Home > 1950, 20th Century, American Literature, Kerouac, Jack, Novel > On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

That famous bible of the beat generation was written in 1957 and I read it in French, in a translation by Jacques Houbart, that dates back to 1960. I’m surprised it has been translated in French so soon after it was first published.

I had already read that book when I was a teenager. I didn’t remember anything about it, not even the names of the characters, which is a bad sign. I decided to read it again thinking I may appreciate it more now that I’m older and hoping to read about California. To no avail.

I’m disappointed because I would have loved to read descriptions of cities like San Francisco. I like the style ;  there’s poetry in the way he transcribes into words the images he sees but I got tired of binge drinking and driving experiences. I see how this book was something new when it was published and I understand why it has become a reference book for young people. There’s so much freedom in it. Though I don’t know exactly why, it makes me think of Rimbaud & Baudelaire, and Gérard de Nerval. All French poets of the 19th Century. My mind analyzes it as a good book, from the style, the story but it doesn’t “speak” to me.

Actually, observing the translation was more entertaining than reading the book, as it has not been updated since 1960. In that time, the USA were an exotic country for Frenchmen, seen as a dream country of rich and well fed people. A way of life that the whole generation of the 1960’s will envy and try to imitate. Very few families had a TV and American culture was not as widespread as it is now. It came through soldiers and music. France was backward compared to the USA as WWII had cost a lost to the economy and the country was underdeveloped. The 1950s in France were the years of the colonial wars and accelerated economic development. It was the end of the 4th Republic, a time when a married woman could not work or open a bank account without her husband’s approval.

Jacques Houbart, fulfilling a pedagogical purpose, added foot notes to explain some words or realities unknown to the French reader of 1960. Some of them are still useful : I didn’t know what an “Okie” was and I was grateful to have the foot note to enlighten me. But some of them are funny or puzzling for a 2010 reader like a two lines explanation to describe what a “motel” is or a sentence to point out that “grass” meant marijuana, just in case you would think there were actually smoking lawn or something. It tells a lot about the French society at that time, before mass media and globalization. It sounds so obvious now.

Some words are not translated as they had no equivalent in the French dictionary. For example, the words “supermarket” and “cafeteria” are in English. Whereas supermarkets were created in the USA in the 1930s, the first one opened in France in 1958 near Paris. In 1960, the average Frenchman did not shop in a supermarket. Now, we have powerful retail companies in France and the whole food seems to be sold in supermarkets. We have the word “supermarché” which is commonly used. As long as “cafeteria” is concerned, it is now a French word too.

There is more. The vocabulary is sometimes outdated. The verb “corner” for “hoot” is very old fashioned. I would never have thought to use that word to say “honk”, and I understood what it meant only thanks to the context of the sentence.

The word “motorway” is translated by “autostrade”, which I never heard in French as we use “autoroute”. Indeed, the first major motorway was opened in 1970, linking Lille to Marseille via Paris and Lyon. Again, the French reader of 1960 had no experience of what a motorway could be nor Jacques Houbart, by the way.

I wonder why that translation sounds so outdated. It’s not the first time I read books which were translated a long time ago. Is is because society changed so much or because it makes me realize how the American way of life imposed itself in my country ? It seems to have been written at the end of an era, before our way of life really changed and just before the freedom the 1960s brought.

It reminds me how much freedom I owe to the fights for women rights and to students uprisings of the 1960s and how mass media and globalization affected our everyday lives. Now Western countries are not so different from one another. In North America, everything is bigger than in France (cars, buildings, malls, servings in restaurants…) but you still are in an environment easy to understand. So On the Road had me thinking about that, which has nothing to do with the story of the book! …

  1. Grace
    June 5, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I read it in English and I didn’t care for it either. All the description becomes repetitive and his idealized notion of black and Mexican-American people is a bit sickening. But I’m glad I read it anyway because it was such an influential book, as you said.

    Your thoughts on the outdated French translation were fascinating. Thanks for writing about that.

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  2. June 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Maybe the new version is more interesting as passages considered as shocking which had been removed from the first published version are included this time.
    As you may have seen, I’m now reading Naked Lunch. The translation dates back to 1964 but there are no such outdated words as in On the Road. I guess it comes from the translator.

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  3. June 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

    The thoughts on the translation are fascinating. The way it reflects on the France of its day, more than the America, that sounds like it makes it worthwhile even without the underlying novel.

    I don’t recall much of On the Road. I read a lot of the Beat works a few years back, but not much of it has stuck. I do seem to recall I eventually got a bit bored. I finished it, but I couldn’t with certainty now say what happened or who the characters were.

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  4. June 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I had never noticed so much about a translation that reading this one. I googled the translator but couldn’t find anything on him.
    My guess is that he was already an old man when he translated it. The wording was oldfashioned, which was not the case for Naked Lunch, though they were translated at the same time or so.
    Not everybody can be translated by Baudelaire !

    Apparently On the Road doesn’t stay in memories. I talked about it with a friend lately and she couldn’t remember it either.

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  5. June 14, 2010 at 11:29 am

    It’s lack of persistence in memory is not a point in its favour.

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  1. September 14, 2011 at 9:39 pm
  2. October 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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