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A Tale of Two Translators
Philippe Aronson
June 24, 2021
Illustration by Paul Reid

For Nicolas Richard

It would take a slim cat to get through that hole.

—David Ohle, “The Mortified Man”

THOUGH DEVOTED TO LITERATURE, music, and art, George Abravanel believed, perhaps subconsciously, that intellectual accomplishments of the highest order were bound in America to meet with failure and disdain. One manifestation of this fatalistic outlook was his fierce admiration for American writer Maurice Nachman. Despite regularly finding Nachman’s books in the bargain bin at his local Barnes & Noble, George never once thought that his hero’s career might be in jeopardy; might, indeed, be over… for George had long ago conferred upon himself a personal princedom of discernment and decided that what he thought was good was good; and what he thought was bad was bad—no matter what anybody said.

Bilingual from birth, George Abravanel spoke and wrote idiomatic French and English, a fact he thought defined him. Many people who knew him thought so, too. Never forget, his friend Fleming Dixon had once told him, you’ve got two heads; I’ve only got one. In the early aughts George lived in Paris with his girlfriend Eva, and worked as a freelance translator. He also ran, with a French friend, a literary magazine called Episodia, while dreaming, as one does, of becoming the best writer of his generation. 

George Abravanel read with the hungry rage of a forest blaze. Sometimes he thought himself destined for greatness; other times he knew he was doomed. He met William Gass, drank beer in his kitchen. William Burroughs generously inscribed and signed a book for him, as did Shelby Foote. But the person George wanted to write like was Maurice Nachman: he wanted to be darkly passionate and sexy (and sensitive and funny) like Maurice Nachman; he dreamt of meeting Nachman. A few months later, in San Francisco, his dream came true. 

Call me Maury, Nachman said.

Nachman was charming; New York accent, pushing seventy, with a full head of salt and pepper hair, he had a glint in his eye, a dimple in his chin and an easy, infectious smile. It was evident, George thought, that Nachman had had many female entanglements. 

They had lunch in a Chinese restaurant off Clay Street. They told Jewish jokes. Then, while eating shrimp dumplings doused in hot sauce Nachman told George about a couple he had observed the night before in a bar in Berkeley: a Black man and a white woman… George was mesmerized by the tone and unadulterated style coming out of Nachman’s mouth, the rollicking rhythm, each word calibrated for precision. 

Nearing the close of the story Nachman leaned in and whispered, eyebrows arched for emphasis, And suddenly I knew: he’s paying her! (A few months later George would read in a well-known West Coast literary journal another version of the story Nachman had told him, furthering his delight at having been allowed a backstage peek at literary magic in the making.) 

As Nachman was signing George’s copy of To Feel These Things, George was dumbfounded when his hero looked him in the eye and said, apparently in all seriousness:

My style, it’s like nobody else’s!

A decade earlier, recognizing in Portnoy’s Complaint a thinly veiled portrait of his own father, George—delusions of literary grandeur already in full bloom—had declared himself the Son of Portnoy. Nowadays George looked down on Philip Roth and raised a glass every October to his erstwhile hero on the occasion of his not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, knowing how deeply this hurt the horny old turtle. 

He imagined Phil staring at himself in his writing room in Connecticut, saying:

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is George Abravanel’s undisputed Jewish-American heavyweight champion of English prose?

And the mirror answering:

Maurice Nachman… ruining yet another of Phil’s waning days…

Whenever George visited the United States he always went to see his parents in eastern North Carolina, where George had grown up and whence he had fled at twenty. Naturally, during these visits George would go to the three or four places in eastern North Carolina where books were to be had, including Barnes & Noble, and where his pessimistic view of American taste was again and again borne out. For it wasn’t just Maurice Nachman whose books George found in bargain bins there, but the letters of Charles Ives, for God’s sake! And the letters of Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin! A huge biography of John Cheever! And ten Nabokov novels in Vintage Contemporaries at a buck-fifty a pop! Aaaaaaarrrrghhh! George thought, gleeful yet bitter as he walked the aisles of Barnes & Noble with his book-filled wire basket. 

