The Re-imagining Inherent in Crime Fiction Translation

Alistair Rolls



When a text is said to be re-appropriated, it is at times unclear to what extent this appropriation is secondary, repeated, new; certainly, the difference between a reiteration and an iteration has more to do with emphasis than any (re)duplication. And at a moment in the development of crime fiction in France when the retranslation of now apparently dated French translations of the works of classic American hardboiled novels (especially those of authors like Dashiell Hammett, whose novels were published in Marcel Duhamel’s Série Noire at Gallimard in the decades following the end of the Second World War) is being undertaken with the ostensible aim of taking the French reader back (closer) to the American original, one may well ask where the emphasis now lies. In what ways, for example, is this new form of re-production, of re-imagining the text, more intimately bound to the original, and thus in itself less ‘original’ than its translated predecessors? Or again, is this more reactionary ‘re-’ in fact really that different from those more radical uses that cleaved the translation from its original text in those early, foundational years of twentieth-century French crime fiction?

(Re-)Reading: Critical Theory and Originality

My juxtaposition of the terms ‘reactionary’ and ‘radical’, and the attempted play on the auto-antonymy of the verb ‘to cleave’, are designed to prompt a re(-)read of the analysis that so famously took the text away from the author in the late-1960s through to the 1990s, which is to say the critical theory of poststructuralism and deconstruction. Roland Barthes’s work (especially 69–77) appropriated the familiar terms of literary analysis and reversed them, making of them perhaps a re-appropriation in the sense of taking them into new territory: the text, formerly a paper-based platform for the written word, was now a virtual interface between the word and its reader, the new locus of the production of meaning; the work, on the other hand, which had previously pertained to the collective creative imaginings of the author, was now synonymous with the physical writing passed on by the author to the reader. And by ‘passed on’ was meant ‘passed over’, achevé (perfected, terminated, put to death)—completed, then, but only insofar as its finite sequence of words was set; for its meaning was henceforth dependent on its end user. The new textual life that surged from the ‘death of the author’ was therefore always already an afterlife, a ‘living on’, to use Jacques Derrida’s term (Bloom et al. 75–176).

It is in this context that the re-reading encouraged by Barthes has always appeared to mark a rupture a teasing of ‘reading’ away from the original series of words and the ‘Meaning’ as intended by the author, if any coherence of intention is possible across the finite sequence of words that constitute the written work. The reader must learn to re-read, Barthes implored, or otherwise be condemned to read the same text everywhere. In this sense, the ‘re-’ prefix marks an active engagement with the text, a reflexivity of the act of reading as an act of transformation. The reader whose consumption of the text is passive, merely digestive, will not transform the words (into meaning); and crucially, that reader will not herself be transformed. For this is the power of reflexive reading—when one reads text as text (and not ‘losing oneself’ in the story) one reconstitutes oneself (or, perhaps, loses control of oneself more fully, more productively); not to do so, is to take an unchanged constant (oneself) into every textual encounter and thus to produce sameness in ostensible difference. One who rereads a text and discovers the same story twice will therefore reread even when reading a text for the first time. The hyphen of the re-read, on the other hand, distances the reader from the text; but it also, of course, conjoins. It marks the virtual space where reading occurs, between the physical text and the reading subject; and at the same time, it links all texts in an intertextual arena, such that the reading experience of any one text is informed by the reading of all texts (whether they be works read by an individual reader or works as yet unencountered). 

Such a theory of reading appears to shift originality so far from the author’s work as almost to render the term obsolete. But the thing about reflexivity is that it depends on the text itself, to which it always returns. As Barbara Johnson has noted, the critical difference marked by Barthes’s understandings of the text, and his calls to re-read it, is not what differentiates it from other texts—the universality of the intertext and the reading space underlines this; instead, it is what differentiates the text from itself (“Critical Difference” 175). And while Barthes’s work packages this differentiation as a rupture, a wrenching of ownership away from the author to a new owner, the work and text appear less violently opposed in the works of the Yale School deconstructionists.

