Théophile Aries interviewed by Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris: Théo, you’re a musician, a writer, a critic, and a translator—so what intrigues me most is how you see the connections between your different forms of creativity and whether you relate them all to your interest in the Beats, especially Burroughs. I know you have interesting new projects in writing and in music, but first I’d like to ask you about your work as a translator. I want to take you back to spring 2007. Christian Bourgois had just published Burroughs’ Lettres, and then, as part of a major republishing project, he commissioned you to translate Burroughs and Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters Redux. What were your thoughts about the ways in which their work had been translated, and, indeed, how their works had been actually read in French?

Lettres du Yage Redux

Théophile Aries: When I met Christian Bourgois in Paris, he told me that Burroughs had chosen some of the translators, since they were friends. Bourgois’s main concern was to introduce Burroughs to French readers, so whether there were some differences between both texts was not an issue for him, which I actually understand. However, exactly forty years after The Yage Letters had first been published in France, I felt that the original text had to be restored, because my first impression was that Burroughs’ books after Naked Lunch had been translated at a time when his recently published cut-up trilogy had influenced his French translators.

 As for how his work had been read, it is always difficult to know whether French readers were actually disturbed by this. For instance, I remember reading about Jean Genet’s praise of Le Festin Nu. But, Genet could not speak a word of English. And he was right, the French text is good, I just felt that some of the original tone had been slightly altered in the translation. Proper editions and translations make a big difference, and the most striking example is Electronic Revolution. Somehow, this text seems to have particularly caught the French’s attention. And the reason is simple; it was edited in a very attractive format, with beautiful colours, jointly by two publishers, HC (Editions Hors Commerce) and D’ARTS (a publishing house in an Art School located near Paris) and the translation from Sylvie Durastanti remained also very faithful to the original text.     

 OH: When it comes to Festin nu, I remember in 2007 we tried and failed to convince Gallimard to make a new translation in time for the fiftieth anniversary in 2009. How aware were you of the problems in the 40-year old edition?

Festin Nu Cover

TA: To tell you the truth, I did not really like Naked Lunch when I first read it in French. I guess I saw the humour in it when I first read it in English. Reading the original text over and over and coming back to the French one, I realised many elements were missing. Take for instance the chapter entitled “Benway”; 570 words are missing in the translation, while the chapter entitled “A.J’s Annual Party” has about 700 words omitted. Some paragraphs are not at the same place in both books, Kahane’s translation ends with a nota bene while the original text does not. On top of that, the “Atrophied Preface” became an “Atrophied Postface” in French. And sometimes sentences or words that are not in Burroughs’ original text appear out of nowhere. Take for instance the chapter entitled “Ordinary Men and Women”; the line “He had a number he called ‘The Better ‘Ole’ that was a scream, I tell you,” became in French, “Il avait une scène en costume du Moyen Age intitulée ‘Le Trou Vert’ qui était à se rouler par terre, je vous dis.” (“He had a scene in medieval costume called ‘The Green Hole’ which was hilarious, I tell you.”) Such differences are of the utmost importance, I think. The tone is not the same, you do not picture the same scene in the end. Actually, the translation reads like European folklore.

When you study translation, you are always taught to create a French text rather than making a literal transcription of the original one. It might be true in most cases, but with some atypical writers, like Burroughs or Joyce, it just does not apply. In both cases, I think the translator should play with the French language too, as the writers did with their own language.

When we contacted Gallimard, my idea was not so much to retranslate the whole book, since most parts remain true to the original text, but to come up with a restored edition, to correct the mistakes, to have a translation that would keep both the original one and correct all these differences between both texts, but Gallimard was afraid that readers might not recognise the text they had loved, which is not very open and flexible, I think.       

OH: I remember pointing out to you that in Festin nu, Jack Kahane’s translation introduced variety where Burroughs insisted on repetition (as I recall, the specific example was of “cunt”—which appeared three different ways in one short passage, as “con,” “toison,” and “le sexe”); could you say something about the particular problems of translating Burroughs into French?

