Annie Ernaux’s ‘The Years’ in Translation; or, the Art of St(r)aying True

Samuel Martin, University of Pennsylvania

The following text is adapted from remarks presented at the University of Pennsylvania in December 2022 as part of a roundtable discussion celebrating the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Annie Ernaux.

When it was announced in October that Annie Ernaux had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, many hailed the news as an overdue recognition of a giant of contemporary French letters. It goes without saying, however, that these decisions are never made on purely aesthetic grounds, and one would be hard-pressed to dissociate Ernaux’s award from recent events in the US and their reverberation abroad. Setting aside the matter of literary merit—after all, Ernaux was just as deserving of recognition in 2021 as in 2022—there can be little coincidence in the fact that only months after the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade and provoked an international outcry, the Swedish Academy decided to honor a woman whose work deals so frankly with the experience of abortion and the theme of bodily autonomy. The award represented much more than a validation of French literature. It was also an implicit rebuke to the American political establishment and a signal of sorts to Ernaux’s American readership. That the Academy should have been able to bank on Ernaux’s books being widely readable in this country, and that that American readership should be comprised of so many fervent devotees, is testament, of course, to the remarkable work of Ernaux’s translators into English, in particular Christopher Beach, Linda Coverdale, Jonathan Kaplansky, Tanya Leslie, Anna Moschovakis, Carrie Noland, Carol Sanders, and Alison Strayer; the Nobel honors them, too. It is Alison Strayer’s translation of The Years, perhaps Ernaux’s best-known title in the Anglosphere and the recipient of the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize, on which I would like to focus.

For all their differences, the two most recent French-language winners of the Nobel, Annie Ernaux in 2022 and Patrick Modiano in 2014, are commonly cited as exponents of autofiction, or fictionalized autobiography, and are similarly reputed for their unadorned prose. Ernaux famously defends her écriture plate (“flat writing”). [1] In a note from 1990, included in the collection of journal entries and personal photographs that serves as a kind of preface to the anthology of her major works, Écrire la vie, she appears to equate her autobiographical preoccupations with the ostensible simplicity, even transparency, of her language: “Je ne travaille pas sur des mots, je travaille sur ma vie.” (“I don’t work on words, I work on my life.”). [2] One might think that stylistic minimalism, if that is what this amounts to, lessens the burden on the translator, whose job then becomes equally transparent. In fact the reverse is true: the translator has no option but to work on the words, to confront their opacity in the source text and to conjure a new set of words that trace an alternate route back to the life. A flat style can still have sharp edges—Ernaux is a case in point, so to speak—and a translation that assumes that those edges automatically exist in the same places of the target language as of the source language is doomed to sound bland and mechanical: in a word, lifeless. Alison Strayer’s translator’s note to The Years explains how she went about avoiding such traps: “After reducing the length of some marathon sentences for clarity, I restored all that I could to their full ‘breathless’ length, with considerable help from commas and dashes. … There were times to be terse and times to be sweeping.” (236-37) Whatever illusions we may have harbored of one language being transparent to another are swept away.

But what is—or what are—Les Années, exactly, and how does this book relate to the author’s other texts? Alison Strayer begins her translator’s note by acknowledging, “The Years is at least twice as long as all but one of AE’s previous books and in other ways, too, is a departure from her other work.” (233) Already straying, then, already an outlier. Not an outright liar, though, for The Years sets out to capture as truly as possible the tenor of an entire generation’s lived experience across many decades. Ernaux presents her book as an “impersonal autobiography”; from the 1940s through the first years of the twenty-first century, it combines individual impressions of life in France with a chronicle of historical events as seen through French eyes. (229) The book’s representative ambition begins, you might say, with its pronouns. When describing in the opening pages the parents’ stories of the ruins and trauma of the Second World War, the speaker makes an observation that will come to govern the form of her own narrative in the pages that follow: “Sur fonds commun de faim et de peur, tout se racontait sur le mode du ‘nous’ et du ‘on’.” [3] In Alison Strayer’s version: “From a common ground of hunger and fear, everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns.” (19)

Hence, even before there can be any question of style, syntax, or écriture plate, the French text’s personal or subject pronouns, its most basic constitutive element, already oblige the English translator to stray in several different directions. The French nous and the English we mirror each other more or less comfortably, but on and its attendant impersonal constructions require a constant renegotiation of meaning.

