Willa Cather’s love for France has been well-documented. Less well-documented is France’s response to Willa Cather. France was home to one of the earliest translations of her work in 1924, but French readers were slow to respond. Over the decades, she has steadily gained a long-standing readership through the dedicated work of a few talented admirers who championed her cause, including her first translator, Victor Llona, and, to a much greater degree, her current translator, Marc Chénetier. Between 1924 and 2012—the first and the last translations to date—many other admirers advocated Cather’s work to readers in prefaces, reviews, theses, advertisements, translations, or other publications.
Translations in Cather’s Lifetime
1924–1925: Launching Willa Cather in France
Victor Llona was the first to champion the writings of Willa Cather in France. He was a transnational, cosmopolitan figure of the 1920s and 1930s, well-established on both sides of the Atlantic, and eager to have the French discover the American writers he admired. He is known today for being not only the first translator of Willa Cather (in 1924 and 1925), but also of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he translated The Great Gatsby in 1926. He went on to translate Edna Ferber, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and Sherwood Anderson, among others. Llona was born in Lima, Peru, in 1886, and died in San Francisco in 1953, and so was a contemporary of Willa Cather, if thirteen years younger. He remained a minor figure as a writer and a critic, but used his energy and influence to make the authors he admired known to his contemporaries.
He was educated in Paris, where he attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly, and two of his stories were published in La Nouvelle revue française in 1911 and 1913. He was much at ease in the literary circles that gathered in cafés, and seems to have known everyone there was to know, from writers to publishers, [End Page 538] and was even one of the twelve authors who contributed to a privately printed collection of essays on James Joyce’s then-unfinished novel Finnegan’s Wake. So, when Cather wondered who her translator was in her letters (as in one to Fanny Butcher, December 2, 1920), she could have rested assured: her work was in the hands of an experienced literary man.
In 1924, Victor Llona’s translation of My Antonia was published by Payot in Paris, under the title Mon Antonia. As early as on April 10, 1921, Cather wrote a letter to her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, expressing her concern over Victor Llona, whom she mistakenly calls “half Brazilian” rather than Peruvian:
Help! Help! Mr. Victor Llona, half French, half Brazilian, formerly French consul in Chicago, very enthusiastic about “Antonia,” has been moved to translate it, and writes that he has secured serial publication for it in La Nouvelle Revue française for next spring. He sends me the first eight chapters for “suggestions.” I am puzzled, because it seems to me about the sort of translation I would make myself with the help of a dictionary—which must mean that it’s bad enough! It’s too literal, and I fear it’s not always grammatical.
Would you please glance at these few pages for me and tell me in a word whether it would offend an intelligent French reader? The “suggestions” I’ve made in lead pencil are for him, of course, not to enlighten you.
The man has put in so much time on this job I don’t see how I can call him off and tell him I won’t have it. If it is as lame French as I fear it is, I can only hope the Revue will refuse to publish it. What is the use of a poor translation for a book where the story is practically zero? There is nothing left!
What I want to know is; Is there any of the spirit of the book in his translation, or is it such heavy, Chicago French that nothing stands out but clumsy sentences with strangely mixed tenses...