Musicians have to break America. Foreign authors have to break the English-speaking literary market. Translation as a craft and industry is something Anglophone readers are not often forced to reflect on; translations take up little space in English-language bookshops compared with the array of translated titles you’ll find front and centre in any French librairie. English readers may give no thought at all to the fact that their tome of Dostoevsky or Flaubert isn’t the original text. And in some respects, that’s a good thing: translation should be invisible – if it doesn’t read as such, it hasn’t been translated well. The translator should work at such a level in their native tongue that the selvedge between languages, where loss and compensation naturally occur, should be untraceable. But that’s translation as an object. What of translation as a practice?
In recent years, there’s been more to prompt Anglophone readers to consider translation. Thanks largely to the gargantuan effect of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, attention has fallen on the craft of ‘les belles infidéles’. This is down to Ferrante’s anonymity: interviewers are denied interaction with the author but are given access to the author’s translator, Ann Goldstein, instead. Goldstein’s is the only face associated with Ferrante’s work, and her stepping in as an interviewee has invited readers to fully appreciate the fact that their copies of Ferrante’s novels are translations. The year before last the Booker Prize was also reconfigured to allow, for the first time, the prize to be shared between an author and her translator. Han Kang and Deborah Smith split the prize money for The Vegetarian (채식주의자) – they appeared smiling side by side in press photographs from the award ceremony – and focus fell not only on the work itself, but also included critiques of the quality of Smith’s translation too. It seemed, finally, that translation was no longer a necessary evil, but a topic worthy of wider discussion.
This is the setting for the publication of the English translation of Leïla Slimani’s Chanson Douce, winner of the 2016 Prix Goncourt, France’s most renowned literary award and one which tends predominantly to decorate middle-aged white Frenchmen. Lullaby, as it has become for British and Australian readers, was translated into myriad other languages before it was picked up for English readers. Now that it’s proved itself in the Anglophone market, seventeen more translations are forthcoming. The motivation for commissioning translations is laid bare by the disparate titles for the American and British editions of the novel. ‘Lullaby’ is much closer to the original French than the American title, ‘The Perfect Nanny’. If the latter seems on-the-nose, it’s for good reason. Hype has been whipped up using comparisons with Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. “I didn’t want to call it ‘Lullaby’, because that sounds sleepily forgettable and my goal is to reach a big commercial readership”, Slimani’s American editor at Penguin told The New Yorker. “We’re getting this book into places like Walmart and Target.”
“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” / “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
“Le bébé est mort. Il a suffi de quelques secondes.” / “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”
It’s hard not to compare Slimani’s opening lines with the famous opening to Camus’ The Stranger. The effect is roughly the same: both are a stinging slap to the face of the reader’s morality, hooks to reel us in, to compel us to dive into the psyches of characters who commit sin with no apparent motivation. Both texts skirt around their central questions – the why – spiralling towards seemingly pre-determined fates. The likeness also speaks to the deftness of the French language; for a lyrical tongue, it’s also capable of elegant simplicity. Slimani’s prose is certainly economical, verging on basic at times. She uses the present historic, a tense that’s sustainable in French but becomes cloying in English, a little too marked in an otherwise simple style. On the morning they hold interviews for potential nannies, Myriam and Paul Massé make sure their home is presentable: “They bought flowers and now they are tidying up the apartment. They fold the children’s clothes, change the sheets on the beds […]. They want the nannies to see that they are good people; serious, orderly people who try to give their children the best of everything.” Slimani has said she expected this to be a “little book” in her career; she didn’t anticipate any interest in a novel that centres on the domestic relationship between two women; it wasn’t written with the Goncourt in mind. It reads as such.
There’s no literary manoeuvring here. The focus remains, instead, on the social anxieties that course through the work. After the violent consternation of the opening, Slimani dials back to broad strokes. The dialogue between Paul and Myriam is stock-standard husband–wife stuff: “You’re going to work? Well, that’s fine, but what are we going to do about the children?” Paul asks. Their discussion of their requirements for the nanny – “No illegal immigrants, agreed? […] It’s too dangerous,” says the North African Myriam – betrays the guilt of the middle class, the “bobos” (“bourgeois-bohèmes”) as they are called in French. This culpability, tied so intrinsically to the modern-day hubris of wanting to ‘have it all’, is the work’s main artery and its depiction one of its strongest features. Not only does the guilt emanate from the couple’s economic status, which enables them to find a nanny who “arouses and fulfils the fantasies of an idyllic family life that Myriam guiltily nurses”, but also from the mother’s ambivalence towards maternity. Slimani sketches how the domestic bliss of motherhood quickly sours into anxious confinement:
[Myriam] didn’t dare admit her secret shame. How she felt as if she were dying because she had nothing to talk about but the antics of her children and the conversations of strangers overheard in the supermarket.
She is relieved to have found help, but the reprieve – the “gratuitous, selfish desire” she entertains for her colleague, or the “sudden sentimentality” she feels returning to her children after a day in the office – does not come without guilt churning in the back of her mind. This guilt is reflected back at her throughout the novel – by the “harpy” school teacher who attributes Mila’s poor behaviour to Myriam’s absence, and by Paul’s mother, who believes Myriam should stay at home with the children but does not apply the same pressure to her son – and this chorus transmutes into attributable blame after her children’s deaths. Tellingly, it is only the mother’s reaction to the murders that is described in the opening pages (“she let out a scream, a scream from deep within, the howl of a she-wolf”); the father and his feelings are absent.
