Blogging may be lighter than usual for the next day or two. In the meantime, here's an interview from 2008 with Sian Reynolds, translator of Fred Vargas' crime novels, with a brand-new comment from another prominent translator of crime fiction.
What is the most difficult problem you have encountered as translator?
In fiction, as already mentioned, I think it has to be dialogue. and particularly such aspects of it as dialect, extreme colloquialism, slang, expletives (of the ‘good grief’ sort) and of course puns and wordplay. You have to find convincing speakable equivalents without sounding either too fuddy-duddy or using current colloquialisms that might date. A particular problem for example, is the common French word ‘un type’ which just means ‘a man’, but the register is more the equivalent of ‘bloke, fellow, chap’ – all of which are today a bit marked as old-fashioned in English, because so many people both sides of the Atlantic now say ‘guy’. On the other hand, peppering the text with too many ‘guys’ runs the risk of making it sound like an American intrusion into otherwise British English, which is what I write. (Of course many French books are translated ‘into American’ as the French say, that is entirely into American English.)
Swearing is another potential pitfall. French colloquial speech uses a number of terms which if translated literally sound rather stronger in English (merde, je m’en fous, etc.) Given what we know about the characters, you have to save four-letter words for times when the context calls for them. The reverse can be true: French translators of say, James Kelman, have been known to tone down the language, arguing that a French equivalent of the character wouldn’t have every other word in the sentence the same f-word.
How do you approach a text you are about to translate? Do you read it through one or more times to get a sense of the work before beginning the formal job of translation? What is your primary task as a translator of fiction?
I always read the text first if it’s fiction. For non-fiction it’s not so essential – you’ll get there in the end. But much crime fiction, as you know, is constructed backwards – as a rule you move back from the discovery of a crime to what occasioned it. You need to know the end to understand the beginning. Then in the course of translating a novel, I probably read the text tens of times in both languages, always noticing more things – (sometimes minor inconsistencies that have slipped in, but are probably only noticed by me, since most readers don’t read a novel many times over.) Your task in general is to do as good a job of conveying the original as possible – but no translation is ever perfect or ‘definitive’, and no two translators will come up with the same solutions.
Translators of poetry often speak of the tension between trying to produce a faithful translation and one that will flow smoothly in its "host" language. To what extent is this tension present in translating fiction?
The biggest question in translating poetry, according to the translators I know, is whether or not to preserve the form of the poem: its metre, rhyme, line length and so on. Views differ strongly. As it happens, in the latest Vargas (This Night’s Foul Work) one character sometimes speaks in 12-syllable alexandrines, (a pastiche of Racine’s plays,) and they were the devil to translate because 12 syllables, with a break after the sixth what’s more, is not at all common in English verse; but it seemed important to keep it, because of all the text references.
On the general question of ‘readability’, all translators in my experience face the same old dilemma: ‘whether to take the reader closer to the author, or the author closer to the reader’, i.e. make it more faithful to the original, or more ‘at home’ in the target language. It’s a matter of genre in some ways. My view is that it’s important that the reader should be aware that he/she is reading a translation, and not imagine that the book was originally written in English. Hence my decisions to keep things like street names and occasional French words in the original. But Fred’s books are very readable – if quirky! – in French, and I try to get as much of that across as possible, so that reading them is (I hope) fun.
A personal note: As a non-fluent speaker and reader of French, I find it easier to read social science than fiction and easier to read the philosophes and publicists of the 18th and 19th centuries than I do Montaigne, whose work I love in English translation. Is this often the case with non-native speakers of French? If so, why (other than Montaigne's meandering sentences)?
You’re right, Montaigne is very, very hard to read in French. Sixteenth-century authors are much more difficult generally than seventeenth and eighteenth because they wrote before French grammarians had set about rationalising the language. Eighteenth-century texts are written in much clearer French. Montaigne’s vocabulary and syntax as well as his own style, make it a real challenge. There are some modern French editions which have ‘modernised’ his French to make it more comprehensible for today’s French readers – worth a look.
With the publication of This Night's Foul Work, four of Fred Vargas' books about commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and one of three about the Three Evangelists will have been translated into English. Can readers expect more translations of Vargas into English?
You’ll have to ask the publisher that – but at least one more is in the pipeline: I have just finished translating the first Adamsberg story, originally published in 1991.
(Read Part I of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
French crime fiction
Crime fiction in translation