Sunday, April 8, 2018

Today at the Quais du Polar: French class and translation class - maybe it's not perfect but maybe it's great

A better view of the Quais du Polar bookstore on Sunday morning.  I figured out that I could go upstairs for a picture.  While we were waiting in line for the building to open, employees were hauling in more books.

Today was like a school day for me.  Aural comprehension day.  I went to a discussion of the social noir by my new anti-hero Jean-Bernard Pouy and several other writers, all in French, too fast, too difficult.  Pouy has written, I learned today, a crime novel featuring and partly narrated by a telepathic cow.  Larchmütz 6532 (1999) is the title.  I am learning a lot.

The next panel was about food in mysteries, this time in French and Italian but fortunately much easier to understand, but still exhausting, eventually, and the writer who was hardest to understand – who spoke most rapidly – seemed honestly way more interested in food as a vehicle for the delivery of poison than as an expression of culture.  I know, a mystery writer  who can’t stop talking about poison – a comic figure I have now encountered in so-called real life.

I ended the festival at a Translation Joust, a friendly but rigorous public translation seminar.  Two young French translators independently worked up the first chapter of a novel-in-progress, Blackwood, by Michael Farris Smith, not really a mystery or detective writer at all, but a testament to the expansiveness of the French term polar.  The two translations and the original were projected, side by side, for all to see.

I first thought that this process would be painful for the translators, but at least as much wincing came from the author.  More than once, after the translators went over a difficult phrase, Smith would say a bit about what he had been thinking and finish with “But I think I’m going to cut that.”  Once, we, the audience, or at least some of us, had to overrule him.  “Noooo, noooo!”

Smith is, in this book, this chapter, at least, a blatant Faulknerian.  Light stream of consciousness, long sentences with biblical cadences and surprising intrusions, followed by strings of fragments.  If these translators were expecting a mystery, boy were they surprised.  This text was hard.

There was one relatively simple sentence where the translators made different choices for every possible word.  As one translator noted, they had just three words in common, and those were the equivalents of “he,” “the,” and “of.”  Different nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  For “street lamps,” one “réverbères” and one “lampadaires.”  And – here is the great lesson – both sentences were good translations!

In ten years of reading book blogs, I rarely saw anyone reading William Faulkner, and much of what I did see was in a spirit of fear and loathing.  I don’t, as usual, get it.  But today I saw a real Faulknerian get the same response.

A few older members of the audience seemed genuinely freaked out by the end of the phrase “he walked in the satisfaction of night,” which both translators had as “la satisfaction de la nuit,” just word for word.  An “anglicism,” the protestors said.  A translation error.  But the translators pushed back – “satisfaction” is an ordinary French word; it is the English that is unusual, poeticized.  Over-written, maybe, but truly Smith’s, an example of his style, which has a strong flavor.  It is the common problem, that a reader dislikes an author’s style but blames the translator.

It was to a different example, but this response of Smith's was good: “maybe it's not perfect but maybe it's great.”  I like authors who think like that.

This was an instructive session, an instructive book festival.  Nerve-wracking for the author, in this case, but they usually seemed to be having a good time.  Get your mystery novel written and get invited, that is my advice to you.


  1. I forgot, completely, that the events are recorded and available publicly. For how long I do not know. Here is the translation joust. I'm going to take the frightening step of checking my memory.

  2. The "satisfaction de la nuit" argument begins at the 1:00:00 mark or so.

    At 00:41:00 you can hear audience members complaining that the English syntax is wrong. No kidding.

    Ah ha! 00:42:41 - "I think maybe it's not perfect, but maybe it's great."

    This is like journalism. Let me edit a bit.

  3. "It is the common problem, that a reader dislikes an author's style but blames the translator."

    But how do I know? There was a fashion, a while back, to make translations "smooth," as if, for instance, reading Dickens should be "smooth" in any language. If I don't read Polish, how do I know whether I dislike the style or the translation? If it feels overwritten or awkward or has that sort of hesitant feeling of a thunderstorm about to arrive that translations often do, whom do I blame? I never know.

  4. That's an interesting way of looking at translation and choices--I would like to see such a thing! Translation is so odd; the book is the author's and yet not quite. I've had multiple people tell me that a certain translation of one of my books is especially good, but one can't really know without mastering the language...

    What do you think about Faulkner going into the shadows? Will he rise up again? I was obsessed with his books in high school and continued reading him off and on into my early 20's, and even took a Faulkner class with Cleanth Brooks one year...

  5. I have found some lost comments, hidden in moderation. Many apologies.

    How do I know? Well, epistemological problems aside, I recommend mostly assuming that the professional translator is doing a professional job. Blame the author.

    I mentioned this on another blog, as you know, Marly, but I am not convinced that Faulkner is in the shadows. He is the most globally important American author of the 20th century. Perhaps American readers are having trouble with the "global" part.

    Faulkner with Cleanth Brooks! All right.