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Basil Balian Translates Popular French Series for American Readers

By Jane Durrell · May 9th, 2012 · Lit
When Basil Balian was growing up in Iraq, everybody was reading a series of 19th century over-the-top stories of dark deeds and derring-do by a French writer, Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail. Rocambole, the unlikely hero of these tales, moves from bad guy to good guy in the course of numerous books charting his story.

Balian first read them as a teenager. “We talked about them on the school bus,” he says. The books were out of print but could be found in used bookstores, “and when we found a missing episode, we would guard it with our lives,” Balian wrote in his account of his Iraq youth, Once Upon a Time in Iraq. “My mother often neglected her household responsibilities when a new Rocambole book showed up. It is amazing to me that this saga, other than one play based on it, has never been translated into English.” 

Now the longtime U.S. resident has remedied that lack. The first of three projected volumes has just been published: Rocambole, Volume 1, The Dark Side. Balian hopes English language readers will find it as engaging as others have in its original French, along with Spanish, Italian, Slavic languages and Arabic translations. “It’s addictive,” he says. “It’s like a soap opera; it grabs you. It sounded silly when I first heard about it, but it pulls you in.” Balian’s French friends here are interested in his project but, he says, “the French think anything written first in French should be read in French.” A French version is available on Kindle.

Balian sees the author of Rocambole as the first writer to establish adventure crime fiction, pre-dating Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Hercule Poirot, The Saint, James Bond and other now familiar staples of the genre.

Dickens had already proved the feasibility of serial publication; like Ponson du Terrail he published as he wrote, fashioning the succeeding elements in keeping with readers’ response. “Ponson du Terrail got better as the books progressed. The dialogue gets sharper, narratives more interesting,” Balian says. War between France and Germany interrupted the author’s life and he died in his early forties in 1871. He had been a prolific writer, turning out books at a great rate. “Tremendously conflated,” says Balian of the author’s style and form. “‘Rocambolesque’ means ‘very complex.’ ” 

In making these 19th century stories acceptable to the 21st century reader, Balian had to adapt as well as translate. “Doing an adaptation is like script writing,” he says. “The detail is different. I took out silly subplots, not relevant or credible in today’s world. An example: In the original, a hypnotized girl can foresee the future. We no longer believe that. And there are minor characters whose voices sound like each other. … I killed them off when no longer needed.”

Ponson du Terrail set his stories earlier than when he was writing in the 1860s. Rocambole: The Dark Side begins in 1843 and introduces two brothers, one evil and one good, who will figure largely in the plot. Rocambole himself doesn’t appear until Chapter 13. He is then a teenaged boy and is adopted by — of course! — the evil brother, but part of the lure of the total story seems to be Rocambole’s recognition of the harm of his ways and his evolution into hero. This first volume “tells of Rocambole’s sinister life and introduces all the characters who were Rocambole’s enemies, several of whom become lifelong friends after his redemption,” Balian says. 

The second volume will in fact be called Redemption, and the third will be Crusade. Balian says his adaptation “maintains all the major plots of the original saga but eliminates minor sub-plots and characters and replaces them with original material to bridge the gaps.” Most of the action takes place in Paris and, surprisingly, given the lack of English language translations, in London. When not in one of those cities the setting can be “imperial Spain, tsarist Russia, revolutionary Ireland, exotic India and pioneering Australia,” Balian says.

In designing the cover for his self-published book, Balian proceeded more or less as he had done with the text. He abstracted into a line drawing the extravagant hat, mustache and finger to lips featured in the florid paperback cover of a French edition. The result is a teasing invitation to open the book. 

Rocambole, Volume 1, The Dark Side is now available on Amazon. See the lively trailer “Rocambole Lives” on YouTube.



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