For a young future author, traveling in France after drawing a high number in the Vietnam draft, the opportunity to live abroad was as lucky as escaping war.
Question: Should writers live abroad and then return home, as you did?
Paul Auster: Yes, I did leave America, it was the very end of 1970, early '71, so I was turning 24 years old. I had finished my college studies at Columbia, I had mercifully gotten a very high lottery number in the draft, so I knew I wasn't going to be drafted. And I just, first I went off, I got a job working on an oil tanker, I was a merchant marine for about six months. Somebody I knew had a connection, I could get the job, and I just wanted to get away from New York for a while, get away from the academy, and live out there in the world with other people. And I enjoyed my stint on the ship, I have to say, I learned a lot.
When you're sailing around the world, there aren't a lot of opportunities to spend money, so I saved up, and when I got back to New York, I thought, well, I think I want to leave. This is the time of the Vietnam War at its height. I had been swept up in political movements of the '60's as a student, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. And I was writing all through it, but not as much as I wanted to, and I thought if I got away, it would do me some good. I knew French, I had been to France before, couple of times, and so that was the logical place to go. And I thought I would stay for a year, and I wound up staying for three and a half. Because as you know, one thing leads to another and you get caught up in another kind of life. For me, it was a very fertile time. I think, I went to France thinking, I think I'm a writer, I suppose I'm a writer, but I'm not 100% sure. When I came home, three and a half years later, I was convinced that this was what I was going to do.
It also gave me a new perspective on America. I think it's a very good thing to leave your country and look at it from afar. Try to look at it through the eyes of other people and I was suffocating here at the time. Because, you know, the war was pressing down on everybody all the time, there was almost no room to think about anything else. And by removing myself, I gave myself space to breathe again and just find out exactly what it was I needed to do.
So yeah, I would recommend it. Life is so much more expensive now than it was then. I could do it very cheaply then. But I suppose if you have enough wherewithal financially, then it is a great thing for a young person to do. Better to do it young than old.
Question: What aspects of literature are untranslatable?
Paul Auster: You know, I haven't translated anything in many, many, many, many, many years. I guess the toughest things in translations are word play, which can never be reproduced exactly. And so what I would try to do would be if I couldn't duplicate the word play in a passage, try to do something else somewhere else in the work.
I remember there was a poem by Arp, the painter, that I translated, I was about 19 or 20 years old. And I remember coming up with the phrase, "smothered and poppa'd" and I was very pleased with that, I remember at the time.
But I did two kinds of translations. I translated poems out of love and I translated later prose books to make money, it was a job. So I translated a lot of very mediocre things that no one would ever want to read. But it put some food on the table, a few beans and maybe a few grains of rice. But I can't really remember any particular passage that daunted me so much that it stuck with me all these years later.
Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen