A book from every country – France

After my failure to try and find a book in English that encapsulated the spirit and culture of each country we have so far visited (funny that), I decided to give up on both my criteria.

As a result my French book was a) a detective novel and b) (deep breath) in French.

I do have a degree in French, it is true, but it is over twenty years since I last read a book in French, and if I’m scrupulously honest I’m not sure I even did then (publishers in university towns are surprisingly good about producing reliable and cheap translations of set texts, I found).

Anyway, a lovely friend had recommended the Commissionaire Adamsberg novels of Fred Vargas so I thought I’d give one of them a go. When we arrived here I did my customary trawl of the books in the house and noted that there was one of hers here already, in English: Have Mercy on Us. If all else fails, I thought, I’ll read that…

But the supermarket did me proud and had several of her novels. No English version required… I picked one, mostly at random, influenced only really by price (it was oddly slightly cheaper than the others) and the fact that it had won a prize. It’s called Pars Vite et Reviens Tard. In English, that’s Leave quickly and come back late.

I don’t know what made me, on my return to the house, get out the two novels, with their very different titles, and compare them. But I did. The original French title of my English book is, you guessed it, Pars Vite et Reviens Tard. They are the same book.

I was slightly annoyed by this, to be honest, although with hindsight I’m not sure why. There was nothing stopping me just reading the French one and ignoring the English. Or vice versa. But in the end, I’ve, sort of, read both.

I started with two or three chapters of the French and then quickly skimmed the English just to check I hadn’t missed anything. It’s been an interesting experience and a glimpse into the skill that is translation. Pleasingly I’d generally understood the plot, but the words used were, often, wildly different. Rather than being, as I would have imagined, almost a word-by-word exercise, in which the translation is as close to the original as possible, this read much more as if the translator, David Bellos, had read the book and then, almost without looking at it again, retold the original French story in his own, English, words.

This is the epigraph on the first page of both books. If you read French you’ll see what I mean. I haven’t yet put either through google translate but I’m quite tempted to.

It made me realise what a skill translating is, and in turn, how we can never know, when we read a book in translation, not just “how close” to the original it is, but also what “how close” really means. If the author has used a word, should the direct translation be used? Or is there another phrase which may express better the feel or mood or style of the author? Or which may simply sound better in English? And if so, how do you choose which to prioritise?

So I take my metaphorical hat off to the translators* of all the books I have read. With the exception of this one I will never read the original works, so I will never know how “close” or “good” or “true” they were, but to differing degrees I enjoyed them all, and I never felt that the English jarred.

And what of the book itself? I enjoyed it, although I was irritated by several of what, to me, felt like plot holes. And I certainly didn’t get why anyone, much less two attractive young women, would leap into bed with Adamsberg. He wears sandals…

I’m also not sure that now is the time to be reading a book about plague and panic.

I would read more of Fred Vargas’ books though, and not just because I am very chuffed with myself for doing so in French.

As for the change of title. It does make sense. But it’s still a bit annoying.

Next: to read the books I’ve been carrying round in the expectation if visiting countries we will not now get to. First: Slovenia.

* I should have credted them in my last book-y post, and I apologise for not doing so. I can’t go back and edit it (there’s a glitch somewhere) so I’m doing it here:

The Tobacconist translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Austria)

The House with the Stained Glass Window translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones (Poland)

War and Turpentine translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium)

The White King translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchvary (Hungary)

One Clear Ice Cold Morning… translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (Germany)

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4 Comments

  1. Some of the worst books I have read* were translations.
    I assume they are word for word, or at least phrase for phrase.

    I heard a translator on Open Book several years ago, describing exactly what you have inferred – it’s about interpreting the book. Unless it’s a technical text book where prose style & readability < accuracy.

    *1st prize goes to the Penguin Maigrets I read one summer in the 1980s. If google translate had been a thing, I would have accused them of using it

    PS Again in the 1980s I bought a Patricia Highsmith book in Spanish – no idea why. I should find it and make a fourth attempt at learning Spanish!

    • Interestingly the translator of this book has written a book all about translation. My bro has it and is going to send it to me….

  2. You could go for books in English that have the right sounding title. The Dutch House, by Ann Pratchett. Prague Spring, by Simon Mawer. The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Or is that cheating?

    I agree about the importance of good translators, though, having read a collection of short stories in translation that made Chekhov look like a really rubbish writer.

    • Now there’s an idea. Sort of cheating though. Have moved from my Norwegian book (thoughts to follow) to a book all *about* translation… making me think. What is a “good” translation…? To discuss…

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