On Translating Nelly Arcan + An Excerpt from Hysteric

There were two major challenges in translating this novel, and both are perfectly represented by the excerpt below.

The first concerns the habit that literary types have of seeing the act of writing as one of salvation. The idea that there’s something noble about crafting words, be it in the context of creation, translation or otherwise, that Art should save, or so the fantasy goes. Yet in Nelly Arcan’s case, Art was no saviour. What’s more, it feels at times, when delving deeper into her writings, that her Art only aggravated her obsessions, her hysteria. And so, having had to face her obsessions as translators daily for months, with her disorders made worse by her describing them in every minute, painful, awful detail—with the conclusion forgone since she killed herself in 2009—we could be forgiven for losing hope in the idea that Art is salvation.

The second challenge was for the two of us as male and (relatively) sane translators to find the right words in English to convey a very specific, unique and female standpoint.  If at first we made attempts to force a feminine tone, it quickly became clear that this was a mistake. Nelly Arcan's writings are to us, before anything else, the description of asexual alienation from oneself. While sexuality seems to take on a great role in Arcan's work, we have come to feel more and more that it is there primarily as a representation of the wrongs she sought to explore through her writings. Her obsession with sex—and ours as readers—is an avatar that allows us to mainline alienation; when one considers that the most intimate and powerful act of her life became one infested by her most profound and unshakable anxieties, it is not a stretch to conclude that Arcan's writings are in some fundamental sense unsexual, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Gender is in play in the excerpt below, sex rather less so. 

That said, while working on this project left both of us exhausted, it also deeply moved us. There is no voice as powerful as hers. Her ability to combine high literary sensibility with stomach-wrenching self-brutality is exceptional. There are very few writers able to bring us so effectively, deeply and unsparingly into the labyrinth of alienation. So perhaps there’s no salvation in Art, but at least there is greater understanding. The only light note we could find during the process was in our father-son consultations, either in person or over the phone, about how to handle certain terms in the author's work. Shall we say "pussy" or "cunt?" Each exchange was followed by the common disavowal that this was not a proper conversation, given our family relationship. The reason for the humour? The very despair we have spoken of. Or as the French say, l'humour est la politesse du désespoir. Without the humour of these exchanges, we might have ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder.

- Jacob Homel and David Homel, March 2014

An Excerpt From Hysteric
by Nelly Arcan

Hysteric by Nelly Arcan
Translated by David and Jacob Homel
Forthcoming from Anvil Press, Spring 2014
For a while you tried to take matters into your own hands and initiate me to the world of Internet porn. You assured me there was room for two in front of your screen. You didn’t share my obsession with imagining the everyday lives of the girls we saw, for you the pictures didn’t inhabit the same plane we did, they didn’t have the substance of life. I began to panic for real when I realized I was willing to do anything to please you, even become your client. Submitting to your desires was the only way to be in your good graces. Then I understood that could never happen, at least not for real, I was much too scared and fear froze me; that’s what fear is for, to force a person about to commit a crime to reconsider his actions. I also understood that our love life was crowded with the memories of my former clients, I was a woman betrayed. With you, I had the worst of both worlds. Sometimes I even missed prostitution. I wondered whether hooking up with my former clients would help me get over what you were doing, if I had begun whoring in the first place, it was for reasons I didn’t fully comprehend until I met you.
For a whole week I agreed to your initiation, I followed the operations that, in your cyber world, always brought you to your destination. You were deft and very quick, on your screen the images leaped to the movement of your fingers on the keyboard, it was magic. You were a computer geek and all your friends said so; with your skills you’d go far.
That week I wondered whether, in the crowd of Internet users jostling through the same networks at the same time, there were family members, people like your father, or even your mother. One day you admitted that your mother knew absolutely everything about you, between you and her there were no taboos and you never hid anything from her. The two of you teamed up around the kitchen table when your father tried to lay down the law. Among other things, you talked to her about the pornographic images you retrieved by tearing them away from behind their pay walls and encrypted servers and hiding them behind your own passwords. You told her that your taste for porn was really all about hacking, pirating, plundering, since the act you loved above all else was breaking down the barriers of pay sites and taking away their women and storing them behind your own passwords with the rest of your herd. Your mother never made you feel guilty about anything, not even when you smoked cannabis in front of your grandparents, and you didn’t like it when I told you your mother wasn’t really a mother at all.
In front of your screen that week, I had a thought for those married couples who have lost all desire for each other and seek consolation by cycling through website after website in the comfort of their homes. At no time in front of your screen did I think of the two of us. I preferred my computer to yours, since with mine the images would appear, very slowly and by small increments from top to bottom, like a striptease, while your high-speed system threw everything in our faces all at once. The pictures overwhelmed us, we needed a few seconds to stare at the screen before we could assemble the pieces of female nudity and make a whole from the parts. Sometimes we’d see floating body parts that didn’t seem to belong to any of the girls and we tried to reconstruct the missing protagonist; that took some imagination.

