Chris Andrews was born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1962. He studied at the University of Melbourne and taught there, in the French program, from 1995 to 2008. He is now teaching at the University of Western Sydney, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. He has also translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for US publisher New Directions.
- When did you read a Bookshop in Algiers for the first time, and how did you come to be involved in the project?
I read A Bookshop in Algiers (Nos richesses) in 2017, after hearing a radio interview with Kaouther Adimi, and I thought: I’d like to translate this! But it’s one thing to have a wish like that and quite another to have it come true. At the time I was applying for a semester’s study leave from my teaching job, so I worked the translation into my leave application, and asked Barbara Epler, the publisher at New Directions in the US, to write a letter of reference. The application was unsuccessful, but Barbara’s curiosity was piqued by my description of the novel. She asked for a longer reader’s report. At about the same time, Tynan Kogane at New Directions was gathering intelligence from publishing contacts in Paris, and he too was enthusiastic about Nos richesses. So things came together serendipitously. The rights were acquired, and my wish came true.
- From the offset, this novel captures a very strong sense of place, painting a vivid image of Algiers. How did you evoke this strong sense of place in your translation?
Really just by following Kaouther Adimi as she invites the readers into the neighbourhood where the novel’s action unfolds. Some writers can create a sense of place and an atmosphere by arranging a few descriptive details, like the heavy wooden doors, the cat that has lost its tail and the walls pocked by bullets in the opening pages of Our Riches. It’s a mysterious skill, as much in the arrangement as in the selection of the details, I think. In any case, Kaouther Adimi has it.
- The novel is structured between two timelines, with two distinct voices: the short diary extracts from Edmond Charlot, through to 1961, and the story of Ryad, in 2017. With such distinct voices, how did you go about approaching these two very different parts of the novel?
I tried to make Ryad, in his speech and his thoughts, sound like a young man now. He’s about the same age as my students. And for Charlot, I tried to hear the voice of someone between the generations of my parents and my grandparents. But the differences between the two characters are not just generational; they’re ethnic and cultural too. Charlot’s ancestors were colonists, and he is passionate about books. Ryad’s ancestors were there before the French, and he is not bookish at all. In fact the presence of many books makes him uncomfortable. One of the novel’s great strengths is the way it fully inhabits these very different points of view without allowing either to invalidate the other.
- Within the novella, the story flits quickly between traumatic periods of history to moments of humour – particularly regarding Ryad and his quest for paint – is it hard to translate such juxtaposition in Adimi’s writing?
The juxtapositions in themselves aren’t hard; the difficulty is more in striking the right note in the juxtaposed sections. The historical passages written from the point of view of a chorus-like we have a sober, often sombre formality that it was important to preserve, whereas the passages narrating Ryad’s misadventures are done with a feather-light touch.
- What was the greatest challenge of this translation?
There wasn’t a single outstanding obstacle, just lots of small-scale difficulties, lots of sentences that are well built in the original, but felt a bit wonky in early drafts of the translation, or didn’t fit nicely with the surrounding sentences, so they had to be taken apart and reassembled. One thing that I worried over for a while was how translate Charlot’s motto: “Un homme qui lit en vaut deux.” Un homme is used in the general sense, to mean a human being, but a man wouldn’t be understood that way today. So after some hesitation I decided to neutralize the gender and accentuate the arithmetic: “One who reads is worth two who don’t.”
- How did you approach the translation process? Did you work closely with Kaouther Adimi?
I like to save my questions until I’m nearly done – after many drafts – and then send them to the authors all at once, so as not to keep interrupting their work. By the time authors get translated into English, they usually have quite a few other translators to reply to. Kaouther Adimi was very helpful with her answers.
- Edmond Charlot led a fascinating and inspiring life – were you aware of Edmond’s story before embarking on this project, or was this something you learnt about through the project?
I was vaguely aware of Charlot as the publisher of Camus’ first book, but he was just a name to me. It was through the project that I discovered the breadth of his literary activism. I found his ill-starred attempt to set up Éditions Charlot in Paris particularly moving: he had talented writers but struggled to keep them; the quota system starved him of paper; and the established players weren’t going to make room for some colonial upstart.
- Speaking about your career as a translator more broadly, what are the aspects of your job you love the most, and the least?
I love the long, slow engagement with works of fiction. Among other things, translation is an excuse for rereading. I also love revising, getting stuck, getting up from my desk and wandering around the house or the garden with the wonky sentence in my head, and coming up with something better by a process of gentle agitation: not necessarily a definitive solution, but definitely better. What do I love the least? Looking back when doing the first draft and seeing how rough it is. And the finishing stages make me anxious, because I keep thinking: it’s my last chance to find a good solution to this thorny problem. Being in the midst of it is the best.
- What are you working on at the moment? And are there any other French (or Spanish) novels you would love to translate for an English audience, anything you’ve got your eye on?
With the people at New Directions I’m choosing some more short novels by the Argentine novelist César Aira (And Other Stories will be bringing out The Divorce in June, with a foreword by Patti Smith). Apart from that, I’m not sure what the future holds, and I’m wary of jinxing myself (having done it in the past).