George tried and tried and tried and tried, as one does, to write his immortal opus. But he was not as yet possessed of the perseverance, stamina, and distance necessary to go where his instinct wanted him to go and all his efforts ended up crumpled and thrown on the floor, his cat Buddy (a mongrel, like me, George liked to quip) delightedly batting the paper balls of lifeless prose around the apartment. Yet George was literary for life; he had a good ear and was in love with writing; so he decided to become a literary translator. In France, unlike in America and the rest of the English-speaking world, countless literary books were published yearly in translation, quite often from English, and even for a college dropout like him there was work to be had. 

There were a few famous translators in Paris—inasmuch as a translator is ever famous— including Marvin Mucho whose pen-name was, modestly, Mucho; Augustin Philippe, premier atomizer of the atmosphere; and broad-shouldered Benoît Le Bretonneux, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Clark Kent about to slip into a telephone booth. The three of them regularly lent their written French voices to Saul Bellow, William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, William Gaddis, Toni Morrison and Donna Tartt, and all were pleased to offer selections of their translations in progress to Episodia.

Together with his co-editor, George translated short stories and letters and essays by Bukowski, Beckett, and Burroughs, and feedback was enthusiastic. The five issues they brought out in three years had a semi-fanatical though (naturally) restrained readership… 

… and now that they had a foothold no matter how tenuous in the Paris literary world, George and his co-editor were in touch with hip young editors only too happy to grant them pre-publication rights to extracts and attend their launch parties, raucous sodden affairs in a café in the 5th arrondissement

Soon George was given a shot at translating a book from English into French, a first novel. For a big publishing house. He breathed a sigh of relief. He was in.

Through Nachman, George met Fleming Dixon in New York. Fleming was a brainy, handsome fellow around George’s age (early thirties) with, according to Nachman, great insight and flair and who was embarking on a brilliant career as literary critic and essayist. Of perhaps less than average height and with a gleaming, shaved head, Fleming Dixon had the ripped, stocky physique of a weightlifter; a coiled, tense energy emanated from his body, and he moved and comported himself with elegance and self-confidence. In a bar on the Lower East Side, Fleming, who translated French literature into English, queried George about his bilingualism. George told him about having French beaten into him by an idealistic French university teacher mother in eastern North Carolina married to a Chicago Portnoy singer-actor running amok tumescent amid the horny shiksa coed hordes of the 1970s… George told a good story; Fleming and he laughed together and were soon fast friends. Fleming—whose new translation of Baudelaire had just come out in Everyman’s Classics, who had grown up on Central Park South and attended a raft of tony schools—was gracious enough to find George, his intellectual caveman stance and strong opinions and literary magazine, interesting. And, as George was fond of saying: Nice is nice to me.

Meanwhile Nachman began something of a comeback by publishing stories in the New Yorker; another of his young admirers, short story writer Ezra Densky, a Belarusian Jewish immigrant to Vancouver, also began publishing in the New Yorker, and soon had a contract with Knopf for his Nachman-inflected début collection, a deal brokered in part through Fleming’s influence.

I tell you, this guy’s got moxie! Nachman said to George on the phone from his new home in Milan.

There was a bubbling momentum among Nachman’s young trio of followers, and when George published a Nachmanesque essay about his father in Episodia and sent it to Fleming it was almost unsurprising that Fleming flipped. He sent George an email saying that he was the bees’ knees, before adding: Don’t go anywhere. I’m calling. The phone rang. It was Fleming.

Listen, he said, mazel tov, that piece is such a winner. 

My gosh, George stammered.

Write it in English. It’ll get published here, I guarantee it.

You think?

Fuckin’ A, pal. You’ve got twenty-five hundred words that rock, that make sense, that sing. Put together a fifty thousand-word memoir with what you’ve got and I promise you you’ll have all of New York publishing at your feet.

Goddamn, Fleming.