Sitting side by side, we saw a lot of pictures. During my initiation, I could barely look at myself in the mirror, my own reflection shocked me, compared to Jasmine I was too old, the age of the first wrinkles and the first grey hair. I almost left you but winter was coming, the holidays were around the corner and faced with the perspective of crossing into the milestone year of my death alone, there was no point making a move.
I especially remember little Jasmine, the Girl Next Door you loved more than the others, she was like a younger sister, maybe because the name of the site you’d taken her from, Little Sisters, suggested it. She wore a long brown wig that cast a halo of ambiguity over her seventeen-year-old self since it made her look older, which in turn highlighted her youth. We both saw something touching in her, if she hadn’t been a model she could have sold matches, or been Cinderella labouring in her rags. She stood in front of a brick background that made the composition look like a damp, cold dungeon. There were hundreds of pictures of her, dressed or in her underwear or entirely naked, always wearing a naughty look. When I gazed at her I bit my tongue to awaken another sensation besides wretchedness; if you’d been a client, you would have paid me for her. Most of the pictures were botched and all looked the same, I imagined that the photographer’s hard cock had panicked and pushed Jasmine out of the frame, or maybe he simply didn’t give a shit if art lied about the truth, art that concealed instead of revealing. You taught me to follow the proper order of the thumbnails to reproduce the steps of her undressing with all her hesitations; by moving through the pictures from right to left, we recreated something real. It wasn’t composition or beauty but proximity that mattered, we had to feel as if we’d taken the pictures ourselves and make them look, to some extent, like family photos.

I could see Jasmine’s face in some pictures and that bothered me. Faces were unnecessary for our purpose, I thought, and I preferred it when they simply weren’t there; catching a model’s eye, even in a picture, made me feel I was being watched back and that ruined any chance of finding pleasure. It was the opposite in your case. You needed a face for identification, but I never understood what sort of identification it was; for you, girls had to be identifiable in case you met them on the street or, better yet, if they turned out to be your neighbours. In the pictures where Jasmine was naked, she wore a serious look and you said that the moment of contemplation before moving onto the act had to be solemn, for you being naked meant being ready, and being ready meant an end to all joking. I knew you had a hard-on, but for the first time that meant failure for me, it meant rejection.  

