s work available to a greater public, his lack of renown in the English-speaking world is a perplexing and frustrating challenge that can be hard to know exactly how to address.
Everyone knows that translators can be key motivators for inspiring interest in a writer’s work. Especially for older works and dead writers. Translators can be the first person to make an introduction between literary estates and publishers. Translators can also write critical essays and reviews, champion their favourite writers on blogs or other social media, contact Arts Councils, work to create a ‘buzz’ about an author. This obviously takes a lot of time. More so for a translator still getting her feet wet.
With permission from Ramuz’s grandson, Guido Olivieri, I began working on as many of the short stories as I could as well as on two of the novels. I wrote about Ramuz on a variety of social media platforms, testing whatever small reach I had. Over the next few years, several of the stories were published in English, a few mentions of him appeared here and there, and eventually, the small but excellent Onesuch Press (whose mission is to publish overlooked Modernists) took on one of Ramuz’s greatest books, La Beauté sur la Terre, and the English translation – Beauty on Earth – came out in the fall of 2013. Put this together with the 2008 translation of The Young Man from Savoy (Host Publications) by Blake Robinson, and we have a small start.
Over the first week-end of September (5-7) this year, one of Switzerland’s biggest annual literary festivals will take place: Le Livre sur les Quais. This year Literary Translation will be a main event as the Centre de Traduction Littéraire at the University of Lausanne is celebrating its 25th
year. In a country with four national languages, a handful of other strong minority languages as well as a large Anglophone population, translation is a huge and important element of its publishing universe. I’ll be at the festival talking about Ramuz as a part of its growing Anglophone program. This is another small step forward, but the challenge remains: how to go about inspiring interest in his work.
Ramuz’s work is exquisite – complicated, meticulously crafted, historically relevant, and challenging (for both reader and translator) – and so there is no choice but to keep going, keep writing about his work, keep translating, keep contacting publishers, keep crossing my fingers that the Swiss Arts council will get involved or another funder suddenly show up, keep hoping that publishing literature-in-translation will miraculously become so profitable that publishers will no longer need any financial help to get a translated book to the public. Yes, keep dreaming.
There is a great quote by Jean Rhys in which she calls literature a ‘huge lake’ and that, whether tributary or small stream, writers ‘…must keep feeding the lake.’ She was talking about her relative insignificance to other writers but I think this quote applies perfectly to translation. There are so many rivers and streams that cannot reach the lake, stopped up behind dams of language and culture and issues of interest and funding. A translator’s vocation, from any language and into any language, is to help destroy that dam… even if there are days it can feel like sitting at the top of a huge cement wall, hacking away with a toothpick.
For more information about the Le Livre sur les Quais festival, please see their official site.