Tag Archives: French language

Trusting your translator

houellebecqYesterday I finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Map and the Territory. (Not to be confused with Alan Greenspan’s treatise of the same name.) A rather short book (the paperback version clocks in at 269 pages), it was originally written in French (La carte et le territoire) and translated into English by Gavin Bowd.

It was, in general, an easy read. I wouldn’t place it among my favorites, but then meditations on human deterioration and eventual death — the preoccupations of the Louis CK set, so to speak — were never my forte to begin with.

What caught my attention more, however, was the translation itself. One of the striking features of the novel is the author’s insertion of himself — or some twisted literary version of himself — into the story. Because Houellebecq plays such a central role in the narrative, the book begins to get creative with its references to him. In addition to simply referring to him as Michel Houellebecq, he is alternatively described thusly:

  • “He rang the doorbell and waited for about thirty seconds, and the author of The Elementary Particles came to open the door, wearing slippers, corduroy trousers, and a comfortable fleece of undyed wool.”
  • “‘That’s a magnificent subject, fucking fascinating even, a genuine human drama!’ the author of Platform enthused.”
  • “He hammered on the door for at least two minutes, under a heavy downpour, before Houellebecq came to open it. The author of The Possibility of an Island was wearing gray-striped pajamas that made him vaguely resemble a prisoner in a television series; his hair was ruffled and dirty, his face red, almost with broken veins, and he stank a little.”
  • “Nevertheless, the poet of The Art of Struggle stepped back a meter, just enough to allow Jed to take shelter from the rain, without, however, really giving him access inside.”
  • “‘Just one bottle?’ asked the poet of The Pursuit of Happiness while stretching his neck toward the label.”

After noticing many of these constructs throughout the book, I began to think this was some sort of literary in-joke: Michel Houellebecq using a fictional version of himself to promote his oeuvre. But several elements conspired against this interpretation as I continued reading. First, Houellebecq wasn’t the only author referred to by the titles of his books, thereby eliminating shameless self-promotion as the likeliest explanation.

Secondly, other parts of the book were clunky as well. In the second excerpt above, for example, “enthused” is used to describe Houellebecq’s statement. As the late novelist Elmore Leonard once wrote, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

Finally, there were a few tell-tale passages that betrayed the original French lurking just beneath the English translation (even though Gavin Bowd, the translator, is a native Scotsman). One is the following:

Even if he speaks at length about it over several pages, the camera equipment used by Jed had, in itself, nothing very remarkable about it: a Manfrotto tripod, a Panasonic semi-professional cameoscope — which he’d bought for the exceptional luminosity of its sensor, allowing him to film in almost total darkness — and a hard disk of two teraoctets linked to the USB outlet of the cameoscope.

(Emphasis mine.)

“Teraoctet” is, of course, the French translation of “terabyte.” Similarly:

It was the last important decision he had to take in his life, and Jed feared that this time again, as he used to do when encountering a problem on his building site, he would choose to make a clear-cut choice.

(Emphasis mine.)

“Taking” a decision, as opposed to making one, is another quintessential French-ism (from prendre une décision).

Evaluated separately, none of these linguistic tics is particularly noticeable. But the cumulative effect is to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the translation as a whole: The Map and the Territory, obsessed as it is with the distinction between a representation and that which is represented, requires a certain delicacy of language.

Bowd appears to have drawn the line at a literal translation: where the French version referred to Michel Houellebecq as the author of The Elementary Particles, for instance, Bowd apparently did the same in English, every time. But it is entirely unclear to my (decidedly non-fluent in French) eyes whether the true meaning was just as accurately conveyed in English as it was in the original French. Here, too, the map is certainly not the territory.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Not enough French in Quebec?

L’Office québécois de la langue française is not happy:

It began, as do many things these days, with a tweet. On February 19th, Massimo Lecas, co-owner of an Italian restaurant, Buonanotte, in Montreal, wrote that he had received a letter from the office warning him that there were too many Italian words (such as “pasta”) on his menu. This was a violation of Quebec’s language charter, he was told, and if they were not changed to the French equivalents (pâtes in the case of pasta) he would face a fine.

Journalists with a sense of the ridiculous quickly piled on. An analysis of international media coverage of Quebec showed the story, quickly dubbed #pastagate on twitter, received 60 times the coverage of a trip by Pauline Marois, the premier, that had been meant to drum up investor interest in the province. Other restaurant owners who had received similar letters—a fish-and-chip-shop owner who was instructed to call his main offering poisson frits et frites, a brasserie owner who was asked to cover the “redial” button on his telephone and the “on/off” button on his microwave—came forward, an indication this was not an isolated incident.

The blowback ultimately proved too great for the office to sustain:

Diane de Courcy, the Quebec minister responsible for language, tried at first to shrug off the pasta stories, saying she was satisfied with the work of the inspectors. When the bad publicity persisted, she announced a review of that particular case. The PQ government is currently attempting to toughen language laws, and pastagate was becoming a distraction. But by March 8th it was clear something more was needed. Quebec was the butt of too many jokes. Ms de Courcy announced that Louise Marchand, president and director-general of the language police, was leaving her post effective immediately. Apparently the move was made at Ms Marchand’s request. It is generally the case with figures of authority that when the masses start laughing at you, you are through.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Old American dignitaries speaking French

The series continues tonight with shiny new Secretary of State — and longtime francophile — John Kerry in Paris:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVcI50YBnLg]

New York Magazine explains more:

In Paris today, Kerry chose to speak in French unprompted, but the press conference in which he refused a direct request to speak in French took place in Washington. Kerry was famously mocked for his Francophilia during the 2004 presidential race, and perhaps, in his mind, speaking French in the Treaty Room of the White House — the very seat of American power — would open him up to the same kind of right-wing derision more so than would speaking French in France, which is really just good manners. It’s a theory based on a small sample size, admittedly.

The other possibility is that Kerry, justifiably, just hates Canada.

And here is the video of Kerry refusing to speak French in Washington:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3AF_8w1VsQ]
Enhanced by Zemanta

Laptop at the laundromat


There are many certain things that the French just don’t do, and I seem to end up doing all of them in France. One of those things is eating while walking down the street. This is often necessary for me to do, however, since I often had days at school that began at 8 AM and ended at 9 PM without much in the way of breaks.

And now I’m at the laundromat, doing part-time work on my computer for my job back in New York. I definitely think I’ve gotten some weird looks, but I console myself by remembering that I’m making money while they’re looking at me like a two-headed alien.