An Unlikely Translator With a Special Passion for Her Work

Without credentials or thought of publication, Odette Lamolle has spent 17 years on Joseph Conrad's novels

Joseph Conrad KorzeniowskI steamed up the Congo River and plied the South China Seas before settling down in England to write such masterworks as "Lord Jim," "Typhoon," and "Heart of Darkness"; Odette Lamolle has rarely ventured outside her family farm near the village of Barbaste, in southwest France.

She isn't the most obvious choice to translate Joseph Conrad's novels into French. She barely speaks English and had no advanced degrees nor contacts with the tight publishing world of Paris when she started her first Conrad translation - in her seventh decade.

Now, 17 years later, she has translated all 24 Conrad novels and novellas, as well as a biography of Conrad, and is working on the author's memoirs. Eleven of her translations have been published, and four more, including "Heart of Darkness," will be published next month by Autremont, a Paris-based publisher.

"Conrad is not just a writer for men," Mrs. Lamolle says in an interview in her gleaming old farmhouse. "People insist on that clich because he writes about seamen, but the sea is just a frame for what he has to say about the human condition. His novels penetrate human nature. Conrad is full of understanding and compassion; he doesn't judge, he explains."

She bounds off a kitchen chair to answer the phone. "The calls are all for her these days," says daughter Brigitte, an accomplished bookbinder. Brigitte is one of the reasons her mother took up translating Conrad. Lamolle was "shocked" that her daughter hadn't liked "Lord Jim" - her own favorite book - and that the translation Brigitte had been reading "was not even good French."

"It was just a word-by-word translation, and it didn't capture Conrad's thought," Lamolle says. "You have to respect the music and the balance of Conrad's long sentences. I just began translating the book for Brigitte and for my own pleasure. I never dreamed it would be published."

Trunks of manuscripts

Henry Dougier, Autremont's president, first heard about the Lamolle translations through the great aunt of a friend. He traveled to Barbaste to meet her, because Lamolle refuses to go to Paris. He asked to see her manuscripts and was astonished to find that she had trunks of translations in her basement, all typed on three-holed white parchment tied together with narrow leather bookbinder strips.

"She's a phenomenon, extraordinarily intelligent, and absolutely sure of herself. We see lots of translations that are timid and tentative, but hers ring with authority," Mr. Dougier says.

"What's most incredible is that she did all of this without credentials or any thought of publication or recompense. It was a great adventure for her, much like Conrad's novels. Many French translations of Conrad are too literal and respectful. You have to translate Conrad with your own soul and guts," he adds.

Dougier showed the translations to France's leading expert on English novelists, Sylvre Monod, who had just completed editing a new series of Conrad translations. Mr. Monod approved the Lamolle works, and Dougier now plans to publish "virtually all" of her translations.

"Translation is always difficult, and in fact, impossible. No one translation will ever be fully satisfying, and there can never be too many translations of Conrad," says Monod in an interview in his book-lined office on Paris's Left Bank.

"France has a special relationship with Conrad. French intellectuals took to Conrad at an early date. Like other Polish nobles, Conrad had a French governess. He learned French before he learned English, and you can see the influence of French in his writing.

"Lamolle's translations convey the creative energy that is in the original and they have one great advantage: They're all done by the same hand, so the same spirit runs through the entire series. She has a powerful imagination and a creative mind, and also a wonderful voice of her own," he says.

While translators such as Monod work with a word processor and refine their translations through multiple drafts, Lamolle writes out her translations by hand, and rarely makes revisions. "What I'm trying to translate are thoughts, not words. A word-by-word translation can deform a writer's thought. I'm not in love with Conrad, but I really feel that I understand him. I don't betray his thoughts," she says.

Lamolle was an accomplished horsewoman and managed the family's hairdresser-supply business before taking up translation "to keep my mind sharp" after retirement. Her responses to questions are quick, sharp, with no shades of gray, and her deep-blue eyes bore right through you.

"I translate quickly, too quickly sometimes, but it's the only chance I have to translate well," she says. "I read the sentence in English and the French translation comes quickly, and I write it out in longhand before the thought gets away.

"Sometimes I write so fast that my lines cross, and it's hard to make them out the next day. If I make corrections later, it just makes it worse. My translations are what they are. I just said to my editors: Take it or leave it. I don't want corrections in my work, except for maritime terms, which I don't know well."

Long morning walks in the wooded paths around her farm help clarify her thoughts about the day's work. "When I have a problem in translating, sometimes the solution comes to me when I'm walking. I use my walks to think," she says.

She translates at night on a small desk in her bedroom, referring only to the original text and an English dictionary, and then hunt-and-pecks on a manual typewriter the next day. "I never learned to type," she says. "If you gave me a computer tomorrow, I wouldn't use it."

Music to translate by

She says that she often listens to classical music on her radio when translating, if the music is right: "There's a music to translating Conrad. Sometimes when there's good music on the radio, it helps." She likes Richard Wagner, especially "Die Walkurie," for translating Conrad.

Did she know that Francis Ford Coppella used "The Ride of the Walkurie" in the film "Apocalypse Now," which was based on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness?"

"He did?" (She seemed pleased.) "I never saw that film. It came to a theater near Barbaste once, but I don't go out at night." Had she considered watching the film on a video cassette or television? "We once had a television, but we got rid of it. It just annoyed us."

Sitting in her garden, she reads aloud a passage from Conrad's "An Outcast of the Islands": "The sea, perhaps because of its saltiness, roughens the outside but keeps sweet the kernel of its servant's soul.... The sea of the past was an incomparably beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of today is a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and of its promise."

"Listen to those words," she says. "That's why I translate Conrad."

An old friend

She talks about Conrad as if he were an old friend who last visited the farm a few weeks ago. She doesn't approve of his choice of wife ("not up to his level"), but admires how he faced the depression he battled all his life "with his spirit, not just taking pills."

She's now working on a translation of Charles Morgan, an English writer that "everyone under 50 has forgotten. Ah, that's a writer!" she says, her blue eyes sending sparks.

She has also translated Lord Byron, Shakespeare's sonnets, and written a novel that she threw away after 15 years without allowing anyone to read it. "I just didn't have the imagination for a novel," she says.

Her concern now is to see the rest of her translations come out quickly. Her publisher, Dougier, smiles when reminded of this point, and says that he can barely keep up with her output now.

"She's translating new material all the time, and could keep a whole publishing house busy on her own," he says. "She doesn't seem to realize how remarkable it is to have published 10 of her translations at once."

She won't know until next month how many of her translations have been sold, or whether she is winning new readers to Conrad. But she loves hearing from new readers.

"Two people stopped me as I came out of church the other day and thanked me for introducing them to a Conrad they've never known," she says.

"People are reading much less these days," she says. "When children are little, they're just put in front of television. They don't see their parents read any more. We should be giving children beautiful books to read. If they see their parents read, they will want to read too. People who read stay more alert."

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