Jean Giono - The Open Road,

On Jean Giono | Translating the Untranslatable

Richard Gwyn reviews Paul Eprile’s translation of  The Open Road by Jean Giono published by New York Review Books. Here, he recounts his own relationship with the novel and the many challenges presented in translating a text peppered with idioms and locutions.

The sun is never so beautiful as on a day when you take to the open road.

For several months, during my travels on foot around southern Europe at the tail end of the 1980s, I carried with me a copy of Jean Giono’s Les Grand Chemins in its French paperback edition, loaned to me by the poet and bouzouki player Hubert Tsarko. Against the odds, my copy shows almost no sign of wear and tear. Sometimes I suspect it is not the book that Hubert loaned me, but I cannot remember buying it again, so have to assume that the same copy has survived the battering of more than thirty years in almost pristine condition. However, that suspicion — that the book is not the same as it was — begins to take on new significance after my pre-ordered copy of The Open Road lands on the doormat with a thump, one day in November, rudely disturbing the slumber of my ancient springer spaniel, Bruno. Re-reading Giono’s novel in another language, thirty years on, it turns out not to be the same book at all, despite the claims of its title.

The book that I remembered was evocative of a lifestyle and a place that I no longer count as mine, but the threads that the story pulls at are lodged deep in memory, and they connect me to some of the wilder places of Europe, as well as to a sense of hearth and home represented in the novel by the fires that the unnamed protagonist keeps burning in his walnut-oil mill on long winter nights, and the climb through the alpine forest towards his final act of sacrifice and betrayal.

A few weeks after drafting the opening paragraphs of this review, Hubert gets in touch with me from Liverpool, in one of his rare and random phone calls, and in answer to my questioning tells me that I returned his copy of Les Grands Chemins in 1989, when he was living in Carrer Sant Just, in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and that he still has it. In which case, I ask myself, where did my identical copy come from? The truth is that I have no idea.

In case the reader is wondering, this seemingly far-fetched tale is relevant to the writing of this review, as it sets the tone for my relationship with this curious and rather wonderful novel, translated for the first time into English by Paul Eprile and published by New York Review Books, who have been doing a great job in making Giono’s oeuvre available to a new readership, having issued translations of the novels Hill, Melville and A King Alone over the past five years. 

I myself attempted a translation of Les Grands Chemins some thirty years ago, but that effort, for better or worse, has disappeared along with so much else. Giono’s narrator is not an educated man; he has apparently served time in prison, and lives from hand to mouth. One of the difficulties of translating the novel lies in finding the right tone and register for the narrator’s constant use of slang and vernacular expressions; and this, more than anything else, was what put paid to my efforts all those years ago. Consequently, my trepidation in waiting for the English version to appear was acute. As the reader will have gathered by now, I have an irrational sense of propriety towards this novel. 

Unfortunately, reading the book in translation was a bit like meeting an old and dear friend who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery, and the result, while by no means a disaster, has left him looking like someone other than himself. 

Some novels, perhaps, are more untranslatable than others.

Jean Giono is best known to readers of English as the author of The Man Who Planted Trees, a bittersweet tale written long before there was an environmentalist movement to speak of, and which was made into a popular animated film in 1987. His novel Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof ) was also turned into a successful movie, starring Juliette Binoche, but neither of these works really do justice to the deeply felt sense of place and the emotional intelligence of Giono’s work, almost all of which is set in or around the town of Manosque, in the Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, where Giono was born and spent his entire life. Or almost his entire life: in 1914, at the age of nineteen, he was sent off to war, like the vast majority of France’s young men. He trained in the Alpine Infantry and took part in some of the major battles of World War One, including Verdun. Life at the front marked him forever. He was one of the very few survivors of his company to return home, and he became a lifelong pacifist. This was something for which he would be made to suffer after World War Two when he was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. But that was all later.

