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Quais du Polar #6: Translation contest

April 2, 2016 7 comments

Quais_polar_logoI’ll write a post about my days at Quais du Polar once the festival is over. Meanwhile, I want to share with you the fantastic session I went to this afternoon. It was a translation contest organized by the ATLF, the association of French literary translators. There were a lot of people waiting to enter the conference room. More than what the translators expected. The rules of the translation contest are simple: two translators translate the same text by Craig Johnson and confront their translations in his presence. Here we had Sophie Aslanides, Johnson’s “official” translator and Charles Recoursé, an outsider. The translation contest is a way to put forward the inevitable subjectivity of a translation.

Craig Johnson’s novels are successful in France. He made a short introduction to the session, reminding the public that a good translation matters and that a bad translation makes a bad book. He can’t judge the quality of the French translation by himself since he doesn’t speak French but he assumes it is good. Why? Because the French critics of the book reported that the book was full of humor. He said that if Sophie Aslanides managed to give back the humor, then the rest can’t be bad.

He mentioned that his translator knows the US well and it shows in her work. He also reported that working on the translation with her –mainly by answering her questions—made him realize what was difficult to translate into French, like references to football or baseball. It was interesting to hear his side of the translation story.

I’m not going to detail the discussion about differences between the translations but I want to share with you what I learnt about translating from the English to the French language.

I don’t work in the literary world so I am clueless about the workings of the author/publisher/translator triangle. So I was quite surprised by the weight of the publisher on the translation. They approve of significant translation decisions such as choosing the present tense instead of the passé simple. They will highlight (and reject) repetitions in the text even if the original used the same word several times. (Apparently the English language bears repetition better than the French). They may impose translation rules, like whether they expect proper nouns to be translated. This is how a Mrs becomes a Madame or stays a Mrs or how Mount Rushmore becomes Mont Rushmore…or not.

The session was also an opportunity to point out common difficulties in translating English into French. The most obvious one is to choose between vous and tu to translate you. Once the decision is made, the next one is “When do I move to tu between characters that started out with vous?” Charles Recoursé said he usually waits for a significant even to happen: the characters have sex, they share confidences, they bond after a fight or traumatic events. In any case, it is thought through.

Another tricky thing is the translation of gerund, like in this sentence: I continued to breathe deeply and sat there waiting for I’m not sure what. It is tempting to use the “participe present” in French and say en attendant for waiting, but it can be heavy. Sophie Aslanides explained that she tries to refrain from using the participe present form.

Two other difficulties weren’t surprising given how hard these notions are to get when you’re French and learning how to speak English. The first one would be the representation of space. It’s all these down, up, through, toward, forward words that are difficult to learn and equally difficult to translate. The second difficulty relates to the description of a someone’s position. For example, Cragi Johnson wrote I lowered myself into a three-point position which can’t be translated literally. Both translators say that in cases like this, they do the movement and wonder how to say it in French. It’s also the case when a character stands out the door, when in French we don’t have an exact equivalent to stand.

I had also noticed that the French version of an English text is always longer than the original. I learnt that it’s called “foisonnement” and that in average the French text is 15% longer than the English one.

This translation contest also showed that having a recurring translator is an asset, that translating a few pages out of the blue is not easy. Some of Sophie Aslanides’s choices were due to her familiarity with Craig Johnson’s novels. She knows the characters, the atmosphere of the books, she has spent time in Wyoming and knows the setting of the novels. She capitalizes on her experience.

I was amazed at the details she researches. For example, she chose to translate crow into corbeau and not into corneille because contrary to corneilles, corbeaux walk and the text mentioned footprints. The excerpt was about a peyote ceremony. Sophie Aslanides explained how she checked previous translations of such ceremonies for her translation to be consistent with whatever previous notion the reader might have of a peyote ceremony. This is so thoughtful.

My enthusiasm about this translation contest probably shows in my billet. I didn’t know that the publisher had a word to say in the translation and I was truly fascinated by the information Sophie Aslanides and Charles Recoursé shared about their work and the process of translating a book. Before starting this blog, I was never concerned by the work of the translator. They were a sort of ghost writer necessary to read foreign literature. I started to wonder about it when got used to putting quotes in both languages in my billets and when I struggled to translate phrases myself when I didn’t have a professional translation on hand. Then my English improved and I could better spot poor or old-fashioned translations. This session helped me understand better the wonderful work the translators do to open us the window to other literatures and set us free to explore other cultures. Thanks guys.

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