Le Chant du poulet sous vide came to me by a fairly standard but nonetheless reliably exciting source: Lucie Rico’s publisher, Vibeke Madsen at Editions POL, highly recommended that I read it. A few things attracted me, in addition to Vibeke’s recommendation. I was intrigued to see how a foodstuff as central, as mundane, and as commercialised as the chicken could be given a treatment that would raise it to anything lyrical enough to make a novel, and particularly how this could be swung or read as delivering any kind of ecologically aware message. It was my error to read ‘poulet’ as primarily a foodstuff, of course, even though the French terminology for chicken(s) is more diverse and refined than the English and led clearly in this direction. In Rico’s screwball yet serious investigation, I found an attempt at genuine engagement with the personhood of chickens, as far as that could be pushed—and a due engagement with the limits of this exercise. Yes, there is madness in this obsessive work. But the naming, adoption, and then obituarisation of hand-reared chickens is a highly experimental process, and a radical one. It shows up assumptions in our food chains as well as in our relationships with each other and with our animals. I was delighted with the experiment and particularly happy to find it taken as far into the absurd as dark experiments can go.
I am privileged to be able to translate this one-of-a-kind narrative, whose absurd and nightmarish nature underscores the absurdity of the real-world violence of our human and animal practices. Lucie Rico writes tension very well; her scenes are almost cinematic, full of taut dialogue and close-ups on characters and objects. It is my task as a translator to achieve a similar tension in the English version and so give the reader a sense of the atmosphere of the French novel—an ominous atmosphere punctuated by bursts of comedic lightning. Language is incredibly important in this novel that explores the relationship between writing and killing. Paule’s pursuit of writing biographies for the chickens shows just how necessary language is to give meaning to a life. This is not merely a story about animal welfare, or the quest for one’s roots, though it is of course about those things. It is mainly a story about crafting lives out of words. For a translator, who is an expert at paying attention to words, this fact almost doubles the stakes. Translating this book requires carefully selecting words that work on multiple levels. The novel deftly plays with the distinction between animals and humans, and it is in the vocabulary choices that this distinction is most frequently thrown into question. Rico’s verbs and adjectives suggest that we know ourselves to be closer to animals than we like to think of ourselves as being. In translating this work, I have had the pleasure of playing with words in an attempt to recreate this proximity, this mixing of animal and human on the very level of language.
Fowl Eulogies will publish in May 2023 – stay tuned!