Comparing Translation and Original for Marie Darrieussecq

I thought it might be fun to compare originals and translations occasionally. Not in an attempt to undermine the work of translators, but on the contrary: to appreciate the hard work that goes into every nuance and detail. I will examine some particular choices but fear not, it will not be a linguistic dissertation, but an unscientific examination of my own reactions to the two versions.

Marie Darrieussecq: Naissance des fantômes (1998)

Translated as: My Phantom Husband by Helen Stevenson (2000)

The story is deceptively simple: one evening the female narrator’s husband comes home from work, goes out to buy bread and is never seen again. You have a summary of the book in the very first paragraph:

Mon mari a disparu. Il est rentré du travail, il a posé sa serviette contre le mur, il m’a demandé si j’avais acheté du pain. Il devait être aux alentours de sept heures et demie.

My husband’s disappeared. He got in from work, propped his briefcase against the wall and asked me if I’d bought any bread. It must have been around half past seven.

At what stage should the abandoned wife panic and call the police? What is going through her head: does she wonder what went wrong, analyse every single moment of their seven years of married life, blame herself for anything? Does she blame him, is she ashamed, do all the cracks in their family and her less than perfect relationship with her mother-in-law start to surface? At first, she believes she catches glimpses of him on the street. She learns to sleep alone, do things alone, experiences something that is both grief and a recognition of freedom. She is terrified of forgetting her husband’s face, the impression he has made on her. Fears from her childhood (of monsters lurking under her bed or vampires out to get her) start reappearing, to the point where the crime fiction lover in me starts wondering if she has done away with her husband herself…

The book reminded me of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, where she is trying to come to terms with her husband’s sudden death. Except, of course, in this case the grief is mixed with anger and resentment, with uncertainty about the fate of the husband, reassessing their history in the light of possibly never really having known him properly, perhaps even reluctance to have him back again.

The language is dreamy and poetical, there is a lot of underwater imagery, the sense of drowning, endless rain, memories being washed away. In French, this dream-like quality is further enhanced by alliteration of ‘s’ and ‘eu’ sounds, which remind me of a murmur of streams and a breeze blowing over them. The translator does an excellent job of maintaining the repetition of ‘s’, although the ‘eu’ is impossible to render in English.

Mais ce matin-là, le matin de ma nouvelle vie, comme je n’avais pas fermé l’oeil l’aube fut une nouveauté autant qu’un soulagement (et les deux avaient sans doute partie liée). Les rues étaient sombres encore, aquatiques, bleutées. Sans souffle, sans même un froissement, asphyxiées sous le ciel fermé, elles devenaient presque reposantes à contempler.

But that morning, the first morning of my new life, since I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, the dawn came as a novelty, as well as a relief (and the two were no doubt not entirely unconnected). The streets were still dark, and wore a bruised, underwater look. Not a breath of air, not the slightest rustle, asphyxiated under a sealed sky. I started to find them quite restful to look at.

The first thing that struck me in this passage is how French has certain adjectives which need to be translated into phrases to make sense: ‘aquatic, bruised streets’ would sound strange in English. Plus the nuance of ‘blue’ in the French for bruised describes the colour of the drab early morning streets and the narrator’s grief so well – this gets lost in translation. ‘Froissement’ also encompasses more than just ‘rustle’, there is also the feeling of shudder, of cold (from ‘froid’), of being crumpled or creased like a piece of cloth, of being hurt, like a muscular strain. How to convey all of that?

I do like the use of ‘sealed’ to describe the low clouds, ‘closed’ look of the sky, plus it adds to the alliteration. I’m not quite sure about the use of ‘novelty’ to describe the dawn, seems too literal and sounds more like advertising language. Nor am I sure about the change in subject in the final sentence. In French the narrator is letting the landscape, the streets, the view from the window dominate that paragraph, which underlines her passivity. In English, by introducing the ‘I’ (I started to find them quite restful), it makes her too much of an actor, gives her too much choice.

