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10 Questions for Rebecca Dehner-Armand

"Once upon a time," we say—a custom every self-respecting storyteller must follow as a way of opening a window onto another world, elsewhere in time, space, and dimension. . . . So, once upon a time. . . but this time, it was the very beginnning, the very first time. . . The very first time, there was nothing, and it was everything. And Everything was its name. So, once upon a time, there was Everything.
—from "Once Upon a Time," by Sylvia Hanitra Andriamampianina, translated by Rebecca Dehner-Armand, Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
One of the first pieces I translated was a short story by Vassilis Alexakis entitled “Papa,” from his 1997 collection. I began translating the story as part of my semester project for an International Writers workshop at Washington U. I ended up spending the next two years translating and workshopping the entire collection. I was fascinated by the deceptively simple language and the sense of absurdity and disorientation that characterizes the nine stories in this collection. In “Papa,” an unnamed man is lounging in the Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. As he is about to leave, he is approached by a little boy who calls him papa and asks to be taken home to eat dinner. The man insists he doesn’t know the boy but is compelled to traverse the city and return the boy to his home. I won’t spoil the end of course, but needless to say, things are not what they seem. The man’s familiarity with the city, with his past, and ultimately with his own self are all thrown into question.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This is a really difficult question to answer. I have a multitude of influences that change from season to season based on what I’m reading. My B.A. was in English literature and during that time, I was obsessed with the work of Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Elizabeth Bishop, Vladimir Nabokov, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Carver and John Cheever. However, my focus shifted drastically during my two M.A.s. I was living in France and studying translation and contemporary exile literature, interests that have followed me into my doctoral work. Now, I find myself reading on both sides of the Atlantic constantly. I am currently captivated by the writing of Assia Djebar, Leila Sebbar and Marie N’Diaye.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be an Olympic athlete or a circus performer, both intensely physically demanding jobs. I guess I decided to do mental instead of physical acrobatics as a translator/writer.

What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
I found this piece through Allison Charette, a translator who specializes in Malagasy fiction. She had compiled a database of fiction from Madagascar and invited fellow translators to translate some of the pieces. This story stood out to me. I have always been interested in folklore and mythology and I was fascinated by the way Andriamampianina retells this creation myth in a way that is so distinctly reminiscent of oral storytelling traditions, all the while prefacing it as a fairytale with that enigmatic opening phrase, “once upon a time…”

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Much of my work is invested in center/periphery dynamics and the ways in which the periphery both inhabits the center as well as dismantles and remakes it. In that way, I suppose Paris is a continual influence on my work as a writer and translator.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
This is an interesting question. I cannot function without music, much less write. I listen to everything from classical to techno to folk to hip-hop to Celtic music while I’m working. I don’t really discriminate. If I forget my headphones at home, I can guarantee I won’t be productive that day.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My family. My parents and my sister are my greatest editors and have been for a long time. I usually run early drafts by them before passing them on to colleagues or mentors.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
This is a great question. It would definitely have to be music. I’ve played piano, as well as a few other instruments, since childhood. At one point, I had to make the choice between literature and music and the former won. I was never disciplined enough to be a really great pianist, but it was always my second choice.

What are you working on currently?
I am writing the first chapter of my doctoral dissertation which focuses on contemporary plurilingual hybrid autobiographies by postcolonial and exilic French-language authors. I always have some translation projects in the works as well. When I get tired of one type of writing, I take a break by working on the other for a while. I hope to translate more of Andriamampianina’s short fiction, but I am also working on works by a few other contemporary Francophone authors, Vassilis Alexakis being one of them.

What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading a few things: the most recent issue of The Paris Review, Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson’s translation of Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest and Other Stories (2018), a haunting and, at times terrifying, collection by one of Mexico’s masters of the short story, and Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (2007) by Assia Djebar, an autofictional memoir about Djebar’s childhood in Algeria and her experience of French and Arabic as warring mother tongues.


REBECCA DEHNER-ARMAND is a literary translator of contemporary French and Francophone fiction. She is currently a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St.Louis. Her research focuses on autobiography, exile, and (self-) translation studies in French-language fiction. In addition to her academic publications, Rebecca's translations have appeared in Asymptote and Delos.

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