I’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.
Death Without Company by Craig Johnson (2006) French title: Le camp des morts. (Translated by Sophie Aslanides)
A life without friends means death without company (Basque proverb)
Death Without Company is the second volume of the Longmire series by Craig Johnson. I wrote a billet about Little Bird, the first volume here. The novel opens with a piece of everyday life as a sheriff in Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming. We follow Walt Longmire on duty. The one and only gravedigger gives him a crash course on burial and how in the old days, they had to put a fire for several hours to defrost the ground and bury folks who were inconsiderate enough to die in the Wyoming winter. Then Walt goes back to Durant where he had left [his] erstwhile deputy to shanghai prospective jurors for the local judicial system. Poor Vic is on the parking lot of the supermarket, enrolling jurors.Longmire’s entire staff is reduced to Vic, the assistant Ruby and deputy Jim Ferguson who only works part time. Turk left for the motorway patrol and Longmire hires Santiago Saizarbitoria as a replacement.
Longmire visits his mentor, the former sheriff Lucian Connally at least one a week at the local nursing home. This time, Mari Baroja, a resident of the home was found dead. Lucian is certain that she has been murdered and convinces Longmire to ask for an autopsy. To his astonishment, Longmire discovers that Mari Baroja and sheriff Connally eloped and were briefly married in their youth and that Mari’s family had it annulled. Lucian got beaten up for that and Mari was married off to Charlie Nurburn. The marriage was unhappy and Nurburn suddenly disappeared and nobody ever heard from him. Did he start a new life somewhere else? Longmire realizes that Lucian and Mari had kept in touch all their lives, meeting up once a week in Durant.
Who would want Mari dead? Longmire investigates her death that becomes more and more personal because of his relationship with Lucian.
Johnson embarks the reader on an investigation that manages to mix a longlasting love relationship, several murders, a trip in to the past and a glimpse into Wyoming’s present with the exploitation of shale gas that turns farmers into wealthy people. At the same time, we still follow Longmire’s personal life. His daughter comes to visit from Philadelphia, his love life is in shambles and he can count on his best friend Henry Standing Bear to look after him. We learn more about Wyoming’s history and the presence of a Basque community. I had never heard of a Basque immigration to the USA, so I looked into a bit into it.
This is exactly why Johnson’s novels work for me. He has an incredible sense of place, he brings Wyoming to you. He draws charming and catching characters who are flawed but not too much. He creates an intricate plot that remains plausible and keeps you wondering what will be next. The pace of the novel suits the atmosphere. It’s rather slow to accommodate the Wyoming winter –you can’t drive fast when the roads are covered with ice and snow– and the local ways. The place is rather isolated, you just learn to be patient if you want something that’s not available locally. It was a pleasure to be back to Durant, a small town in the Absaroka County, Wyoming. Despite the freezing temperatures in this novel set around Thanksgiving in a cold climate, the novel is warm. And it all comes from the characters’ acceptance of other people’s flaws and quirks. Longmire isn’t judgmental and he sees a person’s humanity before anything else. That makes him a likeable character.
Craig Johnson will be present at Quais du Polar at the beginning of April. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to talk to him. I will read the next volume of Longmire’s adventures.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson (2005) French title: Little Bird. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.
When The Cold Dish opens, it’s fall in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. The sheriff Walt Longmire is watching geese through his office’s windows when his assistant Ruby comes in and announces that Bob Barnes is on line one, reporting a dead body. It’s so unusual that Longmire doesn’t believe he has an actual stiff to take care of.
She leaned against the doorjamb and went to shorthand, “Bob Barnes, dead body, line one.”
I looked at the blinking red light on my desk and wondered vaguely if there was a way I could get out of this. “Did he sound drunk?”
“I am not aware that I’ve ever heard him sound sober”
So Longmire is convinced he’ll go all the way to the scene to discover some dead sheep. But what he finds there is the awfully damaged body of Cody Pritchard. Killed by a rifle. It doesn’t seem like an accident. Longmire knows Cody as he was involved in a previous case, the collective rape of a Native American teenager, Melissa Little Bird. He was the main instigator of the crime and did it with three friends, George and Jacob Esper and Bryan Keller. The court condemned them to light charges compared to the crime and the Cheyenne community won’t mourn him.
Is Cody’s death a murder or a hunting accident? If it is a murder, does it have anything to do with Melissa Little Bird’s rape?
The Cold Dish is the first installment of the Longmire series. It sets the décor, the characters and made me want to spend more time in their company. The sheriff’s staff is composed of four people. Deputy Ferg, who works part-time because of his passion for fishing, Ruby, the office’s assistant I mentioned before, another deputy that nobody likes and Vic, the latest deputy on the team. She comes from the East coast and landed in Wyoming when she followed her husband who got a job there.
Vic was a career patrol person from an extended family of patrol people back in South Philadelphia. Her father was a cop, her uncles were cops, and her brothers were cops. The problem was that her husband was not a cop. He was a field engineer for Consolidated Coal and had gotten transferred to Wyoming to work at a mine about halfway between here and Montana border. When he accepted the position a little less than two years ago, she gave it all up and came out with him. She listened to the wind, played housewife for about two weeks, and then came into the office to apply for a job.
