Wishes by Georges Perec
Translated and Transmogrified by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall

My love of the work of Georges Perec is no secret here on the Ramblings; since reading his masterwork “Life: A User’s Manual” I’ve made my way through probably just about everything that’s been translated. So you can imagine how excited was to stumble across a newly translated work this year; “Wishes”, rendered by Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall, has just been published by Wakefield Press, and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

“Wishes” draws from Perec’s complete works, and collects together a series of homophonic, punning greetings he sent out annually in a pamphlet to friends between 1970 and his death in 1982. Each of these is based on a number of constraints, designed to create a series of jokes that Perec’s cronies could work out and chortle over. In simple terms, the best analogy I can come up with is that of a cryptic crossword clue. The short piece of prose is the clue, the answer relates to a table provided to go with each set, and each answer is a homophone of the particular word or phrase or name in that table. To give an example from 1977’s pamphlet, entitled “Footnotes to musical history”:

‘Clue’: How lovely she is when she puts that big barette on her little hat!

‘Answer’: Belle A Barre Toque (in English – Beautiful in bar hat)

And the French spoken out loud gives you:

Homophone: Bela Bartok (famous Hungarian composer)

It’s a fiendish piece of work to try and translate as the punning is so specific to the original language, but Wythe-Hall does just brilliantly with the literal version. However she takes things further with a section entitled Transmogrifications where, instead of a direct translation, she takes the end result and creates a new ‘clue’ in English to lead on to the homophonic answer. This is a brilliant and creative idea, and I loved seeing these alongside Perec’s originals. Each little piece of Perecs’s writing could also be funny and nonsensical in its own right as well, so there was a double joy to reading the book.

I was told:
“Give up this deplorable habit you’ve picked up of belching!”
I replied:
“Do you mean to say that the Great Pan is responsible for this inextricable miscellany that my texts have become?”

Perec and his fellow OuLiPans relished wordplay, writing constraints, puns, clues, crosswords and the like. These tendencies do call into question the whole concept of translating of something which relies so specifically on language; is it really going to be possible to produce a version in, say, English which has the effect of the original French while working in the new language. Should the translator go for a direct translation or an approximation of the effect? Well, any number of OuLiPan authors have been successfully translated – Perec most notably by David Bellos, and Raymond Queneau by Barbara Wright. However, with a work so quizzical as this one there might be room for doubt; but I think that Wythe-Hall has succeeded marvellously.

Presenting a literal and an interpretative version alongside is an ideal way to deal with something which might be difficult to render in another language. I was reminded of my teenage browsing of my tatty old film tie-in of Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago”; in the back were ‘Zhivago’s’ poems and I remember being struck by the fact that one particularly effective poem was presented in both a literal and a rhyming version. I thought that was a clever thing to do back then, and I still do!

Georges Perec’s “Wishes” is a beautifully produced book on quality paper with French flaps, so as well as being a fascinating and entertaining read it’s also a lovely object in its own right. I’ve not come across Wakefield Press, a US based publisher, before but it seems they’re an independent unit who specialise in bringing us untranslated gems. This is a laudable aim and they’ve produced a mightily impressive volume here. As someone who loves to credit and thank a translator, I was a little perturbed to be told nothing about Mara Cologne Wythe-Hall, who also provides a useful introduction and whose linguistic skills are obviously impressive. I can’t see online that she’s translated anything else, but she deserves kudos for her efforts here!

“Wishes” was a delight, and had me laughing away, appreciating Perec’s original punning as well as Wythe-Hall’s rendering of it and her clever transmogrifications. I love wordplay and I love people who are clever with language; and if that’s your kind of thing too, Perec could well be for you!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

*****

Coda: after scheduling this review and taking “Wishes” off to join the rest of the books on my Perec shelf, I discovered that I *had* come across Wakefield Press before – as they also publish “An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris”, which I reviewed just over a year ago! So kudos to them for flying the Perec flag! 🙂

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