Hence, even before there can be any question of style, syntax, or écriture plate, the French text’s personal or subject pronouns, its most basic constitutive element, already oblige the English translator to stray in several different directions. The French nous and the English we mirror each other more or less comfortably, but on and its attendant impersonal constructions require a constant renegotiation of meaning. To take a handful of sample sentences from Les Années along with Alison Strayer’s English solutions:

“On voyait et on entendait ce qu’on n’avait jamais vu ni entendu depuis qu’on était né, ni cru possible.” [4] (“We saw and heard things we had never seen or heard in our lives, or even thought possible.”) (97)

“On avait envie de fuir et d’en rester là. Mais on pressentait qu’il était impossible de revenir en arrière, prêtes à entrer dans le déchirement du divorce … prêtes à tout pour retrouver le désir d’un avenir.” [5] (“One wished to flee and leave things as they were, but sensed there was no turning back. One was ready to endure the heartbreak of divorce … ready for anything that would help us recover the desire for a future.”) (132)

“L’identité … devenait un souci prépondérant. … C’était quelque chose qu’il fallait posséder, retrouver, conquérir, affirmer, exprimer.” [6] (“Identity … became an overriding concern. … It was something you needed to have, rediscover, assume, assert, express.”) (145)

It almost feels as though this last sentence is addressed to the translator herself; from we to one to you, Alison Strayer’s English text is ceaselessly rediscovering, assuming, and expressing the multiple layers of identity bound up in Ernaux’s supposedly “impersonal” language.

I say “supposedly impersonal” because The Years is of course a deeply intimate book, whose vast collective scope revolves around the central core of an individual life as it has been experienced and documented. Like the prefatory journal and album in Écrire la vie mentioned above, The Years is constructed on a scaffold of private photographs, except in this case the scaffold has been removed. The book’s very first sentence after the two epigraphs, “All the images will disappear,” seems to foretell as much; all that remains are Ernaux’s detailed third-person descriptions of the photos. (7) Rather than looking at pictures, then, we are, in a way, looking at the speaker looking at pictures. The life is visible to us only through the words—and yet in describing these photographic representations of her former selves (les Annie!), the speaker, too, is standing at a degree of removal from that life, working on the words that will reembody past moments and prevent their disappearing further. This reappropriation of experience through language is echoed in a pivotal early section of the book, the same passage, for that matter, that goes on to announce the use of collective and impersonal pronouns. Describing dinnertime conversations in the aftermath of the war years, the speaker recalls, “The voices of the guests flowed together to compose the great narrative of collective events, which we came to believe we too had witnessed.” (18) And this sense of first-hand experience potentially says something in turn about the way a reader apprehends a literary translation. I don’t want to speak of “second-hand experience” in a pejorative manner, one that would imply any sort of hierarchy; the Anglophone reader of Alison Strayer’s rendering of The Years has just as direct, authentic, and valid an experience of a literary text as the francophone reader of Annie Ernaux’s Les Années. Simply, the sleight of hand that is literary translation can allow us to persuade ourselves that when we read The Years we are reading the words of Annie Ernaux, when we are in fact reading the words of Alison Strayer.

But even that banal statement needs to be amended: one of the signal features of Les Années is precisely that Annie Ernaux’s words are often not her own to begin with. The book gathers snatches of language from all corners—literature, popular culture, political discourse, private conversations, news headlines, received wisdom, and so on—and remotivates them within Ernaux’s narrative, at times producing a montage effect. In its references, too, the text reaches across the Channel and the Atlantic with increasing frequency; Anglophone literature, music, and film loom large. For the French adolescent of the 1950s, “Everything sung in English was suffused with mysterious beauty. Dream, love, heart, words of great purity and no practical use, conveyed the sense of a world-beyond.” (57-8) The mystery gradually diminishes as the years go by; from her teenage infatuation with the likes of Elvis and James Dean, before long the speaker has gone on to become a perspicacious reader of Virginia Woolf and Lawrence Durrell, and the French text leaves quotations from Hamlet and Macbeth in the original English. Alison Strayer, for her part, chooses judiciously to leave a number of titles and phrases in French throughout her translation, adding only a very occasional footnote to clarify obscure allusions or heavily freighted terms such as baccalauréat or banlieue. Yet contrary to what one might imagine, these remnants do not necessarily reassert the mysterious beauty or superior legitimacy of the source language. A fragment from the book’s early pages, for instance, mentions “turns of phrase that others used without a thought and which we doubted we’d ever be able to use, il est indéniable que, force est de constater.” (11) By leaving these stock phrases languishing without anything in the way of translation or explanation, the English text arguably makes an even more cunning use of them than the original, underscoring the perceived remoteness of a particular French idiom.

