Writing in Translation: Jean Rhys’s Paris Fiction



In Rhys’s short story ‘Till September Petronella’, the narrator, attempting to describe the room of a French girl in London, likens it to a scene from a ‘romantic’ novel ‘translated from French or German or Hungarian or something — because few of the English ones have the exact feeling I mean’.1 English is inadequate to express the girl’s exilic state, which can only be alluded to via the invocation of an explicitly translational English which bears the marks of its ‘French or German or Hungarian’ origins. This fleeting reference to translation might seem casual, but it is significant to Rhys’s work, whose protagonists — notoriously ‘unhoused’, of ambiguous nationality, forever occupying the temporary and liminal spaces of the metropolis2 — are expressed in a language and fictional style that is subtly but pervasively translational, not quite English, unsettled and unsettling. In the last chapter, we saw how Mansfield develops a translational style that corresponds to a thematic exploration of national identity as performance rather than essence (a perspective that is inextricably linked to the cultural complexity of her own migrant colonial identity). Mansfield’s texts remain ambivalent towards such interlingual mixing, however, associating it, in ‘Je ne parle pas français’ with the corrupt and distorting polyglot narration of Raoul Duquette.


National Identity Mother Tongue Source Text Linguistic Competence Literal Translation 
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  1. 1.
    Jean Rhys, The Collected Short Stories (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), p. 126. Subsequent page references to the stories will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation CS.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As Andrew Thacker writes, Rhys’s work ‘exhibits a passage through modernity that constantly subverts any discourse of place as settled attachment’. In addition to the motif of the voyage that is central to the fiction, Rhys’s protagonists are often to be found in liminal spaces (cafés, restaurants, hotels) and ‘appear to hover between inner and outer spaces, in a state of geographic ambivalence’. The Rhys heroine ‘never really occupies anywhere, never “dwells”, in Heidegger’s sense: a hotel room is only ever a kind of temporary halt’. Andrew Thacker, Moving Through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 192–3.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A. Alvarez, ‘The Best Living Novelist’, The New York Times Review of Books, 17 March 1974, pp. 6–7 (p. 6).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 28. Subsequent page references to the novel will appear in parentheses with the abbreviation ALM.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Unsurprisingly, Rhys was furious about the misappropriation. See Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: André Deutsch, 1990), p. 164.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Édouard de Nève, Barred, trans. Jean Rhys (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1932).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    De Nève writes, in the preface, of his difficulties in getting the French manuscript published, and states that in order to increase his chances of publication, ‘j’ai écrit cette histoire en anglais’ [‘I wrote this story in English’]. He even attributes Rhys’s many amendments to the story to himself, stating that ‘il m’a fallu changer un peu l’intrigue dans la version anglaise’ [‘I had to make slight changes to the plot in the English version’]. Édouard de Nève, Sous les verrous (Paris: Librairie Stock, 1933), p. 9.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    See Steven G. Yao, Translation and the Languages of Modernism: Gender, Politics, Language (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) and Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 187–208.Google Scholar
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    In the case of Perversity, the attribution of Ford was finally resolved as having been an error on the part of the publishers. See Jean Rhys, Jean Rhys: Letters 1931–1966, ed. Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 294–5. However, it is clear to see the potential commercial advantage of naming a well-known writer instead of a then-unknown translator. Indeed, the text on the dust jacket of the first edition is positively emphatic about Ford’s role as translator, going even so far as to ‘quote’ from him directly: ‘Ford Madox Ford is discriminating; he does not trade in glittering generalities. So, when he called PERVERSITY a second Madame Bovary, he was not talking hokum. Of course, Mr. Ford is the translator and well — he may feel a bit indulgent. Not a bit of it! Indefatigable man of letters that he is, he ranged through modern French literature until he happened onto PERVERSITY. “By Jove, this must be translated.” So he went to it, and at length wrought a translation as admirable in its way as his works of creation are in theirs.’ Francis Carco, Perversity, trans. Jean Rhys (Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1928).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    According to Angier, de Nève’s articles were: ‘“My House”, about ([Rhys] said) “a house in the country where he longed to live”; “The Chevalier of the Place Blanche”; and a piece called “The Poet”’ (Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work, p. 129). It is curious that Rhys, in Smile Please, recalls articles about a poet and about a house, but claims that ‘I don’t remember the third’, despite the fact that a revised version of ‘Chevalier’ was published in 1976. Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (London: Deutsch, 1979), p. 153.Google Scholar
