Passion for Conrad bears fruit 50 years on

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Nerac - In the depths of the Lot and Garonne region of south-west France, only a couple of hours from Bordeaux, but worlds away from that city or any other, lives a redoubtable lady by the name of Odette Lamolle. Her house, and home for more than four decades, stands alone on top of a steep rise, half-a-mile from the main road. The sitting-room gives onto a vast garden and paddock, and the view from the "farmhouse" kitchen, looks over acres of forest that roll in layered shades of green to the horizon.

It is in this house that Mme Lamolle, now 85, undertook her life's work - except that no one, not even she herself, recognised it as such until a year ago. For half a century, Mme Lamolle nurtured a passion for the works of Joseph Conrad and systematically translated them into French "for pleasure". She also translated a number of Byron's letters and poems and some of Shakespeare's sonnets.

But her first love was Conrad, and she was frustrated that existing translations were too old-fashioned and formalistic to appeal to younger French readers. She was spurred on in her effort by her then teenage daughter, Brigitte, who to her mother's chagrin took an instant dislike to Conrad's Lord Jim.

Gradually the manuscripts piled up. She would write quickly, by hand - "you have to translate fast", she said, "to keep the rhythm of the original language, his music, and put it into real French" - then painstakingly type it out with two fingers on a manual typewriter. By the early 1990s, she had completed 26 works.

Then one day, almost exactly a year ago, the nephew of a friend mentioned that he had heard about her translations and asked whether he could see a few of them. He passed them to the head of a Paris publishing house, Editions Autrement.

Within eight days, the director was on her doorstep, asking to see the rest. Just 24 hours later he called her from Paris offering to publish not just one or two of her Conrad translations, but all 26.

So began what she calls her "fairy tale". Ten books published so far, and the eleventh about to follow - all in the handsome, restrained dust jackets characteristic of Editions Autrement. And Mme Lamolle finds herself, in her 80s, something of a celebrity.

No less remarkable for someone who has made her name as a translator of literature from English, is that she has not once set foot in Britain, and has absolutely no inclination to do so.

"Too old, too late", she said, without perceptible regret. For as well as being a translator of dedication, Mme Lamolle is also a daughter of her age. Born to a Bordeaux businessman and his concert pianist wife, she acquired her command of English from an English governess engaged initially to teach her elder sister.

The house was staffed - she will say no more than that - and there were certain things that young ladies did not do. One was competitive horse- riding, which she desperately wanted to do; the other was to go to England alone at the age of 20.

Already a Conrad-enthusiast, she hoped to train as an English teacher. But, to qualify, she had to spend time in Britain. Her family refused. She stayed at home, married, produced a daughter and busied herself with accomplishments more appropriate to her station: gardening, sewing and keeping her beloved horses. Having failed to write a novel - "so bad even my daughter couldn't read it" - she started translating "to exercise the brain".

The war brought many uncertainties, but for Madame Lamolle it yielded one dividend: the foreign residence requirement for language teachers was relaxed.

Odette Lamolle finally realised her ambition, qualified, and taught in Bordeaux for 18 months before concluding that, after all, it was not for her. She went on to help with the family business and returned to translating only in 1980, after her husband's death.

What appeals to her about Conrad is partly the sense of adventure and atmosphere, but also the "charm of the language and the complexity of the characters". This is why she prefers Conrad to, for instance, Sir Walter Scott - "pure adventure, no complexity".

Mme Lamolle is a woman of precision - in dress, language and opinions. Asked about the books lining her sitting room, she said: "The classics: Rousseau, Racine, Corneille ..." Her daughter interjected: "... Voltaire." But Mme Lamolle said: "Absolutely not Voltaire. Can't stand him."

Mme Lamolle's lifestyle retains much of the Anglo-French mix of her early years. She is still passionate about horses and two can be seen grazing in the paddock. But they are not hers; she lets the land to a neighbour. "Now I have the best of both worlds," she said. "I can see horses all day, but don't have to look after them."

She smokes Gitanes (in large quantities), but first asks her guest if she may. Mid-afternoon is tea time, and the tea is served in china cups, with fruitcake.

She regards her tardy encounter with the publishing world as nothing short of a miracle. The money (she declines to mention how much) comes in useful - "but you know translators aren't very well paid". At first, she thought about putting it to some special use. But then, "mostly it just went into the general housekeeping pot. We needed to do some repairs, and it just seemed to vanish".

Now, she is translating Conrad's memoirs. She finds them far less to her taste than the novels, but will finish them for the sake of completeness.

Mary Dejevsky