In such works as J. Hillis Miller’s “The Critic as Host” (1977), the hyphenation of the re-read is less marked, with re-reading, as a divergence from the text as something self-founding, self-coinciding, emerging as something inherent in the original text. The cleaving of one from and back into the other takes on, in Miller’s essay, the guise of parasitism: the host, a term that etymologically refers to the owner who invites and the guest who is invited, offers a figure for critical reading that reveals the potential for creative readings of ‘meaning’ (what Miller calls the nihilistic text) inside the transparent ‘Meaning’ of the text, by which we recognise one nonetheless autonomous text from another (the metaphysical text). Framed in such terms, reading is a reaction to text, but also an action of text. I should argue then that any engagement with the original is re-actionary—my caveat being that this hyphenation is a marker of auto-antonymy, a link between the text and otherness.

Translation and Originality

Questions of a translator’s status and the originality of the translated text remain vexed. For scholars of translation studies like Brian Nelson, the product of literary translation can legitimately be said to have been authored by its translator, its status as literary text being equal to that of the original (3; see also Wilson and Gerber). Such questions are no more or less vexed today, however, than they were in the days when criticism was grappling with translation through the lens of deconstruction. To refer again to the remarkable work of Johnson, Derrida’s theorisation of textual ‘living on’—the way in which text, at its inception, primes itself for re-imagining, by dint of the fundamental différance of the chains of signification that are its DNA—bears all the trappings of self-translation. Johnson uses the term ‘self-différance’ (“Taking Fidelity” 146–47) in this respect and notes how Derrida took on board, and discussed with him, the difficulties that he was causing for his translator even as he was writing the ‘original’ text of his essay.

If translation, in this framework, is rendered impossible because of the original’s failure to coincide with itself in a transparently meaningful way, then its practice “releases within each text the subversive forces of its own foreignness” (Johnson, “Taking Fidelity” 148), thereby highlighting the debt owed by Derrida’s notion of textual ‘living on’—in (re-)reading—to Walter Benjamin’s understanding of translation as a mode, its translatability, the way in which it primes itself for translation virtually, irrespective of whether or not it is actually translated (70). In this way, translation is a privileged site of textual auto-differentiation, and translated text can, accordingly, be considered every bit as ‘original’ as its source text—simply more reflexive, more aware of its role as a conduit between the words on the page and the re-imagining that they undergo, by which they come to mean, when they are re-activated by the reader.

Emily Apter—albeit in a context that has more specifically to do with the possibilities of comparative literature and the real-world challenges of language in war zones—describes the auto-differentiating nature of translation as “a means of repositioning the subject in the world and in history; a means of rendering self-knowledge foreign to itself; a way of denaturalizing citizens, taking them out of the comfort zone of national space, daily ritual, and pre-given domestic arrangements” (6). In this way, translation is “a significant medium of subject re-formation and political change” (Apter 6). Thus, translation lends itself to crime fiction; for both function as highly reflexive sites of transformation: both provide a reader with a heightened sense of the transformation that she is enacting on the text and that she herself embodies as a reading subject, a subject changed by reading.

Crime Fiction, Auto-Differention and Translation

As has been noted elsewhere (Rolls), Fredric Jameson made an enigmatic reference to crime fiction’s perceived role as the new Realism as part of his plenary lecture at “Telling Truths: Crime Fiction and National Allegory”, a conference held at the University of Wollongong on 6–8 December 2012. He suggested, notably, that one might imagine an author of Scandi-Noir writing in tandem with her translator. While obvious questions of the massive international marketing machine deployed around this contemporary phenomenon come to mind, and I suspect that this is how Jameson’s comment was generally understood, it is tempting to consider this Scandinavian writing scenario in terms of Derrida’s proleptic considerations of his own translator. In this way, crime fiction’s most telling role, as one of the most widely read contemporary literary forms, is its translatability; its haunting descriptions of place (readers, we tend, perhaps precipitously, to assume, love crime fiction for its national, regional or local situatedness) are thus tensely primed for re-location, for Apter’s ‘subject re-formation’. 