You’re an even better writer than translator, George! Who’d a thunk it?

Well, George for one. But here was a guy who had the clout to say such a thing aloud and if he meant it, perhaps George would now begin to live a real life—the life of a published, cherished writer, a landslide-of-the-heart-type writer—and not this ersatz waiting room poor translator life… George wrote the piece over in English, it was published in New York, and Nachman himself responded favorably to it. George felt like he had arrived—but where? He walked around glowing like a Jack-o’-lantern, inwardly emblazoned with Nachman’s approval.

A few months later Fleming announced that he would be coming to France to put the finishing touches on his translation of Molecular Straitjacket, a novel by Pascal Moignon, a French author Fleming had translated twice before and whom he would be visiting in Bordeaux before coming to Paris. Published twenty years earlier, Molecular Straitjacket was considered the crowning triumph of Moignon’s career; it was a famous, almost talismanic book; Moignon was legendary in Paris literary circles and around two weeks before Fleming arrived George heard from a reliable source that the severely alcoholic Moignon had gone cold turkey and was, at present, quite sober… Ominous storm clouds on the horizon, thought George, ever attuned to the meteorology of addiction.

Two days after arriving in France, Fleming called George from Bordeaux.

What’s going on? George said, surprised to be hearing from Fleming so soon.

Will you be home this afternoon? Fleming asked.

Yes. But…

I’ll be in Paris at five… 


I’ll tell you what happened.

Something happened? George said and smiled, their conversation sounding, he thought, like dialogue in a Nachman story.

A few hours later Fleming arrived looking crestfallen. He dropped his bags. George stood up. Soon Fleming was sobbing in George’s arms.

Sit down, he said, sit down. Here, have a beer…

George was then subletting a sixth-floor walkup at République with Eva and Buddy the cat. A pea-green baby-grand piano filled half the bedroom. It belonged to the owner. Neither Eva nor George played; they used it as a kind of desk. The rent was low.

Fleming drained his beer; George set another before him and Fleming told him what had happened:

(…here it might be apt to point out that Fleming Dixon’s spoken French was very awkward and hesitant. He made basic grammatical mistakes and had trouble with idiomatic speech, meaning he had a hard time following a regular conversation in French. George had noticed that this made his friend uncomfortable, and he also saw him bristle at the French tendency to comment on one’s mistakes. A baker, cabbie, lawyer, or fishmonger might suddenly decide to give a total stranger—even an illustrious intellectual such as Fleming Dixon—a lecture on French syntax, diction, and pronunciation. Fleming’s position was: I have not been to France nor spoken French in over five years. Give me a break. George, on the other hand, found it odd that Fleming with his superiority complex and strenuously demanding intellectual stance should be so flippant about his spoken French and he himself also had occasion, reflexively, to correct him… George sensed that Fleming did not like the French in general, something George could understand, but he also appeared averse to the French language in particular, which George could absolutely not understand. Fleming had translated Baudelaire and Moignon into English; he was known in New York as a French specialist yet he was neither intimate with nor partial to the language, something the infamously monolingual Americans could not have been aware of…)

The first work session in Bordeaux puzzled Fleming. Moignon was languid and downcast. Fleming took out his notebooks, sat down, fired up his computer. Moignon, his rheumy eye trained on Fleming, rasped: 

I’m fifty-seven years old. 

I know, Pascal, Fleming said.

The writer gestured toward the next room where his daughter was playing, and added: 

I’m tired. And I don’t want to have a five-year-old daughter.

Well shit, Pascal, Fleming said. I mean…

I’m tired. And I don’t want to work. 

Okay. Maybe let’s call it a day? 

Fleming returned to his hotel and slept. The next day after a slow morning work session Moignon, his wife and daughter and Fleming went to lunch. In the restaurant Moignon sat sullenly smoking, not touching his food. Fleming tried to be pleasant, attempting small talk en français, but Moignon interrupted him: 

How long did you say it took you to translate all of Baudelaire?

Eighteen months. 