After looking at the photos, we turned to her videos and watched her take her small breasts out of her red bra then push her white panties to the side and stick a finger in her pussy as she opened her mouth. Jasmine respected the demands of the marketplace to the letter. You pulled my pants down and pushed my panties to the side and took me from behind. I didn’t know what to do so I played the part of the little girl, I lowered my eyes and cried because pleasing you seemed impossible and I felt nothing but pain because you were fucking someone else and I couldn’t do anything about it. In an ultimate act of retreat I turned my pussy over to Jasmine, I gave up and stopped moving. In my self-effacement I lost all memory of what a woman does with a man, four million years of mutual knowledge of the sexes, and suddenly I didn’t know how to move or moan and the room turned numb. I left my body and my body took over, my dry pussy tightened around your cock as if trying to expel it, it went into the kind of convulsions that rack the stomach when it wants to spew something out that doesn’t suit it, but you pressed yourself deeper into me, you enjoyed my body’s resistance that gave you more pleasure.
On the screen there were too many important details you were seeing and I was missing. I wondered whether you were looking at Jasmine’s ass or mine, I doubted the usefulness of my contribution to your romance, I was only a conduit to the screen, I doubted the reality of my own flesh against yours. A dog barked in Lafontaine Park and I thought dogs work hard to be loved by their masters, I thought of the young Czech woman you spilled beer on trying to get her to dance at the SAT, I thought of my sagging skin as I neared thirty, that skin you had fastened yourself to. I thought of many things far from your eyes that were focused on Jasmine on a loop with her panties pushed to one side.
A glass of water fell and as I tried to pick it up I hit my eye against the side of your desk. You came at the same time and I stayed on my knees, watching the puddle expand under your desk, I noticed a garbage can there overflowing with Kleenexes that couldn’t have been used for a cold since you never got sick. You helped me up by my armpits. You were surprised when you saw my face twisted by tears, you sat me on your bed and held me in your arms. While you were fucking me you didn’t notice I was crying, you probably thought the new experience of integrating pornography into our lovemaking was responsible for the strange sounds I made. I told you it was nothing and that we shouldn’t give up, I would end up believing in your love with such strength that no other woman could drive me out of your heart.
I don’t know whether, during his lifetime, my grandfather wondered about the similarity between the sound of tears and pleasure, but if he had, I’m sure he would have thought that God was twisted to impose that ambiguity on mankind. He must have thought God was laughing in his beard, alone on the heights of his kingdom, he was jerking off over people’s confusion.
That week, you showed me many things, but your initiation didn’t teach me pleasure, only the subtleties of your facial expressions I would need to decipher when you fucked me. As you lay on top of me, you didn’t consider I would be confronting the multitude of Internet girls, scornful under your closed eyelids, nor did you think that every time we saw each other, I wouldn’t see myself in your eyes, only other women’s pussies. The night you left me, you told me that among your female friends and ex-girlfriends there wasn’t one who complained about your habit, among all the women you had known I was the only one who made a big deal about it. I asked you whether any of them had been a prostitute for five years and you didn’t answer; you thought I went too far trying to make a point.

I wonder if you’ve seen Jasmine’s most recent pictures. Yesterday new ones popped up and she isn’t wearing a wig. She looked exactly like a girl her age. Every time I see her, I think of us, how awkward I was in front of her digital perfection and what dogs think when they wag their tails. I haven’t looked at myself in the mirror for weeks. I wonder if I’ve gotten older.


Nelly Arcan was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Her first novel Putain (2001); English: Whore (2004), drawing on her experience working in the sex trade in Montreal, caused a sensation and enjoyed immediate critical and media success. It was a finalist for both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina, two of France's most prestigious literary awards. Three more novels followed establishing her as a literary star in Quebec and France: Folle (2004), also nominated for the Prix Femina, À ciel ouvert (2007), and L'enfant dans le miroir (2007). Paradis, clef en main, her fourth novel, was completed just before she committed suicide in 2009 at the age of thirty-six.

David Homel is a writer, journalist, filmmaker, and translator. He is the author of seven novels, most recently, The Fledglings (Cormorant 2014). His novel The Speaking Cure won the J.I. Segal Award of the Jewish Public Library, and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Best Fiction from the Quebec Writer's Federation. He has also written three children's books, including Summer in the City, all co-authored with his wife, Canadian children's author Marie-Louise Gay. He has translated several French works, receiving two Governor General's Literary Awards for translation. Homel was born and raised in Chicago and currently resides in Montreal. 

Born, bred and raised in Montreal, Jacob Homel has translated or collaborated in the translation of a number of works, including Toqué: Creators of a Quebec GastronomyThe Last Genêt and The Weariness of the Self. In 2012, he won the JI Segal Translation Prize for his translation of A Pinch of Time. He splits his time between Montreal and Asia.


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