Translator: Timothy Nassau | Author: Léo Malet | Work: Il fait toujours nuit / La vie est dégueulasse | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction
J’étais comme Marcel, en ce qui concernait cette môme. J’aurais aimé contempler sa photo, savoir qu’elle était belle. Elle devait être belle, il le fallait. Avec sa pauvre petite robe, sa pauvre petite robe de pauvre, décorée de jolies taches de sang, elle était étendue, les jambes écartées, sur un tas de charbon, des scories dans ses cheveux blonds, son ventre de vierge pénétré d’une semence de mort, chaude et coupante, lancée par des trouffions gorgés de gnôle. Elle avait dix ans. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse. Ça se confirmait chaque jour. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais j’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Un immense désir d’avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse, c’était un ignoble et affreux engrenage, et nous contribuions tous à en perpétuer la dégueulasserie.
I was with Marcel, when it came to the kid. I would’ve liked to have seen her picture, to have known that she was pretty. She needed to be pretty, she had to be. In her poor little dress, her poor little poor girl’s dress, adorned with lovely bloodstains, she lay stretched out, her legs spread apart, on a pile of coal, slag in her blond hair, the seed of death planted in her virgin belly, hot and stinging, by a group of yardbirds stiff on swill. She was ten. I would have loved to be ten. Life made me sick. Each day proved it anew. I would have loved to be ten. I don’t know why, but I would have loved to be ten. An overwhelming desire to be ten. Life made me sick, it was a loathsome dirty gristmill, and all of us made it sicker.
A sentence like “La vie était dégueulasse” is usually a translation softball: a noun is an adjective–pick up your dictionary, fill in the blanks, and move on. So, “Life was disgusting.” That could work in the passage above, as the conclusion of thoughts that make clear the kind of disgust the narrator Jean is feeling, that this is nihilism in the face of a child’s death at a miners’ strike. But the phrase needs to stand alone. In the present tense, “La vie est dégueulasse” is the byword of the novel. It was the title when the book was published in 1948, and though the 1980 edition went under the almost as dark “Il fait toujours nuit,” newer printings have returned to the original title that Malet chose “as a provocation.” This was his attempt to write a hard-boiled American-style noir in French, and it is très noir. Malet was at the end of a long engagement with the Surrealists, and the hero he created is a disillusioned anarchist, more interested in violence than ideology and plagued by deviant dreams. “Life is disgusting” is the right idea, but without quite enough sneer; “dégueulasse” is, after all, a somewhat offensive term (one suggested translation I found was “bloody disgusting”). I wanted something that sounded more colloquial, something you could find scratched on the wall of a bathroom stall. For a few months I would run the phrase by any French speaker I ran into. I went through a list of adjectives that could mean “dégueulasse”–rotten, revolting, filthy, vile, dirty, rank, shitty, and, further afield–disturbing, loathsome, abhorrent, offensive, hateful… They were too specific, or too forced, like something no one would reasonably say. And they further highlighted the specificity problem of “disgusting,” that it didn’t have the nuance of “dégueulasse” and risked being taken as “gross,” as in life is disgusting because we’re all a bunch of holes with flesh in between. I didn’t solve this problem myself; after having lunch with a friend and raising the issue, he texted me “life makes me sick.” Such was my attachment to the noun-is-adjective construction that it took me an hour to realize he wasn’t telling me he was in crisis mode. “Dégueulasse” comes from the verb “dégueuler” and the suffix “-asse,” which creates pejoratives (like “connasse” or “pétasse”). “Dégueuler” comes from “gueule,” slang for mouth or face, and “dé-” makes it negative, so that verb means to un-mouth or, as most people call it, to vomit. Neither my friend nor I knew that at the time, but his instinct created a basically literal translation, from an etymological viewpoint. Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless has a famous exchange near the end that starts with a hero similar to Malet’s saying, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.” Early subtitles had “It’s disgusting, really,” but the 2007 Criterion Collection edition changed that to “Makes me want to puke.” “Life makes me puke” might be a more faithful option in my case, too, but then it sounds a bit too much like the title of an existential Goosebumps book.
Timothy Nassau has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University. He is currently a middle school English teacher in Japan.