The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bridge between two worlds

Is translation possible' 'Absolutely yes, absolutely no,' laughs Jean Echenoz, the celebrated French novelist.

The translation of his latest book, J'en vais, was launched at Alliance Francaise de Calcutta on Thursday under the Rupa France series, with the title I'm gone.

The narrative of the book, that has won him France's highest literary award Prix Goncourt, starts and ends with the phrase 'I'm going'. The author concedes that it hardly conveys the same sense as the French original. 'Perhaps the title of the British version, I'm off, is closer. The one published here is the American translation. But there are so many elements ' sentence, rhythm, sound ' that are lost in translation. In many cases, the two languages have to meet midway.'

His books have led Echenoz to meetings of many sorts ' with people, places, cultures' That is natural as many of his books are set in alien lands ' Australia, Malayasia, North Pole and South America. 'The exoticism is not important. For me, a resident of Orange in south-west France, the suburbs of Paris are as unknown as any other country. It is the characters who produce fiction.'

Yet one such meeting that has stayed with Echenoz is that with the Howrah bridge. On his first visit to Calcutta in 1992, he was so fascinated with the colossal structure that he asked a friend to make a film on it. Though the project never took off, this time it was his 'mission' to visit it again. 'That old feeling was missing. It seemed as if our worlds have come closer, don't ask me how,' he muses.

Sometimes Echenoz does not travel even if his plot is set elsewhere. 'I collect books, TV footage, music, photographs before writing on the place.'

But often he does. Research for Big Blondes took him to Chennai. 'I had set a character in a residential quarter of an Indian city. While sitting in Paris, I could see it in my mind's eye. On the second day of my stay, I saw the place ' the back entrance of Madras Club ' just as I had visualised it.' He calls such inspiration 'work of the imagination'.

The 56-year-old is now almost through with his next project, his interpretation of events in the life of Maurice Ravel, the 20th century composer. Yet on his meanderings around town ' Jain Temple, Kalighat temple, Chandernagore, Marble Palace ' he was busy soaking in 'perceptions'. An author never lets his senses sleep.

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