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My recent bad luck with translations.

May 19, 2014 24 comments

Cain_facteurI’ve come across a few book reviews about books in translation where the blogger mentioned that the translation was good. I always wondered how you could tell when you didn’t speak the original language and finally came to a conclusion. Good translations are the ones you don’t notice. They stay in the background, let the author reveal their literary voice and never speak for themselves. Bad ones come between you and the text and jump in your face. You may not think of the translator when they did a good job but you cannot not notice a bad translation.

Why am I discussing this now? Because I’ve had three bad experiences with translations lately. First, I started Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois, the 1936 French translation of The Postman Always Rings Twice and nearly went postal with the translation, so I preserved my sanity and downloaded the original text. Then I tried to read La reine des pommes, the 1958 French version of A Rage in Harlem (upcoming billet) and the poor translation enraged me. Bis repetita, I downloaded the original. And finally, I got to Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, the 1962 translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I’m not going to propose a French toast to the translator. This time, I got fed up with paying twice for the same book and endured the translation. I haven’t fully recovered.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisI know translators are underpaid, that they don’t always work in the best conditions and all that. Actually, I’m not mad at the translators of these three books, I’m mad at the publisher, Folio, that still publishes these outdated and flawed translations. Let me show you what I mean.

These translations have something in common: they use outdated French vocabulary when the English is neutral –at least to my ears, since, after all, I’m not a native English speaker. It starts with the titles. I don’t even know what La reine des pommes means, though I guessed the meaning after reading the book. Same thing with Fais pas ta rosière! by Raymond Chandler. The original title is The Little Sister. In La reine des pommes, I stumbled upon la petite est en pleine mouscaille for She might be in trouble. Where does la petite come from and what does mouscaille mean? And later the English sentence “And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves” becomes Ils n’admettaient le schproum que lorsqu’ils en étaient les instigateurs. Schproum ?! Is that even a word? Apparently it’s argot, antiquated argot. The English doesn’t sound dusted to me. In Un petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, I had the pleasure to discover the word truqueuse for phony.

Himes_reineThen you’ve got the literal translation of things. Milles for miles, which makes you think you’re on a boat. Le quartier des Est-Soixante-Dix for the East Seventies, la maison de pierre brune for brownstone. In La reine des pommes, jukeboxes are translated into les appareils à disque when we use juke box too. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, there’s a footnote to explain Coca-Cola!

And last, but not least, the things that don’t even sound French. Like [elle] allait patiner à roulettes dans Central Park, when you usually say elle allait faire du patin à roulettes dans Central Park –The original is [she] went roller-skating in Central Park. In Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, sometimes I could hear the English under the French translation. That’s the worst. C’est une si sacrée menteuse is a sentence that is not French at all but sounds a lot like the literal translation of She’s such a goddamn liar. Later, I read: On va faire un pot de café pour célébrer l’événement for We’ll make a pot of coffee and celebrate. Nothing special in English but in French you say on va faire du café et célébrer l’événement. I’ve never heard of a pot de café but I guessed the original text.

And sometimes, the French text is simply an insult to the writer.

Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Des talons si hauts qu’ils faisaient vaciller ses chevilles accentuaient sa hauteur ; un corsage serré sur sa gorge plate suggérait qu’elle pût se baigner sur une plage en maillot d’homme ; des cheveux tirés en arrière accusaient la siccité, l’émaciation de son visage de modèle pour modes.

Poor, poor Truman Capote. You can picture her very well in English and in French, it’s, well, ugly.

These three translations are rather old and I thought they were bad because they were done in a rush at a time when translators didn’t have thorough working standards. Wrong again. Shortly after, I started Manhattan Transfer in French. The translation dates back to 1928 and it’s excellent. I don’t hear the English under the French and yet I still know it’s not been written in French. New York realities are in italic and when characters make grammar mistakes, it’s translated. The Flatiron Building didn’t become l’immeuble du fer à repasser and you’re in New York but reading in French. I sighed of contentment because frankly, I wasn’t going to read Dos Passos in the original. That’s when I realised that a good translation is the one you don’t notice. I paid attention because I’d been through three bad ones but otherwise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. A good translation brings you in another country, maintains the impression of strangeness but flows well in your native language.

So please, Folio, hire a new translator and give French readers who don’t speak English the opportunity to read decent translations of Himes, Capote and McCain.

 

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