Indeed, insofar as Les Années prolongs Annie Ernaux’s lifelong struggle against the male-dominated authority of French language and society, there is something fitting, something righteous, about the text being transplanted into a different language entirely. One of the oldest—and also one of the most misogynistic—metaphorical criteria by which a translation is judged is that of its supposed “fidelity” to the source text; I would contend that the boldness with which Alison Strayer reshapes the text of Les Années in English is her way of staying true to the combative and anti-patriarchal force of Annie Ernaux’s book. Take, for instance, the following excerpt about the speaker’s dreams of a freer existence, and note how the translation confidently casts aside the syntactical strictures of the source text:

“Dans quelle mesure Mai 68—qu’elle a l’impression d’avoir raté, trop installée déjà—est-il à l’origine de la question qui l’obsède: ‘Serais-je plus heureuse dans une autre vie?’ Elle a commencé de se penser en dehors du couple et de la famille.” [7] (“Would she be happier with another kind of life? The question obsesses her. She wonders to what degree it is a product of May ’68, which she feels she missed, having been—already—too settled at the time. She has started to imagine herself outside of conjugal and family life.”) (113)

The translated passage begins by turning the original upside-down, and yet both texts stick the landing. Alison Strayer manages at once to imagine and to create a new life for Ernaux’s text outside the conjugal bonds of unquestioned loyalty to the French source.

Strayer’s interventions occur on the visual as well as on the syntactical and lexical level. A few pages (and years) after the passage just quoted, the speaker describes the build-up to the now inevitable split from her husband: “The decision to separate was preceded by months of scenes and weary reconciliations, conversations with women friends, hints about marital discord on visits to the parents, who’d issued the warning at the time of the wedding, In this family, divorce does not exist.” (131) Alison Strayer introduces a paragraph break after this sentence where there is none in the French, consciously uncoupling the two texts in the image of the separating pair. A subtle gesture, to be sure—but then Strayer’s translator’s note alerts the reader to just this sort of subtlety: “As in all of Ernaux’s books, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the spacing between sections. There is method in it.” (237) Indeed there is. Strayer deploys Ernaux’s textual strategies in a way that not only replicates their trenchancy but extends it.

And that helps me to make my last point, namely, that Les Années and The Years can be seen to work in tandem, in solidarity, rather than as a substitution of one for the other. It might seem tempting at first to pinpoint the spots where Ernaux’s text looks ahead to its own eventual erasure and to read them as anticipations of translation, statements such as: “Thousands of words will suddenly be deleted, the ones that were used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist.” (11) Yes, one could choose to read these words in English without referring back to the thousands of French words used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, etc.—but of course the English text hasn’t deleted anything at all. Les Années is (are) still there, unaltered. Alison Strayer’s translation has simply become another layer in the palimpsest of words, images, and sensations that Annie Ernaux compiles, a continuation of the effort to “save something from the time where we will never be again.” (231) This concluding sentence of the book belies the very tangible success of the two writers’ undertaking, for if we can never again be in years gone by, we can yet remain in The Years—in the book—for as long as we wish; it is enough to keep reading.

Annie Ernaux, Écrire la vie (Paris: Gallimard, 2011)

Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison Strayer (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017)


[1] For an acute assessment of Ernaux’s complicated relationship to autofiction, see Lauren Elkin’s essay “Bad Genre: Annie Ernaux, Autofiction, and Finding a Voice,” accessed January 5, 2023,

[2] Annie Ernaux, Écrire la vie (Paris: Gallimard, 2011), 101.

[3] Annie Ernaux, Les Années [2008], in ibid., 936.

[4] Ibid., 990.

[5] Ibid., 1015.

[6] Ibid., 1024.

[7] Ibid., 1002.