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    Rhys tells Mary Cantwell that she read ‘Contemporary French novels […]. And I loved Maupassant, Anatole France, Flaubert.’ Pierrette M. Frickey (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1990), p. 24. This has a direct impact upon her fiction — see, for example, Judith Kegan Gardiner on the importance of Rhys’s wide reading to Good Morning, Midnight, including French writers such as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Anatole France and Colette. Judith Kegan Gardiner, ‘Good Morning, Midnight; Good Night, Modernism’, Boundary 2: A Journal of Postmodern Literature and Culture, 11 (1982), 233–51. See also Helen Carr, who argues for the particular significance of the ‘French connection’ to Rhys’s politics, demonstrating Rhys’s sympathy with ‘a French tradition of anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment alignment of the writer with those despised by respectable society’. Helen Carr, Jean Rhys (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1996), p. 44.Google Scholar
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    Elaine Savory, Jean Rhys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 40–1.Google Scholar
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    Lori Chamberlain, ‘Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation’, Signs, 13 (1988), 454–72 (p. 455).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 32.
    R. B. Le Page and Andrée Tabouret-Keller, Acts of Identity: Creole-Based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 49. Le Page and Tabouret-Keller note that the Windward Islands, Dominica, St Lucia and Grenada, ‘remained culturally Creole French until the [twentieth] century in spite of the gradually growing influence of an English-speaking administration and English as the medium of education in the schools. Grenada is today the most completely Anglicized (and Anglo-creolized) of the Windward Islands; St. Lucia and Dominica the least so’ (pp. 133–5).Google Scholar
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    As she tells Teresa O’Connor, ‘I was not really bilingual, but in Dominica the people used to speak a French “patois”, and so of course I heard it all my childhood, also a lot of nuns at the convent I went to were French so I was used to the sound of the language, but I can’t say that I was fluent.’ Teresa O’Connor, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels (New York: New York University Press, 1986), p. 16.Google Scholar
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    Paula Le Gallez, The Rhys Woman (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 41.
    The poem, unattributed within the story, is from Marguerite Burnat-Provins’s 1907 volume, Le Livre pour toi, a married woman’s eulogy to her lover, which caused a scandal at the time. Marguerite Burnat-Provins, Le Livre pour toi (Paris: Éditions de la différence, 1994).Google Scholar
  18. 43.
    One of the more conventional popular functions of multilingualism in fiction is to add a foreign ‘flavour’, to present a text that is exotically ‘foreign’ for the Anglophone reader. Such multilingualism tends to take a form of selective reproduction, where, as Sternberg explains, interjections (e.g. the French ‘Parbleu!’) function as ‘mimetic clichés’ which ‘denote otherness by way of opposition’. Meir Sternberg, ‘Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis’, Poetics Today, 2 (1981), 221–39 (p. 226). Such a technique would usually be characterised by the author’s use of expressions and interjections in the foreign language that are stereotypical markers of that nationality. A translated novel such as Perversity, with its focus on the Paris underworld, on sexual deviance and prostitution, would itself have been read by many readers seeking a scandalous representation of the moral laxity of Parisian society and for whom a stylised ‘Frenchness’ (as opposed to a naturalised domesticating translation) would have had its appeal. Rhys herself is critical of such a perspective on Paris: her story ‘Tout Montparnasse and a Lady’, for example, presents a satirical portrait of an American ‘Lady’ in Paris who, in her desire for salacious scandal, insultingly interprets an artist’s tiredness as the effects of a life of drug-addled dissolution (CS 16–19). Nonetheless, Perversity can, in part, be seen to pander to such an impulse, particularly in its retention of words and interjections such as ‘voyons!’, ‘He la’, ‘allons!’, ‘Tiens!’, ‘Parbleu!’, ‘hein?’, ‘nom de Dieu!’, which are just the sort of stereotypically ‘French’ expressions that frequently appear in exoticising Anglophone representations of French people. Indeed, Rhys can even be seen to heighten such stereotyping effect: she repeatedly changes, for example, the original French interjection ‘Oh! la, la’ into ‘ou-la-la’, a formulation that corresponds more closely to the common English stereotype of Frenchness. However, as my analysis of Perversity demonstrates, Rhys’s Gallicised English is, overall, too foreignising, and contains too many unusual (and non-stereotypical) Gallicisms, to pander effectively to such exoticising impulses — the overall effect is far too unsettling for that.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 44.