If you translated Baudelaire in eighteen months, I could translate Shakespeare in twelve, Moignon said. 

Fleming was flabbergasted. Moignon knew no English whatsoever. They had worked together for years. Why the sudden hostility? 

Moignon began talking about Molecular Straitjacket. As he spoke he grew agitated. This book is my life! he shouted. Your translation’s got to be exquisite because it’s an exquisite book! 

Listen Pascal, Fleming said…

No, you listen! Moignon was screaming now. THIS! BOOK! IS! MY! LIFE! 

Red-faced, spittle flying from his mouth, Moignon emphasized each word by pounding the table with his fist. Forks jumped, glasses rattled. His wife whispered, trying to calm him; his daughter—the whole restaurant—gaped. Moignon took out his wallet and threw money on the table. 

Only I can decide who translates my work, he said.

Pascal, Fleming whimpered…Glaring at Fleming, Moignon slowly stubbed out his cigarette in his steak tartare. Then he got up, hissed: I’m sure you know your way to the train station, gathered his wife and daughter and strode out into the street.

Fleming wept. George consoled him as best he could. Fleming turned on his computer, erased the work he had already done on the Moignon translation, and sent an email to his publisher saying what had happened and vowing to return his advance and to never translate another word of Moignon. He told George he had given the hotel in Bordeaux his name and address so he would receive the refund—with which to cover heat, water, and food expenses during his stay with George and Eva. 

Fleming had bought a bag of tangerines on his way to the station in Bordeaux. George took one. A sticker on each tangerine read, in gold cursive lettering against a blue oval backdrop: Exquise—Exquisite. 

Did you notice the sticker, George said.

Fleming shook his head, oblivious to irony. 

George peeled the sticker off and stuck it in his diary.

George packed a pipe and Fleming and he spent the afternoon chatting. George tried to attenuate his gloom by sharing stories of betrayal and treachery in French letters… in the late afternoon Fleming went for a walk. When Eva came home from work she and George went down to a café to watch a European Champions League soccer game. There they sat among scarred, leather-jacketed men shrouded in cigarette smoke, eating steaks and drinking beer. Fleming joined them for the second half. Having played goalie as a kid he was constantly surprised to see the goalies taking more steps in the goal area while holding the ball than he thought they were allowed.

Why are you so down on old Phil? Fleming asked George the next day.

Ah, Monsieur Roth, you mean?

Well, bien sûr, Fleming said smiling.

And George took apart Philip Roth because his novels weren’t the elemental works everybody (including Fleming) said they were. The Human Stain for example is just a blatant ploy for the Nobel, he said; all those books, the stack of them from the nineties reaching to today are just a gigantic Portnoy hard-on for the Nobel. It’s careerism in the worst way. That’s why I hate him. He sold his soul by attempting to become something when he already was someone. And because he’s such an unremitting macho pig. Like Woody Allen.

Oh no, don’t drag poor Woody into this! Fleming said, wagging a raised index finger at George. None of this was so very serious, despite the manic glint in George’s eye. (George added regarding Phil Roth and by extension his dad: Enough with the misogyny!Enough with the wounded pride and ego of ye clever Jewish boys! You’re handsome, you’re getting laid and on top of that we’re supposed to pity you?)

The thing about Philip Roth was that he was a prose master, a Jewish-American heavyweight. George always prefaced his takedowns of Roth with this observation. He can be outrageously funny; and he captured with panache and a vicious vitality the sexual and social liberation that overwhelmed certain young Jewish men like George’s dad and Phil R in 1950s and 60s America… and the Jewish neuroses… George was on intimate terms with Phil Roth’s anger because it was his dad’s anger—through the guise of Portnoy; and George had decided it was petty. As was his own. Would he ever stop schlepping it? This meddlesome inheritance. Either way, George noted that the super sensitive and very voluble Fleming had nothing at all to say about misogyny.

But wait a minute, George said, to get back to what we were saying earlier, I can only conclude that the philosophical thought-rot generated by the Blanchot-Deleuze-Derrida-Barthes-Lacan-Foucault apparatchik-conglomerate is the refuge of the soulless.