When the Massés find Louise, she is too good to be true. “You’re so lucky to have found her”, her previous employer tells them. “My nanny is a miracle worker”, Myriam tells friends. Louise is the only Caucasian applicant in a pool of African and Asian interviewees; it’s as rare for families to have a white nanny as it is for Louise’s landlord to be renting to one: “renting to a white in this neighbourhood is practically unheard of”, he says, betraying an attitude still too common in Paris today. From the start, Louise’s “magical powers” are heavily emphasised and the Massés feel as though “they have found a rare pearl, as if they’ve been blessed”. Louise tames not only the children but the apartment itself, which is “completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness”. Furthermore, Louise’s physical attributes – her whiteness, her blondeness, “so fragile, so slender” – all amplify this surreal perfection. The trouble, however, is that the perfection should be eerie. Given Slimani sketches it out just pages after Louise’s crime is revealed, it all feels rather hackneyed. When Louise tells fantastical bedtime stories and the narrative asks, “but in what deep forest has she found these cruel tales?”, it labours the point. Similarly, when it’s revealed that Louise has no relationship with her daughter Stéphanie, that her husband was abusive, that his debts follow her from his grave and that, after all the neglect in her life, she seizes the opportunity to “build her nest in the middle of the apartment” at the heart of this perfect modern family, it feels weak, like a laundry list of motives for double infanticide. Some turns of phrase – Louise’s perception of a woman sunbathing on holiday as a “corpse of a flayed torture victim”, for example – hint at the latent violence that lingers in her sweet exterior, but even when they are well-wrought, they feel somewhat expected.
As I read Lullaby, I waited for the creeping sense of unease to build, the one the other critics mentioned: the sublime thrill; the uneasy atmosphere; the subtle dread; the spellbinding impulse to keep looking, even when you want to look away – all the crucial aspects of a thriller – but it never did. This isn’t Tartt’s virtuoso why-dunnit The Secret History, nor the creeping hysteria that pervades Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, or even the meticulous depiction of the fraught relationship between a successful working woman and her housekeeper, as is Magda Szabó’s The Door. The latter, another “lost” classic from a woman in translation, is literary pointillism: it builds in minute detail the tension between the female protagonists, who become vessels through which Szabó broaches the knots in the social tissue of post-war Hungarian society, making her characters both highly symbolic and realistic at the same time – something Lullaby ultimately fails to do.
Slimani does paint an accurate picture of contemporary Paris, however, even if she falls short of deeper nuance. The city’s squalor belies its postcard beauty and this is where the writer is at her most convincing, depicting a Paris whose parks buzz with nannies speaking “snatches of Baoulé, Dyula, Arabic and Hindi, sweet nothings whispered in Filipino or Russian”, the women turning “the park into a cross between a recruitment office, a union headquarters, a claims centre and a classified-ads listing”. The parks are vacated when gangs of youths who “piss in flowerbeds and go looking for fights” appear and Louise’s street is home to a man who she spots “squatting on his haunches […] shitting in her street”, a degrading if obvious omen for her own unravelling. It’s a Paris that recalls the slums of Zola but reflects the multicultural fabric of the arrondissements and banlieues today. The photorealism is done well but Slimani does not sufficiently blend this perfect nanny – a patent dramatic harbinger – with the sharply focused modern world. Louise is incongruous within it and the juxtaposition ultimately grates. By the end of the novel, Louise has been caked in every possible reason that could make her capable of her final, fatal outburst: financial troubles, stress, loneliness, perennial servitude, belittling and a sprinkling of harassment. But still no tangible climax, no turning point to convince the reader, and not enough of an atmosphere to carry the novel without it. The opening of the work is a stab in the heart, perhaps, but the bleeding out drags until the final soggy pages of conclusion, which don’t so much culminate as congeal.
And in the end, the novel’s boldest move – its audacious Camus-inspired opening lines – is its biggest downfall. The infanticide would be more shocking if the work wasn’t publicised everywhere as THE KILLER NANNY NOVEL, Louise’s off behaviour more threatening if the book’s front cover wasn’t plastered with the line THE BABY IS DEAD.
So which novel has Slimani written then? Lullaby, the Faber-published, Goncourt-winning literary sensation? Or The Perfect Nanny, the psycho-thriller blockbuster coming soon to a Walmart near you? The bar for both of these kinds of novels is set almost impossibly high. Instead, Is this worth translating? became the question I asked myself the most while reading. My answer is yes. More women need to be published, more translations need to be published, more people of colour need to be published. Slimani, as a French-Moroccan writer, is a visible, positive voice. She’s an advocate for inclusivity and representation in the very white, patriarchal annals of French literature. Furthermore, we must move away from the idea that only the most excellent authors among underrepresented demographics are worthy of critical attention. Slimani has written a blockbuster; it’s not her fault that we are so starved of diverse voices that the very mention of a guilt-tripped working mother or a multicultural Paris sets every critic off fawning. Nor is it her fault that English-language publishers feel the need to ham the novel up to interest readers, simply because it’s a translation and not mother-tongue fiction. So if Slimani enjoys booming commercial success for a solid, if slightly underwhelming, novel, it does more good than harm: perhaps it will mean the likes of Faber and Penguin will take a bigger gamble next time, on voices that still desperately need to be heard.
Rachel Wilson is a writer and translator currently based in Berlin whose work has appeared in The Guardian, i-D, Broadly, INDIE, Material, The Lifted Brow, Fusion and more.