The idea of ‘the new Realism’ of crime, and especially detective, fiction is predicated on the tightly (self-)policed rules according to which crime fiction operates. The reader appears to enter into an investigation alongside the detective, co-authoring the crime text in real (reading) time, only for authorial power to be asserted in the unveiling scene of the denouement. What masquerades as the ultimately writerly text, in Barthes’s terms, turns out to be the ultimate in transparently meaningful literature when the solution is set in stone by the detective. As such, the crime novel is far more dependent on descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life (in a given place in time) than other forms of fiction, as these provide the clues on which its intricate plot hinges. According to this understanding, crime fiction records history and transcribes national allegories. This is not only a convincing way of understanding crime fiction, but it is also an extremely powerful way of harnessing it for the purposes of cultural history. Claire Gorrara, for example, uses the development of French crime fiction plots over the course of the second half of the twentieth century to map France’s coming to terms with the legacy of the Second World War. This is the national allegory written in real time, as the nation heals and moves on, and this is crime fiction as a reaction to national allegory.

My contention here, on the other hand, is that crime fiction, like translation, has at its core an inherent, and reflexive, tendency towards otherness. Indeed, this is because crime fiction, whose origins in transnational (and especially Franco-American) literary exchange have been amply mapped but not, I should argue, extrapolated to their fullest extent, is forged in translation. It is widely considered that when Edgar Allan Poe produced his seminal text “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) he created modern crime fiction. And yet, this was made possible because the text was translated into French by Charles Baudelaire and met with great success in France, far more so indeed than in its original place of authorship. Its original setting, however, was not America but Paris; its translatability as French text preceded, even summoned, its actualisation in the form of Baudelaire’s translation. Furthermore, the birth of the great armchair detective, the exponent of pure, objective deduction, in the form of C. Auguste Dupin, is itself turned on its head, a priori, because Dupin, in this first Parisian short story, always already off-sets objectivity with subjectivity, ratiocination with a tactile apprehension of the scene of the crime. He even goes as far as to accuse the Parisian Prefect of Police of one-dimensional objectivity. (Dupin undoes himself, debunking the myth of his own characterisation, even as he takes to the stage.) In this way, Poe founded his crime fiction on a fundamental tension; and this tension called out to its translator so powerfully that Baudelaire claimed to be translating his own thoughts, as expressed by Poe, even before he had had a chance to think them (see Rolls and Sitbon). Thus, Poe was Parisian avant la lettre, his crime fiction a model for Baudelaire’s own prose poetry, the new voice of critical modernity in the mid-nineteenth century.

If Baudelaire went on to write Paris in the form of Paris Spleen (1869), his famous collection of “little prose poems”, both as it is represented (timelessly, poetically) and as it presents itself (in real time, prosaically) at the same time, it was not only because he was spontaneously creating a new national allegory for France based on its cleaving of itself in the wake of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s massive programme of urbanisation in Paris in the 1800s; it was also because he was translating Poe’s fictionalisation of Paris in his new crime fiction. Crime fiction was born therefore not only simultaneously in France and America but also in the translation zone between the two, in the self-différance of translation. In this way, while a strong claim can be made that modern French crime fiction is predicated on, and reacts to, the auto-differentiation (of critical modernity, of Paris versus Paris) articulated in Baudelaire’s prose poems and therefore tells the national allegory, it is also the case, and it is this aspect that is all too often overlooked, that crime fiction’s birth in Franco-American translation founded the new French national allegory.

Re-imagining America in (French) Crime Fiction

Pierre Bayard has done more than any other critic in recent years to debunk the authorial power of the detective in crime fiction, beginning with his re-imagining of the solution to Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and continuing with that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1998 and 2008, respectively). And yet, even as he has engaged with poststructuralist re-readings of these texts, he has put in place his own solutions, elevating them away from his own initial premise of writerly engagement towards a new metaphysics of “Meaning”, be it ironically or because he has fallen prey himself to the seduction of detectival truth. This reactionary turn, or sting-lessness in the tail, reaches new heights (of irony) in the essay in which he imagines the consequences of liberating novels from their traditional owners and coupling them with new authors (Bayard, Et si les œuvres changeaient d’auteur?). 