Now George, Fleming said, smiling indulgently but piqued nonetheless, you’ve just declared war on the last thirty years of academia!

No I didn’t, George said. Proust did! You’ll recall that he rejected theoretical thought out of hand; as did Céline, who went so far as to call ideas vulgar!

I always knew there was an anti-Semite lurking in you!

No but really, George said puffing pensively, don’t you think trying to express an idea with words is like trying to make wood out of lumber?

Together the two young men bounded down the stairs to walk the gray Paris streets and pursue the fascinating avenues of discussion opened by their fertile minds. On several occasions when flustered Fleming called George Pascal; and George was unpleasantly surprised the next day when returning home after dinner at a friend’s, Fleming jostled Eva, grabbing her around the waist in a way both she and George found inappropriate.

Back in New York a few weeks later, to thank George for his hospitality and moral support in Paris after the Moignon debacle, Fleming sent him a 1934 second edition of Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged English dictionary—the same edition Vladimir Nabokov had used. A wonderful gift, except George had to pay fifty euros in duty for it. Fleming then wrote to say he was preparing an article about Montaigne and needed to consult the text of the Pléiade—a deluxe Gallimard edition which cost seventy or eighty dollars and which he presently asked George to buy and send him. Fleming had just been awarded a fifty-thousand-dollar grant; George was broke; Fleming knew it yet he added: I think that you were sent a check from that hotel where I stayed in Bordeaux which should cover some of the cost.

Well, remarked Eva, I guess you could say that Fleming giveth and Fleming taketh away… And George took the risk of appearing caddish by refusing on the grounds of poverty.

Meanwhile, Fleming’s star kept rising. He was turning into the literary critic of the day, reviewing the most famous writers alive and gaining a reputation as fearless and unrelenting in his assault on bad or over-hyped writing. And yet, in the glossy pages of a celebrated magazine Fleming hyped Adrian Danzig’s The Rectification, a baggy book that embodied the over-hyped novel, George thought. Fleming wrote that it was very good, scrupulous, and ambitious, lukewarm words to be sure, but George was miffed that Fleming should use his pulpit to burnish Danzig’s colossally overblown reputation. 

The Rectification, Fleming wrote, was a novel of ideas.

Ugh! thought George. Ideas again! Feh!

A few months later, when The Rectification won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—Fleming again demonstrating his infallible ability to pick a winner—George took it in stride, since a culture dedicated to looking down its nose at its finest artists could hardly be expected not to lionize its most mediocre ones.

After weeks of complaining of abdominal pains and refusing to go to the doctor in Milan (not trusting Italian doctors), Nachman was rushed to the ICU with invasive cancer and never recovered. A few months after his death a famous independent Paris publisher bought French rights to Ezra Densky’s début story collection, Tamara. When Fleming called George to break the news, he added: 

And you’re the French translator. 

How do you know that? George asked. 

Because I says so, Fleming said. 

And sure enough, before long George got a call. Soon he had a contract.

Wow, your boy is quite the kingmaker! Eva said.

George spent the summer translating Tamara. After turning the book into his publisher, he sent the title story to Fleming, who had asked to see it. 

A few days later Fleming responded, saying he was very impressed—George’s French was so clean, elegant, tight, rich, and smart, his sense of sentence notable. It is quite clear, Fleming wrote, that you have a talent for translation, and that you should not be digging ditches in Madagascar (well thanks through the nose, George thought)—before serving up ten pages of notes and suggestions on the first page of the translation.

I am not attempting to trump, equal, or call into question your knowledge of and capacity for French prose, Fleming cautioned. There is no question as to who is the better writer in French. I do not deserve even to shine your shoes in that department. So please, when reading my French attempts, be forgiving of the grammatical impurities you will surely find there, but see to the point I am trying to make by rendering them at all…

Fleming then went on to lecture George about THE SENTENCE, and how he and Densky and Nachman of course had pondered THE SENTENCE and its ramifications and construction, why it should be the length it is within a given paragraph, Fleming helpfully added, and how its relationship to other sentences in the paragraph should be based on rhythm, content, and style… as if a perfectly wrought sentence made rainbow-colored sperm shoot out of Fleming’s penis, George thought.

