When I translate prose and poetry, I can’t help but become part of the source text writer’s world, and never more so than when I translated In Paris: 20 Women on Life in the City of Light by model and fashion designer, Jeanne Damas and journalist, Lauren Bastide. A number of the texts I’ve worked on are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, so I’ve needed to research the authors in depth as well as their experiences, the places they’ve lived and worked, their lifestyle, their connections. Sometimes, I research their background just to understand the nuances of a particular word or phrase that seems to be embedded in the writer’s past or present. At other times, I follow in their footsteps by scanning maps or photographs to understand exactly where they were at a particular time so that my translation makes sense to readers who are familiar with the location. But with In Paris, published this month by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books), I definitely took all this to another level. It changed my behaviour.
The book documents the lives of 20 fascinating women living in Paris today and between chapters, the authors themselves describe their own experiences of the French capital, showing what it takes to be a true Parisienne. This is where I was drawn in, and before long, I’d dragged my old trench coat out of the wardrobe and was making a Provençal casserole, eyeing up Pouilly Fumé in the supermarket (a bit too expensive for me), and buying red lippy à la Parisienne. The 20 featured women were also fascinating and aspirational and as I connected with each one, I couldn’t help but have my favourites… I fell in love with the drive of restaurateur, Jesus Borges, the frankly nutty Dora Moutot with her collection of trolls and I really needed a pair of Amélie Pichard’s fabulous shoes. I wanted to meet British bookseller, Sylvia Whitman, who runs one of Paris’s most historic bookshops, Shakespeare and Company. Teen style icon, the Gucci Gang’s Crystal Murray fascinated me with her confidence, and political activist, Lucie Hautelin, with her focus and determination. And I couldn’t help but admire and want to emulate the typically-Parisian sophistication of antiques dealer, Françoise Golovanoff. I could go on… I’ve wondered whether these characters are my favourites because I connect more with their particular stories, or simply because they were my favourite chapters to translate. I’m not sure. The two things seem to be intertwined.
No doubt, every reader will relate to different chapters and different women. My husband, who proofs my translations, was most taken with writer and Instagram idol, Sophie Fontanel, who refuses to be bound by traditional, often age-related rules that govern our style and behaviours. One thing that all the women achieved was to make me fall in love once more with Paris. As each one described their experiences of their own quartier or arrondissement, their favourite bakeries, markets, restaurants, clubs, walks, views of the capital, I got to know the backstreets of the city I once lived in but haven’t returned to in many years. The book also highlighted the multicultural nature of the city, how it’s constantly evolving while holding on to some of our favourite traditions (baguette, people-watching and romance), and the “sod-it attitude” of its unique female inhabitants who refuse to let the capital’s trauma of recent years impact their way of life. Translating the book was a first step towards understanding today’s “real Paris,” the one that lies behind the often touristy façade of any capital city. Translating In Paris lead me to act, to change my behaviour in the short-term. But in the long-term, it made me want to spend more time in the city so I could explore some of the unusual, secret places highlighted in the book. Indeed, upon finishing the translation, I had a far better understanding of the French capital and what it takes to be a modern-day Parisienne. All that’s left to do now is buy a plane ticket!