As students in humanities, we are used to handling a large amount of abstract knowledge in our field. So that, when the supervisor of my Master dissertation, Professor Sophie Vallas, offered me the opportunity to work on a box of archives that had never been studied before, the perspective of working on real-life documents was highly appealing. These documents concern the Maurice Edgar Coindreau Prize: a literary prize that rewarded the best translation of an American book into French from 1982 to 2016. Throughout the years, the two secretaries conserved letters, press-cuttings, administrative papers, the business cards of the publishers they worked with, bills and official communiqués – among many other documents. To plunge into this box is to go back into the past, reaching a period which is not so distant and yet very much different from today. The archives bear witness of the transition from hand-written letters to e-mails, from franc to euro, or simply of time, the 1990 folder, for instance, is full of press articles announcing the death of the one whose name was given to the prize: Maurice Edgar Coindreau, who was the first translator of many renowned American authors from the inter-war years (Faulkner, Dos Passos or Hemingway for instance).
My first task is to make an inventory of the archives, to decide how they should be classified and to create a system to refer to each document. Then, after a thorough analysis, I need to select the papers that I consider useful to my research in order to shape this raw material into an organized dissertation. The first difficulty lies in the heterogeneity of the corpus and its disordered aspect: tackling such material has nothing to do with studying a text, whether it is fictional, non-fictional or historical. In this case, I am the one in charge of reconstructing the underlying narrative.
Moreover, this work makes me realize how it feels like to be confronted with yet unanalyzed documents: a mingling of helplessness and excitement. When something happens to be unclear – a handwriting slightly too shaky, a first name not accompanied by its matching last name, or a piece of information that seems to be lacking – no outside sources have been written to which I can turn to for a better understanding, leaving me sometimes quite disconcerted. It is precisely for this reason, however, that the work is even more thrilling: I am asked to think differently from what I am used to. Instead of relying on multiple points of view of previous researchers in order to compose my own, I must make do with what I have to slowly connect the dots, sometimes make hypotheses and ultimately, in the best-case scenario, resolve the enigma that I am faced with.
In the end, I will hopefully be able to provide a dissertation that will display the backstage of a prize that actively participated in the circulation of American literature and in the promotion of translation in France.
Note: Very special thanks to Marc Chénetier, a former Professor at Paris-7, a famous translator himself and an eminent member of the Coindreau Prize jury which he presided from 2010 to 2016, who gave this box of archives to the LERMA. An interview with him, led by Sophie Vallas and Nathalie Cochoy and retracing his career is accessible on https://journals.openedition.org/erea/4658.