    Francis Carco, Perversité (Paris: J. Ferenczi et Fils, 1925), p. 28.Google Scholar
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    Francis Carco, Perversity, trans. Jean Rhys (Black Mask, 2005), p. 14.Google Scholar
  21. 47.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 4.Google Scholar
  22. 49.
    Peter Newmark defines translationese as ‘the area of interference where a literal translation of a stretch of the source language text (a) plainly falsifies (or ambiguates) its meaning, or (b) violates usage for no apparent reason’. Peter Newmark, About Translation (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1991), p. 78.Google Scholar
  23. 50.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 73.Google Scholar
  24. 52.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 73. This is a literal translation of ‘Tu l’as bien arrangé’ (Carco, Perversité, p. 139). The French phrase ‘arranger quelqu’un’ means ‘to beat someone up’.Google Scholar
  25. 53.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 207. This is a literal translation of ‘Ah! tu vas fort quand même! T’exagères!’ (Carco, Perversité, p. 207), which really means something like ‘that’s going a bit far!’Google Scholar
  26. 55.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 19. ‘Délicat’ in the French means ‘thoughtful’ or ‘sensitive’ rather than ‘delicate’.Google Scholar
  27. 57.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 61. ‘Figure!’ here is short for ‘figuretoi!’, meaning ‘Imagine!’ (‘Ugly face!’ presumably derives from the fact that ‘figure’ can also mean ‘face’.)Google Scholar
  28. 58.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 61.Google Scholar
  29. 59.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 79.Google Scholar
  30. 60.
    Carco, Perversity (Black Mask, 2005), p. 43. This means ‘life got back to normal’ (literally: ‘life got back on course’).Google Scholar
  31. 64.
    Édouard Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), p. 45. I would argue that it would not be appropriate to celebrate all forms of translation in such terms, and that Glissant is no doubt prioritising a Benjaminian perspective whereby translation causes the target language to be fundamentally affected — and estranged — by the source language and text. In such cases, translation puts into play both source and target languages, with the final effect of a language that grows out of and gestures towards both languages. Such forms of translation could indeed be conceived of as creolising, in that, instead of seeking to eliminate the source language within the translation, they make creative use of interlingual effects and produce new linguistic and stylistic forms in the process.Google Scholar
  32. 68.
    Martien Kappers-den Hollander, ‘Jean Rhys and the Dutch Connection’, Journal of Modern Literature, 11 (1984), 159–173 (p. 167).Google Scholar
  33. 71.
    In his preface to Sous les verrous, de Nève states that, having failed to find a publisher for the French text, ‘j’ai écrit cette histoire en anglais, puis en hollandais’ [‘I wrote this story in English, then in Dutch’]. de Nève, Sous les verrous. The preface to In de Strik again fails to name Rhys as translator, stating simply that ‘Dit boek heb ik in Amsterdam geschreven in drie talen — Engelsch, Fransch en Hollandsch’ [‘I wrote this book in Amsterdam in three languages — English, French and Dutch’]. Curiously, the order of languages here implies an order of composition which would place the English version as the original. de Nève, In De Strik (Amsterdam: Andries Blitz, 1932), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    Eugene Jolas, Man from Babel, ed. Andreas Kramer and Rainer Rumold (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 151.Google Scholar
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    Mary Lou Emery, Jean Rhys at “World’s End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 144–72.Google Scholar
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    Rachel Bowlby, Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 42.Google Scholar

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© Juliette Taylor-Batty 2013

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