In recent decades, the translator’s footnotes have fallen vastly out of favor and now are considered distracting, unnecessary, pedantic, and imply a lack of trust in readership. In our age of smartphones and informational websites, the perceived need for them, for direct explanations of foreign nuance, has waned, but little has been said regarding the mighty footnote’s literary potential . . . 

French author Brice Matthieussent seeks to correct this oversight with his novel, Revenge of the Translator. Through this experimental form, Matthieussent takes on the role of Trad, the translator of an American novel, Translator’s Revenge, which casts the tale of the disgruntled American translator, David Grey, and his attempts to translate French author Abel Prote’s latest novel. Quickly, the narration-via-footnote becomes so fed up with the original text—its misattributions, its overwrought prose, its misinformed assertions about the craft of translation—that Trad decides to edit and remove offending parts of the work, piece by piece, until all that remains is his mounting scathing commentary. “I reside here below this thin black bar,” the first note begins, inviting the reader into the translator’s humble, subterranean abode. From there we are taken into a benthic world of rebellion from below, an erudite realm whose keeper plots a novelistic subversion of literary tradition.

Revenge of the Translator was translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, the well-deserved winner of the 2018 Albertine Prize for her English rendition of Anne Garréta’s Not One Day. One can obviously see the difficulties this book must present in translating it—the shifting allusions, the reliance on constant mutation of the phrase “translator’s note,” the inversion of French and English wordplay. One also wonders if the temptation existed for Ramadan to find novel ways to insert herself into the text, for certainly she shares in the glory of this book’s resounding artistic success. In fact, considering the content of this book, it is quite possible that Revenge of the Translator may find literary viability solely in its translated form, fulfilling the promise of providing a platform for all those who labor to bring a work onto the international stage.

Deep Vellum.

—Review by J.T. Mahany