The announcement last week that the poet, critic, translator and academic Michael Edwards had been elected to the 31st Seat of the Académie Française (left empty after the death of novelist Jean Dutourd in 2011) was met, for rather different reasons, with a certain incredulity on both sides of the Channel. It is true that Edwards, British-born and for many years employed at the Universities of Warwick and Essex, does not appear to match common expectations about those who are elected to join the ‘Immortels’ and who are accordingly charged with regulating matters relating to the French language (although it is often forgotten that their pronouncements are only ever advisory, in clear recognition that public use of language is ultimately beyond prescription). The Académie has of course long been flexible in its membership, and being French-born is certainly no criterion for belonging to it. What is important is the individual’s relationship to the French language. Among the current académiciens are therefore François Cheng (born in China), Assia Djebar (born in Algeria) and Amin Maalouf (born in Lebanon), and previous members include the Argentinian-born Joseph Kessel and Romanian-born Eugène Ionesco. The bilingual Julien Green was the first non-French national to be elected an académicien in 1971.
What seems more interesting than questions of nationality or country of birth — and what seems to have been omitted from the majority of press reports – is the role of translation in Michael Edwards’s career. Not only has his poetry has been written and published in both English and French. Early contact with poets on both sides of the Channel – both British (Tomlinson, Gascoyne, Hill…) and French (Bonnefoy, Jaccottet, Deguy, Roubaud, Jabès…) – led to the launch of the journal Prospice, a publication committed to the development of links between poetry in the different language traditions, activity also evident in contributions to the Times Literary Supplement. Edwards has subsequently written widely on translation, and has used translation in his own work as a passeur, introducing Raymond Mason, Geoffrey Hill and Charles Tomlinson to French readers, and ensuring equally that Char, Delahaye, Roubaud, Queneau and Bonnefoy have travelled in the other direction. Reflecting on a life in translation, and on the challenges inherent in living between languages and in recognizing that translation never means equivalence, Edwards told The Guardian: ‘French is not just another language, it’s another way of understanding the world, a way of being, of sensing emotion.’