Throughout this essay Bayard systematically prefers the terms “work” and “author” to “text” and “reader”, liberating the text not only from the shackles of traditional notions of authorship but also from the terminological reshuffling of his and others’ critical theory, while at the same time clinging to the necessity for textual meaning to stem from authorship and repackaging what is, in all but terminology, Barthes et al.’s critical theory. Caught up in the bluff and double-bluff of Bayard’s authorial redeployments is a chapter on what is generally considered the greatest work of parody of twentieth-century French crime fiction—Boris Vian’s pseudo-translation of black American author Vernon Sullivan’s novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (1946, I Shall Spit on Your Graves). The novel was a best seller in France in 1946, outstripping by far the novels of the Série Noire, whose fame and marketability were predicated on their status as “Translations from the American” and of which it appeared a brazen parody. Bayard’s decision to give credibility to Sullivan as author is at once perverse, because it is clear that he did not exist, and reactionary, because it marks a return to Vian’s original conceit. And yet, it passes for innovative, not (or at least not only) because of Bayard’s brilliance but because of the literary qualities of the original text, which, Bayard argues, must have been written in “American” in order to produce such a powerful description of American society at the time.

Bayard’s analysis overlooks (or highlights, if we couch his entire project in a hermeneutics of inversion, based on the deliberate, and ironic, re-reversal of the terms “work” and “text”) two key elements of post-war French crime fiction: the novels of the Série Noire that preceded J’irai cracher sur vos tombes in late 1945 and early 1946 were all written by authors posing as Americans (Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase were in fact English) and the translations were deliberately unfaithful both to the original text, which was drastically domesticated, and to any realistic depiction of America. 

While Anglo-Saxon French Studies has tended to overlook the latter aspect, Frank Lhomeau has highlighted the fact that the America that held sway in the French imaginary (from Liberation through to the 1960s and beyond) was a myth rather than a reality. To take this reasoning one logical, reflexive step further, or in fact less far, the object of Vian’s (highly reflexive) novel, which may better be considered a satire than a parody, can be considered not to be race relations in the United States but the French crime fiction scene in 1946, of which its pseudo-translation (which is to say, a novel not written by an American and not translated) is metonymic (see Vuaille-Barcan, Sitbon and Rolls). (For Isabelle Collombat, “pseudo-translation functions as a mise en abyme of a particular genre” [146, my translation]; this reinforces the idea of a conjunction of translation and crime fiction under the sign of reflexivity.) Re-imagined beneath this wave of colourful translations of would-be American crime novels is a new national allegory for a France emerging from the ruins of German occupation and Allied liberation. 

The re-imagining of France in the years immediately following the Second World War is therefore not mapped, or imagined again, by crime fiction; rather, the combination of translation and American crime fiction provide the perfect storm for re-creating a national sense of self through the filter of the Other. For what goes for the translator, goes equally for the reader.


As Johnson notes, “through the foreign language we renew our love-hate intimacy with our mother tongue”; and as such, “in the process of translation from one language to another, the scene of linguistic castration […] is played on center stage, evoking fear and pity and the illusion that all would perhaps have been well if we could simply have stayed at home” (144). This, of course, is just what had happened one hundred years earlier when Baudelaire created a new prose poetics for a new Paris. In order to re-present (both present and represent) Paris, he focused so close on it as to erase it from objective view. And in the same instance of supreme literary creativity, he masked the origins of his own translation praxis: his Paris was also Poe’s, which is to say, an American vision of Paris translated into French by an author who considered his American alter ego to have had his own thoughts in an act of what Bayard would consider anticipatory plagiarism. In this light, his decision to entitle one of the prose poems “Any where out of the world”—in English in the original—can be considered a Derridean reflection on the translation inherent in any original act of literary re-imagination. Paris, crime fiction and translation can thus all be considered privileged sites of re-imagination, which is to say, embodiments of self-différance and “original” acts of re-reading.


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Translation; retranslation; pseudotranslation; différance

Copyright (c) 2015 Alistair Rolls

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