Chris Clarke is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of Vies Imaginaires by French Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Read an excerpt of the translation here.  

PEN America has generously asked me to write a short note about why I decided to translate Marcel Schwob’s Vies Imaginaires (Imaginary Lives, 1896). To me, Schwob is an important precursor to many of the twentieth century’s modern and postmodern literary traditions. The more I read of the generation that followed him, the more apparent this becomes. One of Schwob’s most visible contributions was his work on François Villon, which had a great effect on French writers and artists of the time. While there were other strictly academic figures also working on Villon in the mid-to-late nineteenth century (such as Auguste Longnon and Willem Byvanck), Schwob was a known quantity and was widely read by his contemporaries. His fictio-documentary approach to Villon (1892) was similar (if a lot more developed) to what he would later do with his Imaginary Lives in that he exhausted all possible historical sources before setting his imagination to work to fill in the blanks. New research and discoveries in the archives led to a document-based conjectural biography of Villon that was much richer than what was possible when Clément Marot first attempted a resuscitation of Villon in the sixteenth century. But of equal importance was the accessible manner in which it was presented—unlike his more technical, academic colleagues, Schwob was widely read and the evidence of this can be seen in the literature to follow his own.

“Montmartre, naturally, was home to the gangs north of the Seine, the same way those from Rue du Pot-de-Fer were dependent on the Latin Quarter. Incidentally, both sides aligned themselves with Villon, whom Marcel Schwob had recently situated within a context that provided us with certain parallels to our own circumstances. This was a fragile condition, and at this juncture, from where I am writing, one that seems more or less incomprehensible. Its imagery was undeniable.” This description of the street painters of Paris in the years shortly after the turn of the new century, taken from Pierre Mac Orlan’s Mademoiselle Bambù (1932 & 1948, translation forthcoming from Wakefield Press, winter ’16-’17), depicts the lasting effects of his work on the next generation of French writers and artists.

As to Imaginary Lives in particular, first of all, it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, it both exemplifies Schwob’s fictio-documentary method as well as his philological education, and this presents some very interesting translation challenges. Schwob worked with whatever sources were at his disposal, and it is clear that for at least some of the Lives, he took a fait-divers approach, selecting his subjects from contemporary tidbits that had recently come to his attention. For example, his “Septima, Enchantress” is drawn from a tabella defixiones (or “curse tablet”) which was “unearthed in 1889 in the African city of Hadrumento, and edited for the first time in 1890.”1 This adds a fascinating element to the translation of these short texts, as he has woven his biographical tales around these found elements; determining which lines are Schwob’s and which have external provenance is key not only to finding the “accepted” translations of historical names, places, and concepts, but also brings forward the question of compensating or preserving stylistic shifts engendered by the insertion of these foreign elements.

Finally, we must note that Schwob’s influence was not limited to the French literary nouveau siècle. Jorge Luis Borges, in his introduction to the Spanish-language reissue of Schwob’s Vidas Imaginarias (Hyspamérica, 1985) in Borges’ own A Personal Library collection, indicated the influence of Schwob’s work on his own, in particular on his Universal History of Infamy, first published in 1935. In fact, Borges even translated at least one of Schwob’s Lives into Spanish in the 1930s. And so, if Plutarch forged the biographies of the greatest men of all time, and Borges those of the foulest, Schwob can be seen as the clear link between the two. Why only the best of men? he must have thought. Why not some of the worst, and some of the most ordinary, and even some concocted from literary instead of historical sources?

Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives was translated into English in 1924 by Lorimer Hammond, in what is a flawed and incomplete translation, and it has unfortunately been out of print in English since the Avon pocket edition of 1952. I’m sincerely hoping that, alongside Kit Schluter’s retranslation of Schwob’s The Book of Monelle (Wakefield Press, 2012) and his forthcoming The King in the Golden Mask (Wakefield, 2016), Imaginary Lives can help Marcel Schwob retake his rightful place as an important literary hinge—if not between Plutarch and Borges, then at least between the literatures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[1] Ana González-Rivas Fernández & Francisco García Jurado, “Death and Love in Poe’s and Schwob’s Readings of the Classics.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, Purdue University Press, Volume 10, Issue 4, December 2008. Pg. 5.

Chris Clarke is a PhD student in French literature and translation at CUNY and teaches at Brooklyn College. His previous translations include work by Patrick Modiano (NYRB Classics), Raymond Queneau (New Directions), and most recently, Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press). He is a recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his translation from the French of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, which will be available from Wakefield Press in 2017. .

This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.

This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema ([email protected]) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore ([email protected]) for the translator’s contact information.