Returning to Manosque in 1919, Giono took up the job in a bank which he had held before the war, and began writing. He started with prose poems and moved on to novels. After a few false starts he published Colline (Hill), a strange and intricately patterned tale of rural life, in which the human, animal and vegetable worlds occupying a remote mountain hamlet are seen to be intimately and ineluctably entwined. Colline attracted the attention of some of the big names of Parisian literary life, including André Gide, who paid a visit to find out who this promising young writer was. But Giono was never tempted by life in the metropolis.  He bought an old house in an olive grove on the edge of town, and stayed put, dying at home in October 1970 at the age of seventy-five. He thus belongs to a diminishing group of writers who are profoundly and irrevocably associated with a particular place, a defined and circumscribed landscape. ‘Of a piece and of a place’, as Raymond Williams’ protagonist says of his taid, Ellis, in People of the Black Mountains. In fact, re-reading Williams’ last novel immediately after reading Giono has led me to think that this is what Williams would most have liked to be; a writer lodged in a specific locus or habitat, like his namesake Waldo, also a pacifist, who wrote unerringly about a single community in the Preseli hills; or the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, like Waldo a village schoolteacher, who spent his entire working life within the region of the Veneto. All three men — Giono, Waldo and Zanotto — spent most of their lives within a small, rural community, and each of them, by focusing on the local and the particular, spoke for the whole of humankind. In The Open Road, Giono’s narrator touches on this very theme when he discusses ‘the things you notice at significant times. For example’, he continues, ‘the footprints of a man who seeks happiness in one spot, with everything taken care of and easy to understand; in a world that following the seasons, seems to follow you; that fulfilling its own destiny, fulfils you . . .’

Giono has an uncanny skill in evoking the natural world without sentimentalising it: instead he reminds us how our subjective responses, rooted in memory, determine our way of being in the world:

At this time of year, the chestnut sap flows earthward and settles underground. It oozes from all the nicks in the bark that summer has opened wider. It has that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough, of flour mixed with water. A falcon, chased by a cloud of titmice, swoops by low over the trees. The midday warmth spreads like a quilt from my knees to my feet. I’m letting my beard grow, to contend with coldness in general. To live in love or to live in fear: it all comes down to memory. 

This seemingly straightforward paragraph can be broken down into four distinct topics, more specifically into three cascading non-sequiturs, which nicely illustrate Giono’s technique. First, the lovely evocation of the sap, oozing from the chestnut tree, and likening the smell of that sap with bread dough. Second, the vision of a bird of prey pursued by a cloud of tiny birds, Third, the weather (warm, but foreshadowing the cold), and finally the curious crowning insight: whether we live in love or in fear, we are constrained by memory. How many novelists would be reckless, or skilled enough to pack so much into a single paragraph? 

The extract also serves to show up some of the shortcomings of the translation, because the French says something a little different: 

En cette saison, la sève des chatâigniers descend et rentre sous terre. Elle suinte de toutes le égratignures que l’été a élargies dans l’écorce. Elle a cette odeur équivoque de pâte à pain, de farine délayée dans l’eau. Un faucon file en oblique, très bas à travers les arbres, poursuivi par une nuée de mésanges. La chaleur de midi est sur mes pieds et mes genoux comme un édredon. Je laisse pousser ma barbe pour des questions de froid universel. Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire.

First, I would disagree with ‘that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough’, which is a rendering of ‘cette odeur équivoque de pâte a pain’.  Unfortunately ‘équivoque’ does not mean ‘hard to describe’, and would more suitably be transcribed as ‘that dubious (or ambivalent, or suspect) smell of bread dough’. And in that puzzling summative sentence, the translator has again changed the meaning of the original: the French is: ‘Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire’, which might be translated as: ‘To love, to live or to be scared, it’s all a question of memory’. These are not terrible misjudgements, more a case of a translator slightly overstepping the mark. If they were isolated incidents, it would matter less, but unfortunately they are not, and this only added to my discomfiture.

The mountains around Manosque, the deep valleys and the forested hillsides, provide the backdrop, or rather the context, for all of Giono’s writings. We are drawn, in his stories, towards some elemental and chthonic myth of home, and yet village life, in Giono, is never quite what it seems. His fullest and most convincing characters, men and women alike, share a kind of emphatic yet amoral physicality; neither existentialists nor primitives, they are people with roots; people who know what and who they are, even if they lack ego or even ‘identity’ in any modern, strictly individualistic sense. I’d be tempted to call them animists were animism not such a questionable term, much like ‘nature’ — as though nature were something distinct from us, which we visit or even, God forbid, ‘get back to’. ‘The very fact that we have a word for “nature” is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as a part of it’, write Kingsworth and Hine in Uncivilisation, and their Dark Mountain Project offers a perspective that is likely to ring a few bells for anyone who admires Giono’s work, or rejects the fond conceit of human progress.

