Thursday, 15 March 2007

Reading French

For the first time I have finished a book written in French, voluntarily at least. I have attempted several over the past few years but I haven’t got very far I’m afraid. This time, instead of trying to get to grips with “improving” literature, I took the advice of a French friend and chose a mystery/thriller so that the story would pull me along, and it did. I feel remarkably smug!

The book itself was Sans Feu ni Lieu by Fred Vargas who has written several books, some of them, though not this one, translated into English. I followed up immediately by reading another of her books in English, “The Three Evangelists”.

I’m not usually very keen on translations because I never feel they read well. A couple of years ago I was at a talk given by Ruth Rendell who recommended Henning Mankell as a good crime novelist. His books have been translated into English from Swedish. I don’t desperately like them because I am constantly aware of a Swedish lilt to the language, I find the names of people and places extraordinarily difficult to pronounce (I know it’s not reading aloud but I have to pronounce them in my mind) and the stories themselves I find bleak. My husband on the other hand, thoroughly enjoys them. He says Sweden *is* bleak and he doesn’t find the lilt or the names difficult, possibly because he used to travel there frequently.

Coming back to the Fred Vargas translation, I found it excellent. I was very much aware that the English didn’t read in the way it would if it were originally English but since it was set in Paris I found it lent to the atmosphere – pretty much why my husband likes the Mankell translations. Just today though, I had a notification from Amazon, recommending The Three Evangelists. That led me to read the reviews, and one of them really was very scathing about the translation – said it was no better than school level.

I know very little about the mechanics of translation. While I have been translating Papillon’s blog, I found myself wondering whether it is better to translate some phrases literally which may be understandable but sound odd in English, or to substitute another phrase altogether, one that is more normally used but conveys a similar meaning. In the end I did a mixture of both because I felt it lost too much of the French flavour if I used entirely English phrases, so perhaps that is what the translator was aiming for in The Three Evangelists. I’m even more smug now – I’ve finished one French book and now I like to think I’m a professional translator!


  1. A
    My high school was a 'convent school', and my teachers were an order of French nuns, who, though American, were required to take their vows in France and be able to speak French. We were reading (not translating) by the third year, and I still remember 'L'annonce faite a Marie' by Paul Claudel, and of course, L'Etranger. Many, many years later, again in Brussels, where the French staff refused to speak anything but French, one of the staffers commented on my 'Parisian accent', so I suppose I must have been taught well. I tried to learn Dutch while I was there, but found myself translating in my head to French first, then to Dutch!

    I find that, in translations, the translator must have a perfect ear for both the languages - rhythm, idiom, all of it. I think it's nearly impossible unless one is truly bilingual, which is why I tend to avoid translations. Somewhat off the subject of French translations, there is actually one translation I would I highly recommend and that is Seamus Heaney's translation of 'Beowulf'

    I notice that you have changed your identity. So as not to be confused with the BDSM "A"?

  2. So, you could be doing the Papillon translations! You kept very quiet about that :) I don't have an especially good ear, so it's really only when we go fairly far south that I can detect a different twang.

    I once asked a Belgian doctor whether Flemish was like Dutch (as opposed to identical). I got an hour-long lecture about Dutch being like Flemish rather than the other way around so I didn't pursue it any further for fear I would lose the will to live. We have several French and South African friends and I find with school level German I can pick a certain amount up without being able to utter a word.

    Yes I did change my identity, trying to be helpful but without really thinking things through. I seem to have caused more confusion than less especially as I now have a UK IP address so "in France" isn't going to be valid for another couple of months.


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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