Translator Julie Rose has translated some of France’s most highly prized writers, both classical and contemporary and is best known for her critically acclaimed translation of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables. Rose has always been an avid reader of crime fiction. She just translated The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson, a cli-fi spy novel recently published in English by Le French Book.
How did you get started in translation?
For me it started when I moved to France in the 1980s, after graduating from Sydney University and scoring a doctoral scholarship from the French government. The scholarship wouldn’t have kept a gal in kirs royaux, should it have been required to, so I did what everyone else did: I taught English to French people in firms all over town and interpreted for visiting delegations of administrators and business people of all stripes.
Interpreting was a baptism of fire and it sharpened my focus. It led to a lot of related translation work, as well as a lot of lovely long lunches.
Literary translators can despise the technical, commercial and legal stuff. I like it. I like having the illusion that I know about the “real world.” And it’s stood me in good stead, particularly with Paul Virilio, France’s great critic of the modern moment who talks a lot about technological innovations and their downsides. And, even more so, with Victor Hugo.
Yes, tell us about Victor Hugo.
Les Misérables has to be the major highlight of my translating career so far. Victor Hugo’s interest in the real world was encyclopedic. He was never content to mention a thing, whether it was man-made, like lace or jet beads or sewerage systems; or whether it was a natural phenomenon. He had to know how it was made or formed and explore all its features in minute detail.
That forensic interest of Hugo’s, combined with his social awareness and spiritual and emotional depth, make his great masterpiece as potent as ever. I loved translating it, but it took three years and was horribly intense. I couldn’t have done it without my very supportive husband and our energetic dog: she and I frolicked over hill and dale every day for hours. That gave me the stamina to keep going - and the love. Les Misérables is all about love... and what happens when it’s missing or corrupted.
Why translate The Greenland Breach?
This is an action-packed thriller. It’s as fast-paced and racy as a manga comic. That’s not a putdown. Besson has an unerringly dramatic sense of structure. He shifts the action constantly from one part of Greenland to another, and from Greenland to Paris and Paris to the ship in the Arctic Ocean and back to France – Le Havre, the Morvan, Normandy. It becomes symphonic, in a military kind of way, as Besson whips up the action and the various times of the action (Paris time, Nuuk time, etc.) into a series of crescendos on all fronts. It’s spellbinding, and exhilarating. But all that swirling movement and the “dirty deeds” that propel it have a point: they stamp this as melodrama. And the thing about melodrama, as G.K. Chesterton once said, is that it’s sensational: the audience’s reward is tears... or, in this case, floods of adrenalin. We are always in the action. That makes us a vital component of the plot.
Did you face any particular challenges translating The Greenland Breach?
The biggest challenge as far as terminology goes, for me, in a way, was the boat. One strand of the action takes place on a ship that has been exploring Greenland’s icecap. I was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, a uniquely beautiful city built around water. Boating’s very big. But I’m a landlubber, or maybe a fish. I like being in the water, not on it. I kept a long list by my keyboard of perfectly banal, but to me mysterious, words like “bulkhead,” “stem,” “forecastle”/ “fo’c’sle,” and even “starboard” and “portside” – always have to think twice before I remember which is which.
The first “adult” book I ever read as a child was a novel by Hammond Innes, set on a ship. The sulfurous, claustrophobic, isolated world of that ship has stayed with me as a locus of foul play and dirty dealing. Besson’s ship is exactly that, and more. Death is always looming, from within and without.
A cli-fi spy novel by prizewinning novelist and former top-level French intelligence officer
The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson is now available. This eco-thriller has environmental catastrophe, geopolitical fallout, freelance spies and Bond-like action. The Arctic ice caps are breaking up. Europe and the East Coast of the United States brace for a tidal wave. Meanwhile, former French intelligence officer John Spencer Larivière, his karate-trained, steamy Eurasian partner Victoire, and their bisexual computer-genius sidekick Luc pick up an ordinary freelance assignment that quickly leads them into the glacial silence of the great north, where a merciless war is being waged for control of discoveries that will change the future of humanity. Bestselling author Jon Land calls it “a spectacular thriller.” Translated by award-winning Les Misérables translator Julie Rose.