The premise of The Open Road is simple: we follow the travels of the unnamed narrator, a solitary vagabond, across the hills and valleys of Alpine Provence as autumn turns to winter, some time around 1950, the year the novel was written. The story is narrated in first person, present tense, and unbroken by chapters, giving a seamless, almost dreamlike quality to the whole. In fact it is that oneiric sense of non-sequitur, and of the narrator’s seeming indifference to outcomes, as well as the contradictory impulses that steer his decisions — if indeed he can actually be said to take decisions — that most impressed me on my first reading, and of which I was reminded this second time around.

We first meet our man hitch-hiking at the side of the road. When a lorry pulls up he falls into conversation with the driver about the availability of jobs in the area. The driver asks what kind of work he is looking for, and the man replies: ‘A bit of everything. A hundred trades, a hundred headaches’. (Again, a translation quibble: the French is the alliterative ‘Cent métiers, cent misères’. By expressing ‘misères’ — miseries, misfortunes — as ‘headaches’, the translation not only misses out on a chance to replicate the music of the original — something like ‘a hundred trades, a hundred tribulations’ — it also relegates the narrator’s quip about work from existential grievance to mere gripe or irritation.)

But translation issues aside, there are already — by Page 2 — signs that things are not quite right. The lorry, ominously, is ‘hauling acid for a factory’, and the driver has to make the delivery three times a day, an eighty-mile trip each way in order to hit his target. Four trips and he starts making a bonus. It soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of work around, because the country is undergoing ‘reconstruction’ here and elsewhere, due to the ravages of war. In fact the remnants of war and occupation are everywhere visible, as are the trophies that have landed in France since its end, from the American army raincoat worn by the narrator to the American-made farm machinery that he showcases for one of his employers, and the American cigarettes smoked by his sometime companion, ‘the artist’. Modernity has encroached on this rural landscape in the form of goods imported from the land of the victor. A sense of recent upheaval, and the ambiguity with which the narrator faces the challenges of the day seem to suggest that rather more is going on than might first be apparent. Mention is made of the war in Indochina (Vietnam) as France embarks on a sordid struggle to hang onto the last of her colonies. There is a sense of uncertainty, even of anxiety in the air. Perhaps we could call it ‘cultural anxiety’, of which our protagonist is only too keenly aware. We might look to the novel’s epigraph, taken from Hamlet, for some clue or insight:

 Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet; 

I pray thee stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

This seemingly commonplace entreaty to a son to stay at home, not to abandon the mother, sits rather strangely at the start of a novel in which the protagonist is always on the move, never once makes mention of his family, nor ever suggests that he might be missed elsewhere. Since Giono’s characters are most often individuals who live their entire lives in one place, this novel is unusual in that its narrator is a drifter. He is a stranger to the villages he passes through: every place he encounters, he is visiting for the first time. Moreover, very early on, he says that chateaus with turrets ‘scare the shit’ out of him, perhaps a reference to his having spent time inside, or else, given the recent war, a prison camp. So why the reference to a mother’s prayers?

The man walks or hitches from village to village, and although these places are unfamiliar to him, he is an astute observer of the flora and fauna, as well as the people (most especially the women) in the places he passes through. He takes on odd jobs, looks after a walnut-oil mill, fixes things, and forms a curious friendship with a man he calls ‘the artist’, a fellow vagrant whom he meets up with early in the novel. The artist does no work but rather earns his keep as a card sharp.

From the outset, the narrator’s relationship with the artist is ambivalent: 

I see a guy sitting on the boulders next to the rushing stream . . . As I get closer, I can make out he’s holding a guitar between his legs.

I ask him, “What are you up to?”

He raises his head: he has a nasty gaze. A moment later, he answers, “I’m fixing this, see.” He’s carving a tuning peg with his knife. He’s a young guy. I don’t like the way he looks. But I’m watching his skilful hands, and I stick around.

He asks if I’m going to the fair. I tell him I didn’t know there was a fair. I want to speak nicely to him. He’s tanned. His hair is curly. He looks like a girl and he’s strong. Right away, his gaze was so off-putting, I want to see it again. I don’t think he made it nasty on purpose. It was just his natural look.

There is so much here that resists unpacking: the fact that the artist has a ‘nasty gaze’ and yet our man wants to see it again; the fact that he both ‘looks like a girl’ and that ‘he’s strong’; the idea that the narrator finds the stranger’s gaze ‘so off-putting’ that he wants to see it again.