She’s used to a lot more action than what she encounters in Wyoming and will be valuable on the case.
Walt Longmire is over fifty, not looking for any excitement in his job. He wants to be re-elected to quietly hand over the position to Vic. He’s engaging, he reminded me of Adamsberg, Fred Vargas’s Commissaire or Gamache, Louise Penny’s Chef de la Sûreté. Longmire has been lonely and depressed since his wife Martha died four years ago. His daughter is a lawyer who lives far away and he’s always waiting for her to call. Not so long before Martha’s death, they had sold their house to settle out of town. So now, he lives in an unfinished house with basic comfort, no decoration and he doesn’t care, although he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.
I don’t know what the exact physical dynamics are that cause a shower curtain to attach itself to your body when you turn on the water but, since my shower was surrounded on all sides by curtains, I turned on the water and became a vinyl, vacuum-sealed sheriff burrito.
He drinks a bit too much, he’s terribly out of shape and has been moping around for too long according to his best friend Henry Standing Bear. Henry has decided to take the matter into his own hands, hiring guys to improve the house, showing up at ungodly hours to drag Walt to running. Longmire’s struggles and his friendship with Henry give substance to the novel. They make quite a pair. Craig Johnson keeps it nuanced so it sounds real. Longmire has a wry sense of humor and he’s fond of literature, and sometimes mixes the two, like here when he reads the local newspaper:
I took a sip of y coffee, sat the folder on the counter, and began reading the newspaper. “In the cold, gray dawn of September the twenty-eighth…” Dickens. “…The sippery bank where the life of Cody Pritchard came to an ignominious end…”Faulkner. “Questioning society with the simple query, why?” Steinbeck. “Dead”. Hemingway.
The Cold Dish has all the ingredients of a great read and I loved the witty tone of Longmire’s voice. He’s touching, the plot is catchy, it’s informative about Cheyenne customs, the history of Wyoming and life in this State. The descriptions of the landscape and the community make you want to go there.
It was one of those beautiful, high-plains days, where the sky just blinks blue at the earth and you have to remind yourself to take it in. The second cuttings were all up and tarped, and the perfectly round shadows of bales looked surreal stretching across the disc-turned fields toward Clear Creek like stubble fields at harvest home. I didn’t pass a single car on the way into Durant. It was a little before eight when I got to the office, and Ruby already had five Post-its plastered on the doorjamb of my office. I spotted them when I came through the front door. “It’s a five Post-it day already?”
Ruby makes sure that Longmire stays in line, does his job and takes care of any task she communicates through her Post-its. There’s not much activity for the sheriff, so five Post-its early in the morning is big news. The volume of activity at the sheriff’s office is so low and mundane that everything is treated with minimum fuss and minimum budget too. The county’s jail has only two cells and the prisoners are catered with take-away food from the local eatery. It gives you a feel of small town life in Wyoming where the towns have few inhabitants, where everybody knows everything about everybody. There’s only one street in Durant:
“Vic’s down the street, directing traffic.”
“We’ve only got one street. What’s she doing that for?”
“Electricals for the Christmas decorations.”
“It’s not even Thanksgiving.”
“It’s a city council thing.”
It’s a tight-knit community and this is a very atmospheric novel. Time is not a problem. Johnson’s writing reflects that: he takes time to describe characters, to show us the landscape, to tell us about customs, to dig into the characters’ psyche. Don’t expect a fast paced novel, because it’s not. There’s a lot of action but not in the frenzied and noisy action-movie way. Johnson is obviously fond of Wyoming, where he lives himself. His love for the place seeps through his writing and it makes you want to visit Absaroka County and see it for yourself.
What’s not to like?
Craig Johnson won awards in France and he was at Quais du Polar in 2014, signing books, smiling, apparently happy to be there. He looks the part of the Wyoming writer, at least in the mind of a European. I have a copy in French and Sophie Aslanides’s translation is brilliant. I had the opportunity to compare passages to the original and it’s flawless. It sounds American only it’s in French. Johnson’s books are published by the excellent publisher of American literature, Gallmeister. The owner, Olivier Gallmeister, should change his name into Gemmaster. Because that’s what he is.
PS: The Cold Dish was not on my #TBR20 but I read it as soon as I received it. So technically, I didn’t cheat. Thanks a lot to my sister-in-law who gave me this and sent me most of the photos included in this post.
PPS: A last quote, for the road.
There were clouds at the mountains, and the snow pack reflected the sour-lemon sun into one of the most beautiful and perverse sunsets I had ever seen. The clouds were dappled like the hindquarters of an Appaloosa colt, and the beauty kicked just as hard. The head wind rattled the bare limbs of the cottonwoods as the longer branches swayed, and the remnants of grass and sage shuddered close to the ground. The buffeting of the wind against the truck reminded me that I had lost both of my jackets.