Readers may be wondering why I haven’t posted a new, translated column in the past two weeks, since I write monthly (almost without fail) for Le Devoir of Montreal. There are two reasons: the first is that Catholic Quebec shuts down the day after Easter, so my column was delayed a week from its usual first-Monday-of-the-month publication schedule, and the second is that during the delay my friend and translator, John Cullen, fell ill and died. John’s passing, at seventy-nine, is a terrible loss for his partner, the novelist Valerie Martin, and for his family and friends back in New Orleans, where he was born. If you knew him, you would instantly recognize the easy and ironic humor of John’s hometown in every story and every joke he told. Raconteur is one of those French words that has gravitated seamlessly into English, and it describes John to a T. Like the city that bred him, he was never boring, and like the people he grew up with, he always took sufficient time to tell a story with style and aplomb. New Orleans is America’s most unusual and, in some respects, most “foreign” city, with a culture that defies American stereotypes. I suspect that it’s the mélange of New Orleans French, Creole, Spanish, and English that turned John into a linguist, and it was his ease in commuting between cultures that made him such a good translator. That facility, with varied tongues and nationalities, is no doubt what made him valuable to novelists and journalists alike.
You might ask why I had my column translated at all, why I didn’t just rewrite myself in English. The answer is partly because I don’t have the time or the patience, and partly because I think so separately in two languages because my mother was French and my father was American. But there’s another very specific reason. In 2014, when I stopped writing my column in the Providence Journal, I suddenly had no regular outlet in English for the first time in many years. The easiest solution was to have my French column translated, and, I thought, wouldn’t that be a novelty? But I almost never read French in translation, so I didn’t know any translators or even how to judge them. Then I remembered John Cullen. I hadn’t met him, but I knew one of his star clients, the novelist Philippe Claudel, from having moderated a discussion between Claudel and A.M. Homes at NYU’s Maison Française back in 2011. It was there that the actor Robert Adrian read an excerpt of Claudel’s extraordinary work Le Rapport de Brodeck, and it struck me: “This is how Claudel should sound in English.” It was pitch perfect. My American mind heard my French understanding of the novel and read it back to me so well in English that I hardly noticed the difference in languages.
Later I learned that John occasionally translated francophone journalists like Kamel Daoud, whose pieces on the op-ed page of the New York Times betrayed none of the standard awkwardness from foreign contributors. Lost in translation is a well-worn cliché, but it’s axiomatically true that meaning gets dispersed and hidden from one culture to another, one set of idioms to another. When I asked John if he would translate my column, he at first demurred. But he finally agreed, and from February 2016 until this past March, for fifty-three columns, John explained my French conception to my American readers. With considerable editing help from Harper’s Magazine’s then editor Ellen Rosenbush, we turned it into something resembling my “voice.” Sometimes it worked perfectly, and Ellen, who continues to edit the column, changed almost nothing. Sometimes we struggled, but those occasions had more to do with my French construction failing me than with John failing me. Now that he’s gone, I will have a hard time finding a replacement. And I know that while I miss him very much as a person, I’m also missing something inside my head, and I don’t quite know where to look for it. Is it in French or is it in English? I may have to go to New Orleans to find out.