Language seems like a bridge between peoples, so why not make the effort to reach the other side?
This question comes naturally to me, since I switch from French to English to French again, on a daily basis. Even so, I sometimes wonder if translation – the communication of meaning from one language to another – is a bridge leading nowhere in particular. I say this, having translated seventeen books from French to English and two more from English to French… and counting.
What if a concept resists translation simply because there is no real equivalent for it in the other language?
After reading Jean Delumeau’s monumental work, Le péché et la peur, on the way Christian preachers projected guilt and fear on their communities between the 13th and the 18th centuries, I am wondering how to translate a single French word Delumeau uses: surculpabilisation.
One possibility is “intense guilt culture”, but that doesn’t really suit a historical work. Another is “creation of an extreme sense of guilt in … lay hearers”, as Baird Tipson suggests in a recent book on Hartford Puritanism.
In fact, there is no clear English equivalent for surculpabilisation. Here we all were, believing that English is punchier and more to the point than French, whereas Tipson’s translation of this single word into English is ten times longer!
So, if a single word stumps a translator, what about an entire work? Last September, I posted a blog about Ulysses by James Joyce: “I started reading it backwards, plowing initially through a French translation (Folio, 2013), done by a committee of eleven different people, which just goes to show how complex a work it is.” Then I read it in English.
The experience of reading Ulysses backwards showed me how hard it is to translate a folk idiom invented – or recovered – by a ground-breaking author. The French translation is a kind of virtuoso performance, but Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan seem uprooted, out of place, disembodied – like total strangers.
Consider Pélagie-la-Charrette, which earned Antonine Maillet the Prix Goncourt in 1979. The book recounts how Pélagie and other Acadians are deported by the British in 1755, but Pélagie then leads her straggling exiled people from slavery and bare survival on the coast of Georgia back home to Grand’Pré in Acadia (modern-day Nova Scotia).
In Philip Stratford’s translation into English, the salty unconquerable flavour of the old French of Acadia is entirely absent.
For example, Maillet has Pélagie say: “Si y en a qu’avont peur des fi-follets, qu’ils s’enfonciont leu bonnet sus les yeux, ils les aparcevront pas. Je mènerai la marche, moi.”
Which Stratford translates as: “If anyone here is ascared of the hobbity-goblins, they just have to pull their bonnets down over their eyes, and they won’t see nothing. I’ll lead the march myself.”
Each French sentence in Antonine Maillet’s original bears the threat of annihilation, of a maritime culture going back in a direct line to François Rabelais. In presenting dialogue like this, Pélagie-la-Charrette connects the folk idiom of Acadians to French as a literary language.
But in Stratford’s translation, Pélagie could very well be an Appalachian hillbilly chewing tobacco on the porch of her mountain shack. A world of cultural references is gone.
There is also real tension between French and English in Pélagie-la-Charette. Maillet quotes English dialogue in the original since it is the language of power, of British soldiers and Charleston slave traders who hold it over the Acadians. But this tension between French and English is completely missing in Stratford’s translation.
The British wanted to send the Acadians to the bottom of the sea… whereas Pélagie is now leading her band of Acadians back to the surface. As a result, the sweeping epic character of Pélagie in the original French – the Odyssey-like quest of a people to return home after ten years of joys and sorrows in a foreign land – doesn’t survive into the English translation.
The problem is not Stratford’s alone. The problem is rather that language is more than mere words or signs or conventional meanings, one substituted for the other, lifted from one cultural setting and dropped somewhere else.
I remember discussing this point in Jerusalem and Paris with André Chouraqui, who translated the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qu’ran into a stunning French idiom he created, with unique verb tenses and word order all his own. He explained the resulting translation, in L’Univers de la Bible, was closer to the original Hebrew than all other translations.
Then again, I remember telling an Irishman in a pub somewhere that I was having a hard time making sense of Finnegans Wake – another work by James Joyce. “That’s because you’re treating it as a book written on paper. Think of the spoken word instead. The only way to understand Finnegans Wake is to read it aloud with a thick Irish accent.”
Sometimes the bridge of translation leads nowhere in particular. What if translation discards the spectrum of shared experience communicated in a work? What if the only way to translate an idiom is by inventing a new idiom? What if the written word can only be understood when it is spoken out loud?
Language is a form of music, with tone colour, dynamics, rhythms. Language gives shape to ideas and beliefs, to an imagined world within, to memories. It communicates a spectrum of experience, rooted in the shared lives of real people. And that is the case even with magic realism, which enters the fantasy-world of the characters.
Translations are often merely approximations. They need to be fresh works of the imagination, in their own right – faithful to the original, and capable of tracing out, of revealing the spectrum of shared experience in a new language.