vendredi 26 octobre 2012

Translation Thoughts

The first time I became aware of the difficulty and importance of translation (the art of, the nature of) was in 1985, when viewing the French film Péril en la Demeure (starring a very young Nicole Garcia and an even-younger Christophe Malavoy).  There's a bedroom scene, of course, (it's a French film) and the Garcia character questions the Malavoy character about his peculiar pillowcases which feature a graphic of the letter O with a line across it.  Something like this:
 C'est un "o" rayé, he tells her.  This gets a laugh; O rayé means O with a diagonal line strike, this in turn plays on the homophone oreiller, which means pillow.
I missed the rest of the film, too distracted by the idea of how one would move that wonderfully rich language-based joke into English should the film ever be exported to an anglophone market.  I actually thought about this for quite some time, years possibly, and concluded that there was no true equivalent.  Indeed, when the film eventually was subtitled in English, the subtitler deleted the moment completely.
The task of the translator (or subtitler) is immense.  He or she is not only shifting words from one language to another, but (and this is more important), a huge basketful of message which rely on those words is being carried over from the source culture to the target culture .  In that basket the translator needs to place intent, emotion, rhythm, rhymes (if he or she is good enough), connotations, jokes, puns (these are really challenging) as well as being mindful of a billion little details such as temporal context (I shudder at the thought of translating Shakespeare, for example, or L'il Wayne, to cite an extreme).
There came a time where I thought literary translations should be outlawed.  I saw it as an impossible and futile endeavor.  The Italians had a word for translators: traduttore traditore, or traitors, and I shared this sentiment as I couldn't see a way to be faithful and respectful to an original, to do the poem, the story, the instruction manual or the newspaper article justice.  It was better just to have original texts and let the onus be on the reader to learn the language if he wanted to access it.  (I'm a demanding person, I know.)  I agreed with Borges when he said a good poem is always untranslatable.
I thought about this recently when I went to see the movie Moneyball in Paris, and watched much of the audience (French) look bewildered as the story unfolded.  How can you deeply enjoy a film about baseball when you have no cultural reference?  How would you understand the notion of homeplate, designated hitter, farm teams and free agents?   There is no equivalent sport in French so the language and visual references do not exist.  No wonder the audience seemed perplexed.  It would be like me watching a movie about cricket in Xhosa.
Lydia Davis, a translator I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of, has come out with a new translation of Madame Bovary.  I'm anxious to see what she's done with Flaubert's novel, as I've read some good translations and some mediocre translations of it.  I remember one Really Outstandingly Bad translation, in which the translator (I forget who it was now) takes the famous green silk cigar case which becomes a metaphor for all the romance and luxury that Emma Bovary has been deprived of in her life, (or so she perceives) and makes it a green silk coinpurse.  A green silk coinpurse!  It cannot possibly be a coinpurse for the metaphor to work!  It needs to be a cigar case, because Emma returns time and time again to  smell the scent of its lining- a blend of tobacco and verbena.  (The translation is mine.) Talk about traduttore traditore!

Thanks, Mary Cassatt and Kurt Giambastiani

While I no longer think translations should be illegal (I'd miss being able to criticize the bad ones), I do think translations should be invisible.  In other words, we should read a translated work as we read in our mother tongue; receiving in our mind the message hidden behind (or outside of) the words.  (The hors-texte if we want to be all Derridian about this.)  This is the real obstacle when setting down to move languages from one to another.  It's a labor of love, certainly, with a massive dose of patience and a good dictionary or two.

5 commentaires:

  1. Ouah ! Votre blog est vraiment super... Ca fait un petit moment que je le lis et que je me régale. :)
    En parlant de traduction et de sous-titrage, je ne peux pas m'empêcher de penser au doublage, que l'on utilise en France (et dans plusieurs autres pays européens) pour "traduire" les dialogues dans les films et les séries-télé, en faisant passer la voix du doubleur pour celle du véritable comédien. Certains de ces doubleurs sont de vrais stars aujourd'hui (jetez un oeil au travail de Patrick Poivey, la voix française de Bruce Willis, et de Richard Darbois, celle de Richard Gere) : tous disent que leur but est de rendre au mieux le sens des dialogues sans "abîmer le travail des vrais acteurs". Tout un programme... :)

    If you do not mind, it is up to me now to try to translate what I have just written. :)
    Wow! Your blog is really great... I have been reading it for a little while now and I am enjoying it. :)
    Talking about translation and subtitles, I cannot help thinking about dubbing, a device used in France (and in several other european countries) to “translate” the dialogs in movies and TV shows, which consists in pretending the dubber's voice to be the real actor's one. Some of those dubbers are true stars today (just take a look at Patrick Poivey's work, Bruce Willis's French voice, and Richard Darbois's work, Richard Gere's French voice) : all of them say that they aim at giving the meaning of the dialogs the best they can without “spoiling the real actor's work”. That must take some doing... :)

  2. Thank you for this lovely compliment; I appreciate the time you took to write it. I like how France keeps the same voice over the lifetime of the actor dubbed, it makes good sense as the audience "expects" *that* voice each time they see Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stalone. I do have an issue with how they dub TV shows, though. If you watch the dubbed version of Big Bang Theory, (and you know the VO version) you might note that they do not carry over the unique vocal style of Sheldon, nor the Indian accent of Raj, nor the way Amy speaks. That detracts immensely from the show. No wonder the French don't find it funny.

    All this to say that one must be careful to not only remain true to the text, but to the voice of the text as well.

    Along those lines, I've been thinking of what a challenge it must be to move textspeak from French to English or vice-versa, and still maintain the acronyms. LOL=MDR but what about "g" for "J'ai", or "C" for "c'est"? I need to ponder this some more.

  3. Ahh, Mme Bovary! my twenties I was obsessed with the French language and actually spent almost a year with a copy of the novel in French and a (rather poor) translation on my bedside table...I painstakingly tried to read them side by side but became so was at that time that I met my (then future) husband...he was in complete awe of my ability with languages ;)

  4. It's the same for us too. My fiance and I watch American films and television with French subtitles and with pop culture references or jokes, the translator over simplifies or flat out ignores them. My fiance misses out on so many jokes!

    Speaking of translating, I heard that the French translation of "50 Shades of Grey" is a much better written book than the original in English. Interesting, huh?

  5. What a coincidence, reading this entry today. Several years ago I relearned a language I spoke as a child. I thought I was doing quite well with it but apparently I was mistaken. It threatened to ruin a renewed friendship that goes back 50 years. The lost nuances, the lost humor and the misinterpretations caused pain, confusion and eventually a temporary rupture.
    Just today, I was wished a Happy Birthday that came with an apology for not having recognized this special day, erlier. I was baffled and could not imagine what I could possibly have said that could have made my friend believe it was my birthday. He replied that I had referred to "my day", which means "my birthday", in that particular language.
    I enjoy everything about languages, therefore I really appreciated this entry. Are you, by any chance, familiar with Deborah Tannen's work?