Translating Nicolas Kurtovitch
by Anthony Nanson
I first read Forêt, terre et tabac, and another of Nicolas’ collections, Totem, about three years ago, in the course of my research for a novel in progress that’s set in Nicolas’ homeland, New Caledonia. I loved the way his stories conjure an enchantment of place and also an enchantment of moments of being, inviting the reader to contemplate how there’s more going on within and around us than we may readily perceive or understand. Part of the way he does that is through his wonderfully lyrical yet varied style; he is very much a stylist writer, and indeed the greater part of his oeuvre is poetry.
I was so impressed by his style that I was inspired – just for fun – to start translating one of the stories in Forêt, terre et tabac into English. When, a year later, I travelled to New Caledonia to do field research for my novel, I was lucky enough – quite unexpectedly – to meet Nicolas. From this meeting arose the project of translating the whole book and of Awen publishing it. The experience of translating Nicolas’ stories felt at the same time an immense privilege of trust and a compelling intellectual challenge, unlike anything else I’d done as a writer or editor, since this was the first time I’d translated a book. No doubt the experience will be familiar to other translators of literary writing: the need to immerse your sensibility in the (French) text and then carry the feeling of that as you craft English sentences that may be structurally very different and yet aim to impart a similar effect. In reviewing my translations, Nicolas repeatedly referred to the importance of rhythm and I was hugely gratified by his affirmation of the rhythms of my English.
I’ll finish this blog with the two comments from the back cover of By the Edge of the Sea – the first by another prominent New Caledonian writer, the second by a scholar and translator of francophone Pacific literature:
‘Charm of expression, restraint in tone, precision of line, nuance, and rhythm – these are the prime qualities of the writing of Nicolas Kurtovitch, a gifted poet and story writer. But beware – the innocuous advance from one line to the next leads us inexorably into profound existential questions, and though his texts may be set in the Pacific this geographical precision can swiftly vanish to evoke the Universal. By the Edge of the Sea – twelve fascinating short stories that compel us to look at ourselves anew.’ Claudine Jacques
‘Nicolas Kurtovitch has been at the forefront of French-language Pacific literature for four decades. He has explored many different genres, but remains a poet at heart as this work in prose attests. This fine collection of short stories, the author’s first, takes us from the lagoon of his native New Caledonia to the ocean, from the mainland to the islands, from Kanak fields to Australian desert, from suburbia to the bush. Yet whilst the author always has a keen eye for place and space, the narrator does not always specify locality. These stories of beguiling simplicity take us on a complex inward journey, if we are prepared to read across the blurring of borders. By the Edge of the Sea, full of inter-cultural dialogue with self and others, remains relevant not only to New Caledonian society, striving to find its multicultural future out of its socially and racially divided past, but also to wider humanity, in the Pacific and beyond. There is, too, an abiding ecological sensitivity in this writing that conjoins human and physical geography. In short, this collection of stories retains its appeal and importance, its freshness, a quarter-century after it first appeared, and that can now be appreciated for the first time by an English-speaking public thanks to Anthony Nanson’s careful and sensitive translation.’ Peter Brown, Université de la Polynésie française / Australian National University