Peter Bye

Alice X is a philosopher and historian of ideas with a global reputation. She holds a chair at a leading university in the UK, has visiting professorships in Paris, New York and Boston, and has received honorary doctorates at more than twenty universities. She specialises in contemporary European, especially French, thought and is regarded as a leading authority on the viewpoint summarised by the term ‘post-modernism’. Alice has just begun a translation of a major new work by the French thinker Jean-Jacques Grandvent. His book covers immensely complicated material and is over 600 pages long.

Bob Y is a UK Member of Parliament, elected in 2015. He holds a degree in politics from the university where Alice teaches, although she never taught him. He was very active in politics while a student so, on graduation, he went straight into the role of research assistant to an MP who later became a minister. He continued as a research assistant for six years while waiting for a suitable constituency to be available for him to stand as a parliamentary candidate.

Alice and Bob never encountered each other while he was a student although they subsequently met at a reception after a debate on the UK and the EU, held at the university. Alice had gone along because of her interest in all things European. Bob was a speaker in the debate, advocating strong pro-Brexit arguments, a view he had held since his student days.

She and Bob bumped into each other again when he was recently visiting the university. Here’s how the conversation went.

Bob Hello Alice! What’s keeping you busy these days?

Alice Quite a bit. My biggest task, and I’m wondering if I should have accepted it, is translating a new work by Grandvent. It’s a huge and complicated book. It’ll take me at least four years to complete.

Bob Who’s Grandvent?

Alice Jean-Jacques Grandvent’s a leading thinker in Paris, often bundled with those described as post-modern. He’s got a lot of critics but he has a great deal of influence, both there and in the US. I was in New York recently, just after I had the offer of the translation, and discussed him and the work with a couple of American colleagues. They urged me to do the translation as they think Grandvent’s work is really important.

Bob Did you say at least four years to do the translation? That’s a long time. What’s the problem?

Alice Well, for a start there a lot of text, much of which is pretty dense – not easy to understand. I’ll have to go through it all, teasing out the nuances in what he’s saying. I’ll need to spend quite a bit of time talking to him, to make sure I understand his view point and don’t misrepresent him. That all takes time.

On top of that, he makes all sorts of references and allusions to other works, all of which I will have to follow up. Many of the authors and other sources are still active, so I’ll need to speak to them as well.

If that were not enough, he’s been the subject of a huge number of papers and books, which I will have to read and probably talk to the authors. Tracking them down and arranging to meet is time-consuming.

And of course I’ll have to get the translation reviewed and commented by Grandvent and many others, and then work through all their comments.

So you can see why it’s not a quick job. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if four years is too little time, especially as I’ve got to do some legal checks as well, for example on copyright…

Bob I’m sorry, but I really don’t see why you need all that time. Surely, Grandvent and the other chaps will appreciate what you’re doing for them and be only too happy to co-operate with you. For the life of me, I can’t see why you need more than a year, maybe 18 months – two years at the absolute outside.

Alice I’m sorry Bob but it ain’t that simple. But as you seem to think it is, perhaps you’d like to show me how. Why don’t you give me a clue by translating the first chapter, or even just a part of it?

Bob Me, translate? I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Alice…I only did French to age 16, just scraping a GCSE….

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