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The 7th Function of Language interview

The 7th Function of Language interview

Laurent Binet tells us The 7th Function of Language is a metafictional detective story mixing Fight Club and Umberto Eco, while translator Sam Taylor talks about translation as a series of little choices which make a big difference.

This is the first in our series of Man Booker International Prize longlist interviews.   

Laurent Binet, author of The 7th Function of Language    

What has it been like to be longlisted?  

It is a great honour with a light taste of revenge because in France, with our characteristic egocentrism, everybody, even those who praised the book, believed it would only interest French readers. 

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The 7th Function of Language?

Well, you know, it’s just the usual metafictional detective story mixing Fight Club and Umberto Eco that uses semiotics as a narrative device. My two main characters are named after Jack Bauer and Sherlock Holmes and they chase the murderer of Roland Barthes among a bunch of French and international philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Kristeva. Of course, there is also a political conspiracy involving François Mitterrand, as the plot takes place in 1980. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.

The main protagonist of the novel begins to suspect that he is a character in a novel. Has this ever happened to you?

Not quite, but sometimes I suspect I’m trapped in The Truman Show.

Sam Taylor, translator of The 7th Function of Language    

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I’m excited and honoured. I’ve been nominated for several prizes before – and won the French-American Translation Prize last year, which was very gratifying – but this is the first prize I’ve been nominated for where being nominated is actually news, and people email you out of the blue to congratulate you on it. 

What did you most like about translating The 7th Function of Language?  

It was a lot of fun generally. The story, the word games, the subversive humour, the quotations and allusions. I learned a lot while translating it: I’d never studied semiotics or literary theory, so I kept having to look up names and concepts, and I had to try to separate all the intertwined strands of fiction and reality in the book. But I think the best part of translating The 7th Function, as was also true with Laurent’s first novel HHhH, was making the novel’s complex, ironic, teasing narrative voice work in English.

You are a writer yourself and have also written about fictional philosophers. How would you compare the experience of writing a book to translating one?

It’s a lot easier, but not quite as enjoyable. Because the thing that makes writing so hard is also the thing that makes it so fulfilling: making the big choices about what kind of book it is going to be; conjuring people, and a world, from inside your own mind. Translation is a series of choices too, of course, but they are on a much smaller scale: which word to use, how to structure this sentence, a comma or a dash, etc. Those little choices can make a big difference over the course of a book, but they are far less daunting and exciting than the big choices that the writer has to make. In this case, Laurent had already made all the big choices. The words and sentences in The 7th Function of Language are mine, but the world and the people in it are all his.

The 7th Function of Language