It comes as no surprise, given this new string of non-sequiturs — including a thinly disguised homoeroticism — that the two men fall in together. But the ease with which the narrator accepts his own ambivalence toward the artist is something which, for me, fuels the central conundrum of the novel: the chemistry between the two men, and the way in which the relationship unravels.

At that first encounter, the artist asks our man to accompany him to a fair in the nearby town. Reasonably enough, the narrator wants to know more about his companion, but he holds back, since, he says, he knows that the artist would only tell him lies, and in a way that is what he’d prefer, since ‘if he told me the truth, I’m afraid it would make me sick.’ And on this rather unusual premise the two start out their association — ‘friendship’ seems too intimate a name for it, something about which the narrator comments: ‘There are plenty of things about him that annoy me. I wouldn’t want this kind of man as a friend.’ We learn that the artist plays his guitar at fairs and village dances in the area, but this is only a sideline to his main source of income, as a card sharp. Not only does he cheat at cards, he does so with such style and artistry that the narrator is astonished and impressed in equal measure; smitten, in spite of himself. He misses the artist when he disappears after being beaten up, and he does refer to him as a ‘buddy’, however obfuscating the rest of his description:

. . . that glorious buddy I’m talking about is in reality the slimiest bastard on the face of the earth: absolute scum, thief, liar, in it for himself, nastiness incarnate, capable of swindling his own parents, happy as a pig in shit. No matter how thick I lay it on him, I still miss him.

The artist is a study in raw egotism: obsessed with money, he is rapacious, arrogant and yet oddly vulnerable. The narrator, by contrast, is solid, trustworthy, and only a little vain (he tends to his beard with the fastidiousness of a dandy). From the outset it seems almost inevitable that the artist will meet with some sort of comeuppance, but what is extraordinary are the lengths to which the narrator will go to rescue and protect him. An initial act of violence provokes a sort of a chain reaction, and the story shifts tone. The novel then becomes something darker and more restless until the narrator finally takes action, revealing his own wayward and ruthless moral code.

In his introduction to this edition, Jacques Le Gall makes an interesting comparison with the Jack Kerouac of On the Road, a story ‘of two guys hitching to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else.’ Although, as this quotation from Kerouac’s 1948 journal might suggest, there are points of intersection between the two novels, it seems to me too simplistic a comparison, and Giono has always been a superior psychologist and observer of human foibles than Kerouac; moreover The Open Road is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel than On the Road. There is certainly a kinship between the two works in terms of their brevity of composition, Kerouac hammering out the first draft of On the Road over three weeks in 1951, and Giono taking only two months to complete his novel, in a break between shifts on The Hussard on the Roof. But here the congruences end.

Earlier I mentioned that one of the problems of translating a novel like Les Grands Chemins is to decide what kind of a slang one translates into. In a novel as packed with idioms and locutions as this, the dialect and register one opts for is always going to be a gamble. Add to that the plethora of aphorisms with which the narrator peppers his account and you have something like a translator’s nightmare. Paul Eprile has chosen to adopt the diction of the American 1950s, even of the beatnik, and this offers us ‘broads’ for women (for the offensive and outdated French gonzesses), or ‘java’ for coffee. We also have ‘chicks’ — which, sadly, is appropriate for the era — and on other occasions the narrator ‘takes a dump’ and so on.  Admittedly our narrator is a hobo à la française and accommodation to the street language of the era seems fitting, up to a point. I can’t quite see our narrator digging the zeitgeist in Big Sur, or jiving to the electric Kool-aid acid test with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and so to an extent the association with beat lit is misleading, but when all is said and done, the translation of dialect and slang idioms is always going to present problems. I don’t want to come down too heavily on Paul Eprile, who had to make some difficult choices, and whose translation of Colline — another tricky work, full of poetic imagery and Provencal idiomsI enjoyed very much. The fact that I failed to connect with this novel in English is probably no fault of his. And here’s the thing. My main problem with The Open Road is the one that I started out with: it failed to live up to the memory I had of it.  So, on completing this review, I pick up my old copy, and re-read the original version, and at once I am back in Giono’s world, and it all makes sense, in its own inimitable fashion. As I said, some novels are more untranslatable than others.


Paul Eprile’s translation of Jean Giono’s The Open Road is available via NYRB.

Richard Gwyn is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor. His latest novel, The Blue Tent (Parthian), and latest poetry collection, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure (Seren), are both available now.