TA: Repetitions are not really allowed in French, and should be avoided, which prompted Kahane to find new words, which anyway all sound rather old-fashioned today. Burroughs also liked to repeat coordinating conjunctions, such as “and,” which again, in French, does weaken a sentence. Another problem with the French language is that unlike German or English, you cannot create one word by putting two words together. French is not a flexible language. Another one, and it’s a major issue when translating Burroughs, is that one noun can have one or two adjectives, but not more. And of course, many of Burroughs’ routines are somewhat difficult to translate for that very reason. But since routines were mostly based on exaggeration, I do think that this should be rendered in French too, whether the language permits it or not.

OH: What about the original edition of Les letters du yage, translated by Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu—to what extent did your own version address particular issues?

TA: In my translation of Les lettres du yage, my aim was to have it sound as close as possible to the original text, instead of making it sound like it was the work of a French writer. So I’ve reintroduced repetitions. But the biggest problems were conjunctions. A sentence like “Whores and pimps and hustlers” was translated as “Putains, maquereaux et racoleurs” (“Whores, pimps, hustlers”). I think something is lost here for the reader, since these three elements should be separated, as though the narrator is looking at three different groups of people in a street, creating a feeling of juxtaposition and boredom. This was definitely lost in the French translation. 

Another problem, as I’ve said earlier, was the influence of Burroughs’ cut-up work. The words “Another bit of reminiscence” was translated as “Un autre fragment-réminiscence” (“Another reminiscence-fragment”). The problem here is that this sounds even weirder than the original text, and the reader wonders, “What does that mean?” It reads like a cut-up, except that the original sentence was rather clear and simple. And this occurred many times in the translation.  

So, as with Naked Lunch, I had the feeling that even though the original voice was there somewhere, a new one had been created on top of it. I’ve noticed that many translators at the time, and commentators since then, have read Burroughs’ writing as the work of some hip, fun and crazy writer, which I don’t agree with, but this, I figure, was partly due to the label “Beat Generation” that was put on him at the time. The ideas were original and thought-provoking, I just think there was no need to make the text sound even more complicated than it already was. There was no need to make it read like a cut-up.

So, when I translated The Yage Letters Redux, I wanted to make sure that I used unusual constructions only when they were present in the original text, and not to add more of them. Whenever Burroughs wrote in a straight linear style, I would translate it exactly the same way. Nonetheless, I don’t deny that Burroughs is very hard to translate, at least from The Yage Letters on, and a sentence like “And I got a silo full of queer corn where that came from” is one of the numerous headaches a translator has to face when translating his work.

Lettres du Yage Redux

OH: After your translation of The Yage Letters Redux was published, you quoted Goethe to the effect that “mathematicians are like the French; whatever you tell them, they translate it in their own language and transform it into something totally different.” Can you clarify what you felt was “lost in translation”?

TA: Burroughs once said that he was “attempting to create a new mythology for the space age,” and I think his mythology was somehow lost in translation, since many recurrent expressions had been translated in many different ways. It was therefore, and still is, difficult for French readers to see the world Burroughs was trying to create. For instance, the expression “Johnson Family,” of major importance in his “world,” has never been translated. The word “routine,” of even greater importance, has different translations (“numéro” and “routine”), when it was even translated. Burroughs’ mythology is quite fascinating. I do believe that, had Burroughs been better translated, he would have been more analysed by French writers and philosophers. The irony is that his most interesting and creative years are, for me, the ones he spent in Paris. Yet, I’ve always been surprised at how little he has been discussed in France. But since we’re just at the beginning of the “space age,” it might not have started yet, although I do think new translations would definitely help. For instance, I’m invited in February to attend a sort of “Introduction Day to William Burroughs,” organised in Nantes by the association APO33 (, which was mainly influenced by Burroughs’ text Electronic Revolution. I noticed many times that French readers always mention this text, and as I’ve noted earlier, I think this is partly due to the way it was published and translated. So, new translations would be a good first step into the Space Age. Therefore, I don’t deny that Mr Christian Bourgois was right: without Burroughs’ first translators, especially Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach, and I would add without Christian Bourgois himself, French readers would have certainly missed the first boat.    