Thereupon Fleming took it upon himself to systematically rephrase, recast, and take apart every sentence of George’s translation. When there was a common term or expression Fleming wasn’t familiar with he demanded that George justify his use of it. Knots formed in George’s throat and chest as he looked at the ten pages of comments in which Fleming’s fundamental ignorance of French usage (and abusage) was manifest.

I have had occasion to view the Dixon-Abravanel correspondence, as well as the story and translation in question. And it is my personal opinion that Fleming no doubt had a valid point or two or three regarding whether or not and when one should break a long sentence up into two, and the subtleties of conveyed thought recalibrated… but I think that what (rightly) outraged George was Fleming’s blatant bad faith. 

To Fleming’s arrogance George now opposed his own, tersely justifying his work.Fleming wrote back right away, his tone now haughty, saying he did not understand what was going on; he knew George was a proud man but the WORK was the important thing; he should be thankful to him for helping George improve his WORK… He said George sounded evasive, that he sounded offended. Fleming was shocked, as if doors to perception and intellectual exchanges had stupidly slammed shut because of George’s pride… as if Fleming were necessarily, unequivocally right to give George a masterclass on translation from English into French and George were necessarily, unequivocally wrong and guilty of unhealthy pride in finding Fleming’s behavior out of line in any way, shape or form.

George’s last communication with Fleming was a curt, elegant, scathing note written in French, my mother tongue, George hastened to add, demonstrating that pride was indeed the sin of which he was guilty. 

And so it came to pass that after writing to editors all over America praising George Abravanel to the skies, using words such as immensely refined literary sensibility, Fleming Dixon now contacted Ezra Densky’s agent deploring George Abravanel’s supposedly willful sabotage of Densky’s limpid prose… and began to tear George down everywhere to everyone.

George started smoking again. He dreamt of Nachman. He cried in the street thinking of him.

A week later George was summoned by the famously sadistic chief editor of Densky’s French publisher, a redhead in leather pants. George entered the building at nine-thirty Monday morning chewing tranquilizers. The editor received him in her office, the Eiffel Tower visible through her window.

Your translation stinks, she said to George. 

Oh really? he said. Show me. Where?The editor had left the door of her office open so her assistants could hear and hopefully enjoy the performance. She threw the manuscript down on the table with a disdainful flick of the wrist. Unfortunately for you, a French expert looked at your translation, she, a Frenchwoman, said about an American whose command of French was mainly theoretical.

I… uh… George mouthed, his mind and tongue thick with tranquilizer.

I had a most unpleasant time on account of your negligence! You forgot brown! the editor shouted.

Brown? George said.

Brown as in brown shoelace!

George got up and stumbled out of the woman’s office, her reproving voice echoing after him off the seventeenth-century staircase walls…

Fleming wants to control everything, Eva said; you refused to let yourself be controlled by him so he decided to destroy the whole project. 

And if possible my reputation, George added.

George was afraid the publisher would somehow be forced to have the book retranslated, that he would have to return the advance (following the implacable logic of Fleming’s destructive path, Fleming having had to return his Moignon advance). But George’s translation was published with his name on it, he was paid the rest of his advance and in France, much like in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Densky’s book simply tanked.

So for once Fleming did not accomplish what he had set out to accomplish. If I am not mistaken he and Ezra Densky are now both comfortably (if, one hopes, bitterly) ensconced in academe. As for George, he continues to this day to translate English-language literature into French with Eva, whom he married. He also scribbles a little. 

I ran into him last week, and asked him what he was up to. 

Just chasing my own tale, he said, slim cat that I am.

Philippe Aronson is a freelance translator and writer. He lives in Paris, France.