Date of this Version
20th & 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, March 26-28, 2020.
The online translation forum Wordreference.com contains a thread that began in July of 2005, discussing the use and possible abuse of the expression “traduit de l’américain” as it often, though not always, appears in the front matter of French translations of American literature. The discussion contains 197 posts covering a period of more than eight years; clearly, the use of “américain” in this context elicits strong reactions among literary experts, both Anglophone and Francophone. Does it imply that “Américain” is a different language from “Anglais”? Or that it is an inferior version of English? Why are some American novels published and advertised as translated from “l’américain”, others from “l’anglais”, and still others (especially if they have been published more recently) from “l’anglais (Etats-Unis)”? See accompanying examples that use “américain”, “anglais (Etats-Unis)’, but also counterexamples: “anglais (Irlande)”, “anglais (Afrique du Sud)”, and even, surprisingly, “anglais (Grande Bretagne)”
Like many of us, I was no more mildly puzzled by this example of American exceptionalism, until one day I came across a copy of the first novel by Roger Breuil, published in 1933: its title is simply “Traduit de l’américain”. Here I have to pause briefly in my presentation, and try to answer the questions on all of your minds: who is Roger Breuil ? Information about this author is hard to find, as he seems to have been largely forgotten. Fortunately his son, Sidney Jézéquel, published a biography in 2007 (L’Avant-dernier des Protestants), also very hard to find. It is not sold on Amazon, and Harvard is apparently the only American library to have a copy. The first sentence of the biography provides an important key to Breuil’s identity: “Mon père était incroyablement croyant”. (7)
What follows is a necessary sequence of summary and textual analysis through which I hope to arrive at some tentative answers to the question. Two surprises greeted me when I read the novel: first, it is really good, in spite of being relatively unknown, or at least forgotten (it won the Prix du premier roman in 1933, putting Breuil on course for a potentially far more successful literary career than the one he had). The second surprise was that it has a queer dimension, treating the theme of male homosexuality even more directly than other, more famous works such as André Gide’s L’Immoraliste or Les Faux monnayeurs, works that allegedly were very influential on Breuil’s own writing. In the process of providing evidence of the novel’s treatment of same sex desire, I hope to arrive at a better understanding of what makes it American.