OH: In terms of your own writing, I only know the critical essay you contributed to Naked Lunch@50: Anniversary Essays, so could you say something about the more creative side of your writing and especially your new work about Ian Sommerville? First of all, why the interest in Sommerville? And secondly, what are you trying to achieve?

TA: I was interested in Sommerville for many reasons, one being that Burroughs’ relationship to Sommerville was his longest one, the other was how creative he and Burroughs had been together. Lettres du Yage Redux

I wanted to talk about the time when Burroughs was a performance artist, à la Laurie Anderson, years before his famous public readings. He created, along with Gysin and Sommerville, a series of shows for two French men, Henri Chopin and Bernard Heidsieck from Le Domaine Poétique, mostly in Paris. I wanted to go back to this time, and recreate that. I’ve always been fascinated with Burroughs’ time in Paris, since I believe he became a different man once he reached the City of Lights, which is quite obvious in his letters, and I don’t think this was only due to the publication of Naked Lunch. I like to believe that Paris played a role in it, and also of course the people he met there, Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville and Anthony Balch to name a few. But my aim was not to analyse his work, because I wanted to write a fiction, not a critical text, and many people do it wonderfully in France, mostly Philippe Mikriammos (who published a wonderful little book about Burroughs in 1975), Gerard-George Lemaire or Sylvie Durastanti. My aim was more basic, maybe more literary too: it was to talk about Burroughs “The Man Inside,” about love, friendship and creativity in his life.

 OH: As for your music, some people may know your wonderfully eerie number “Dr Benway,” and some may have read your essay linking Burroughs to the techno group Matmos, but I wonder how conscious are you—and your brother Aurélien—in regard to Burroughs’ influence on your musical creativity? And what can we expect from your new album?

TA: I think that as a musician and a lyric writer, Burroughs’ main influence was the cut-up technique. It is a wonderful tool for writing lyrics. I remember watching a program on David Bowie explaining how he wrote his song “Moonage Daydream” using the cut-up technique. Years later, in 1996, when we started the Underwires project, I became quite fascinated with his song “I’m Deranged,” which he wrote using a cut-up software. So, I decided to give it a try, and it really helped. Nowadays, we do not cup up lyrics so much as we do rhythms, or we integrate audio cut-ups, like samples, as in “Dr. Benway”

However, creatively, Burroughs’ main influence for us is the fact that the first shot is not necessarily the best one, that even though you integrate random elements in your work, you try new things, you mix sounds coming from very different origins, you still have to work on it and organise it so that you have something coherent in the end, and not just some experimental and accidental creations. That’s what I like about Burroughs: on a first reading, it seems quite disorganized and random, but then, if you go back to his texts, you realise how coherent they are. It’s like rewatching a movie by Jean-Luc Godard—it feels like fake improvisation, and I think we got influenced by that. I think an artist’s work has to be organized, so that others can understand it at some level, and this we definitely got from Burroughs. So I think the next album will somehow sound both more pop and experimental than the previous one.     

 OH: An impossible last question, but if you had to decide which between your music, your translation work, your fictional writing, and your critical writing, came closest to Burroughs (whatever that means)—which would it be?

TA: In terms of style, none of them, because only Burroughs could write such texts. I’m usually quite bored with writers who try to write like him, so it was clear for me that I would not try to do that. The only aspect of Burroughs I can use are his ideas, the ones I share, or rather his approach to life. I definitely agree with Lou Reed’s blurb on the back of the new Naked Lunch edition, in which he wrote that Burroughs “broadened people’s conception of what makes humanity.” Reading most of his published books and interviews changed my way to discuss topics, or to look at the world. I think Burroughs always had a point, no matter how moral it was. He definitely was a picaresque writer, unconcerned by morality, which opens up new ways to consider any issue. But in the end, my perception of him might be just mine, there might be as many Burroughs as there are Burroughs readers, and that’s the beauty of it!

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