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Home News by Category Infinite Jest The French are (finally) Discovering Infinite Jest

The French are (finally) Discovering Infinite Jest

Welcome back to occasional Howling Fantods guest blogger, Ariane Mak. This time she's writing for us about the release of Infinite Jest in French.


L’Infinie Comédie

The French are (finally) Discovering Infinite Jest

-Ariane Mak

Almost twenty years after its publication, Infinite Jest has been translated into French. L’Infinie Comédie and its 1488 pages have indeed been published in August by Les Éditions de l’Olivier. Thanks to Francis Kerline and Charles Recoursé, who translated the endnotes, a remarkable translation of Wallace’s magnum opus is now available to French readers.

During the past two months, Wallace was everywhere – in all the major national newspapers, in literary magazines, and even in fashion magazines. The French press seems to have (re)discovered Wallace and French readers have enthusiastically followed. L’Infinie Comédie is amongst the best-selling novels right now and has been republished twice already. In French bookstores, whole shelves are now being dedicated to the “Wallace galaxy”:

Why has the French translation of Infinite Jest taken so long? A Slate article by Titiou Lecoq explains this at length. It’s summarised and translated into English here.

[Continue reading here after the break]


The French reviews of L’Infinie Comédie have been predominantly positive. Wallace has been described as Kafka’s heir and “the descendant of those major writers who have attempted to describe men’s solitude”. Major national daily Le Monde was full of praise for the novel, likening Wallace to Proust and L’Infinie Comédie to an enthralling cathedral. Le Matricule des Anges, which devoted a special report to Wallace and included very interesting analyses by the conveners of the 2014 Paris Conference, evoked “the indisputable genius of Wallace’s writing”.

However, a few French reviews were quite critical, mentioning the exact same points raised by Michiko Kakutani and other American critics in 1996. They were basically thrown by what they perceive as a lack of structure and self-indulgence on the part of the author. French daily Libération deemed the novel “unreadable” while Le Temps labelled it an “inextricable hodgepodge” and “a schoolboy prank lacking inspiration”. But the free newspaper Metronews wins the “most absurd review” competition by far. The article asked: “Should you read Wallace’s L’Infinie Comédie?” Its answers were staggering: “Yes, because Wallace is at the heart of The End of the Tour biopic. / No, because Wallace only owes his fame to his suicide”.

Interviews with translator Francis Kerline.

It took more than two and a half years for Francis Kerline to translate Infinite Jest into French and L’Infinie Comédie is certainly an outstanding achievement. He has discussed the translation process in four fascinating interviews in Vanity Fair, Le Matricule des Anges, Books and a short radio interview.

Francis Kerline hadn’t read Wallace before translating Infinite Jest and he actually discovered the novel while translating it (interestingly, he chose not to read the 1079 pages before starting the translation process as he thought it might discourage him). Wallace famously declared that Infinite Jest was untranslatable, and Kerline presents it as one of the toughest translating challenges he has ever had to face: “Starting a translation is always difficult at first, but after 45 pages you usually get used to the author’s style and everything starts to fall into place. With Wallace, it never happened”. Kerline told journalist Elisabeth Philippe that “It sometimes took me up to three hours to translate a single sentence. At times I thought I was going crazy.” The sheer size of the manuscript meant that when he encountered on page 650 a character who had first appeared on page 200, he would basically have to dive back into a text he had translated a year and a half ago.

To deal with the many ambiguities underlining Infinite Jest, Francis Kerline says that he relied on the Spanish translation. He also spent a lot of time on infinitejest.wallacewiki, Infinite Atlas and Infinite Summer. The “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar” was one of the dilemmas he was confronted with: was Wallace referring to the soap or to the chocolate bar/ice cream? Kerline soon discovered that there was a raging online debate on this issue (cf here and here) and chose to go with the most popular option – that of the Dove soap bar – thus translating “L’année de la mini savonnette Dove”.

Infinite Jest’s weird and at times just plain incorrect French was another thorny issue. Kerline is adamant: to him, these errors are pure negligence on the part of Wallace. He chose to correct them in L’Infinie Comédie, “Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents” thus becoming “Les Assassins en Fauteuil Roulant”. Kerline is also convinced that there is no organised construction, no pre-established structure to Infinite Jest. Interviewed by Le Matricule des Anges, he declared, rather surprisingly, that the novel was solely based on accumulation. According to him, Wallace would have an idea, write it down immediately, and then jump to something else. Occasionally, he’d realize that he had forgotten to say something in a previous scene and would just add it straight away to a new section. For Kerline, Infinite Jest basically ended when Wallace thought: “now that’s enough of it”.

An original feature of L’Infinie Comédie is that another translator, Charles Recoursé, was asked to translate the novel’s endnotes. This choice was apparently made by editor Olivier Cohen to make sure that the publication deadlines would be met. It actually brings to mind Wallace’s declaration on endnotes constituting a second independent voice in the novel. (We have previously interviewed Charles Recoursé about translating The Pale King and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, you can read the interview here.)

What is certain is that translating Infinite Jest into French must have been a herculean task. When asked what he would say to Wallace if he stood in front of him, Kerline answered: “First, I would say: ‘You bastard.’ Then we would probably start talking about tennis”.

-Ariane Mak

Last Updated on Monday, 26 October 2015 15:22  

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