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rare earth exchangeBy Kay Kendall

Did the recent release of the Panama Papers snag your interest? If it did, then you will be intrigued by THE RARE EARTH EXCHANGE, a financial espionage thriller that focuses on the world of high-frequency trading where manipulation and corruption reign. The author is Bernard Besson, a former top-level chief of staff of the French intelligence services and an eminent specialist in economic intelligence.

He opens his thriller after a vicious terrorist attack in France and the  suspicious death of a past president of France causes panic at high governmental levels. Certainly Besson’s plotline was prescient when it debuted in France, and today one must note that the thriller’s events have become, alas, quite timely. The good guys race against the clock trying to discover who is pulling the strings in a fierce international battle to control rare minerals—the key to cutting-edge technology.  Various intelligence agencies snipe at each other, impeding progress even though they are all fighting cyber terrorism. Besson shows that even if all the necessary information is gathered, you still can’t win at cyberwarfare unless you ask the right questions.

Now American publisher Le French Book, dedicated to bringing the best of French thrillers and mysteries to English-speaking readers, debuts THE RARE EARTH EXCHANGE in an English edition. Its translator, Sophie Weiner, answers questions for THE BIG THRILL audience about what it was like to translate this scary book about a globe-spanning confrontation that seems altogether plausible.

Ms Weiner how challenging was working with a text that is dense with geopolitical corruption, international high finance, and cyberwarfare?

Of course unlike the author, Bernard Besson, I’m no expert in any of these areas so it was a lot of new information to take in. But the glass-half-full side of me sees this more as an opportunity to learn, rather than a challenge. In fact, that’s one of the best parts about being a translator—with each project, you get to discover new topics and points of view through thorough background research.

Was there anything that you learned in this novel that surprised or shocked you?

My wild illusions about what goes on behind the scenes in the political arena are already pretty elaborate from watching too many episodes of House of Cards and Veep.

Is there a difference in how American and French readers respond to mysteries and thrillers? Do different aspects of these books appeal to one culture more than another?

I don’t like to generalize, but I think some Americans tend to judge the sex scenes, which are common for the genre, as somewhat too explicit or overly graphic. That seldom happens in France.

As the translator of this thriller written for a French audience, you are responsible for bringing it successfully across the Atlantic to American readers. What are the challenges you faced in bridging the two cultures in your translation?

This a great questions because one of the challenging aspects of translating any novel is indeed attempting to predict how much the “target” reader knows about certain cultural references from the “source” country and then determining if these references need to be adapted or padded with additional information in order to minimize any confusion or uneasiness on the part of the reader. With this book in particular, references included anything from French laws to job titles to historical reference that may not be readily understood by Americans. In addition, the story takes us from Paris to Kuala Lumpur, so there was an added layer of Malaysian references to tackle as well.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to translating foreign references: domestication versus foreignization. The former seeks to erase the foreignness whereas the latter wants to highlight it. I try to strike a balance between the two extremes.

If a plot element is changed, what is the process you use to find out if the author approves?

Le French Book’s editing process is very collaborative between the translator, editor, publisher, and author. We always consult the author on any major plot changes, which are usually only proposed for the ease of the reader.

Can you share with us one tip—or trick—you learned when translating and adapting this and other fast-paced thrillers from French to English? Something perhaps that your teachers at the Sorbonne never taught you?

Since working on projects for Le French Book, I’ve been including more mysteries and thrillers in my monthly library haul. The more familiar you are with a genre (its particular quirks, common turns of phrase, etc.), the more fluid and natural your translation will be.

What was the first thriller you ever read, and what made it memorable?

The first thriller or mystery I read was probably an Agatha Christie novel. I remember reading her books in middle school in between classes or while waiting for one of my parents to pick me up after club soccer practice. Her engrossing stories made the wait go by much quicker!


Bernard Besson (author), who was born in Lyon, France, in 1949, is a former top-level chief of staff of the French intelligence services, an eminent specialist in economic intelligence and Honorary General Controller of the French National Police. He was involved in dismantling Soviet spy rings in France and Western Europe when the USSR fell and has real inside knowledge from his work auditing intelligence services and the police. He has also written a number of prize-winning thrillers, his first in 1998, and several works of nonfiction. He currently lives in the fourteenth arrondissement of Paris, right down the street from his heroes.

sophie weiner-translatorSophie Weiner (translator) is a freelance translator and book publishing assistant from Baltimore, Maryland. After earning degrees in French from Bucknell University and New York University, Sophie went on to complete a master’s in literary translation from the Sorbonne, where she focused her thesis on translating wordplay in works by Oulipo authors.





Kay Kendall