The differences between the English and French versions of Foucault’s 1983 interview on Raymond Roussel


As an appendix to the English translation of Foucault’s book on Raymond Roussel, entitled Death and the Labyrinth, there is an interview with the translator Charles Ruas. It’s a revealing interview in many ways, but the particular interest I have in it for The Early Foucault is less for what it says about the book than the initial discovery of Roussel’s work in the summer of 1957 and the context in which Foucault read him. (If, in time, I write a book on Foucault in the 1960s, then I will discuss the work on Roussel and all Foucault’s work on literature from that decade there.)

The interview appears in Dits et écrits as text 343, “Archéologie d’une passion”. (There is an online version of the Dits et écrits version here). The bibliographical reference for the source is Death and the Labyrinth, which Dits et écrits dates to 1984. But the first English edition of that text, from all the indications I can find, was 1986. Following the Dits et écrits procedures, it would appear that the text should appear somewhat later in the volume, under the year 1986 – as a posthumous, but authorised publication (rather like the texts from Technologies of the Self). Additionally, although its only bibliographical reference is to the English, Dits et écrits does not list a translator. The title also seems to be an addition – the English version doesn’t have one. These little anomalies are not, in themselves, especially interesting.

As Ruas was the translator of the book, it is not immediately obvious if the interview was conducted in French or English. Either the English text in Death and the Labyrinth or the French in Dits et écrits could be a translation, or even potentially both – an unpublished French original, a translation by Ruas, back translation for Dits et écrits. (There are several such texts in these volumes). But there are some differences between the English and the French text which means that the relation between the texts does matter.

In both versions, Foucault begins with the story of how he encountered Roussel’s work in José Corti’s bookshop near the Luxembourg Gardens in 1957. (The bookshop closed last year, though the press associated with the name still continues.) He moves to discuss his first meeting with Alain Robbe-Grillet in Hamburg, though they did not discuss their mutual interest in Roussel, and then recalls how he decided some years later to write an article on Roussel. That article grew, and eventually became a book. There are several relatively minor differences between the English and French versions here – some of Ruas’s questions only appear in the English, and some sentences are in a different order.

In the English version, Ruas then asks another question about Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, and Foucault replies about how he was prepared to read Roussel because of his reading of Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Roland Barthes and others. He talks about how seeing a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and reading these and other works helped him to break from a dominant culture of Marxism, phenomenology and existentialism, especially in his work on madness. Ruas then asks about the relation of the book to the study of madness and Foucault says a bit more about how Roussel helped him to move beyond his initial approach. This discussion appears at the end of the French interview, not where it does in the English.

Then Ruas asks about Roussel’s relation to Proust, and here the French and English coincide again. There are some later variants too – interviewer questions not in the French, so Foucault’s answers run on; some brief exchanges. The end of the English version discusses Roland Barthes, but that isn’t in the French at all. All of this made me think that the French could not be a translation of the English. Reordering sentences in answers, moving questions around and cutting interviewer questions are the sorts of things only an author, or interviewer, would do. So, was there another version of the French text?

Some hunting around discovered that there was indeed. The interview was originally published in French in Le magazine littéraire, No 221, July-August 1985, pp. 100-5. This means that Dits et écrits is reprinting that text, not the English one. It means that the French text in Le magazine littéraire is the initial earlier publication, and the one in Death and the Labyrinth is a translation of that. But that translation includes some text not in the original, and reorganises some material. It also has a brief introduction by Ruas. The original French publication has a brief introduction by François Ewald.

It thus seems clear that Dits et ecrits (edited of course by Ewald and Defert) used the version in Le magazine littéraire, but did not check the English to see if they were indeed the same. Dits et écrits does not reprint Ewald’s introduction and two short texts included in Le magazine littéraire, one entitled “L’inventeur d’un langage”, signed by A.G. and the other entitled “Le jeu des signes”, signed by F.E. It also omits some of the questions and answers which, to my knowledge, only appear in the English version.

I suppose the only remaining questions is why Dits et écrits is not explicit about reprinting the version in Le magazine littéraire. Could it be because it was, strictly speaking, a posthumous publication?

[Update 8 Nov: I should have noted this before, but in Jacques Lagrange’s ‘Complément bibliographiques’ in Dits et écrits, Vol IV, p. 835, the version in Le magazine littéraire is noted as a posthumous publication. Given their own stipulations, it thus makes sense that the editors make it appear that the version reprinted is the English one, even if a) it isn’t and b) it was actually from 1986, not 1984, and so was itself posthumous.]

There are various other Foucault Resources on this site, including bibliographies, audio links, a few short translations and several other textual comparisons and discussions. A complete list is here.


This entry was posted in Daniel Defert, Michel Foucault, The Early Foucault, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The differences between the English and French versions of Foucault’s 1983 interview on Raymond Roussel

  1. Pingback: The Early Foucault Update 14 – another month of slow, steady progress | Progressive Geographies

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