This is a challenge I have observed in other books translated from French (and when I was teaching French speakers how to write reports in English). The passive voice sounds much more natural in French, as does the use of the second person. This book has abundant examples of both and it is difficult to make comprehensible English out of them without losing slightly that sense of distancing and distinction between ‘I’ and ‘him/you/other people’ which the narrator seems to feel so acutely, and which is subtly conveyed throughout the book by the author – culminating with the final paragraph which is all about the ‘I’ that has broken free.


21 thoughts on “Comparing Translation and Original for Marie Darrieussecq”

  1. Such an interesting post, Marina. I’ve always assumed that some nuance must be lost in translation and that this must be very frustrating to translators. Poetry, where the sound and rhythm of language is so important, must present a particular challenge.

  2. So fascinating to have these small but so significant differences pointed out to me, Marina. Things which are now obvious – such as trying to preserve the sounds as well as the meaning and the style – had never occurred to me before. My respect for translators has increased still further.

    1. I’ve had to do translation work for a living (technical, economic, political texts – which are much easier – or rather, literal), and literary translation is by far more fun but also much harder. And worse paid, ironically.

  3. I loved this post, comparing an original language with a translated one. I liked the phrase “bruised streets” — feels poetic while “wore a bruised underwater look” feels more descriptive. It sounds too like choices are made in sentence structure and passive or active voice — all of which change the meaning slightly because language also forms how one thinks. So the challenge is not just translating words literally but trying to translate the thinking into a different logic system. Hope that makes sense. I find it all intriguing. I’ve been reading the Jean-Pierre Alaux wine mysteries as translated by Noel Balen. This makes me wonder how different the originals are.

    1. Noel Balen is actually the co-author, it is Anne Trager, the founder of Le French Book publisher, who does the translations. She has lived for many years in France and is fully bilingual, which helps…

  4. What a wonderful fascinating post. Thank you MarinaSofia. I also echo Rebecca’s comment. As someone who speaks several languages you are so well placed to inhabit the different tone and quality of thought, which expresses itself in language

  5. This is beautifully done, Marina Sofia. Your post shows so clearly how important translation really is, and challenging it can be. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how those few words and nuances add so much to a book. The choice of words conveys a lot, and a skilled translation makes all the difference.

  6. I read this book, in English, last year and was very impressed with it. It must have been quite a difficult book to translate. Did you read both French and English fully or just compare specific paragraphs?

    1. I read both all the way through. I did something similar with Maylis de Kerangal – simultaneous bilingual reading, I supppose I could call it – and I really enjoyed doing that, so I always intended to do it again.

  7. excellent, though my daily struggle is the other way round, from English to French. First, I was surprised by the ‘bruised’, when when you mention grief, I think it’s actually a good choice, as it refers at least to some type of pain, it’s emotionally colored.
    Ah yes, the passive/active issue!

    1. I also struggle with passive/active, as Romanian also tends to be a language where the passive sounds much more natural. In fact, I was just thinking that it would be much easier to translate this book into Romanian or Spanish or Italian, because the languages are more related. But perhaps I am wrong.

  8. I love your post and this whole reading exercise, but I beg to differ on the “bruised, underwater (streets)”. I think that the original is more straightforward and has less implications than the English adjectives the translator chose. Blueish and watery is the first step of the description, and at first the reader can take it literally, then only when we meet the word asphyxiation does it click together and creates the full image of drowning.

    1. Ah, great to hear a native speaker weigh in! I think that French is a wonderful language for sounding very straightforward, but then each word makes you think twice, and could potentially have a deeper implied meaning. And of course translators are trained to overthink things…

  9. The streets were still dark, and wore a bruised, underwater look

    1 BLEUTÉES : Surely not « bruised » but « blueish / blue-tinged » . Must be a typo??
    “blue-tinged” as in : And there is the dawn when the world is thick with frost, and our footsteps scrunch on pale shards of grass, and our flesh is flayed by the motionless blue-tinged air. We find a field which gently rises to a line of leafless trees; (Girl in the Sark. Anna Lyndsey)
    2. Regarding “ FROISSEMENT”, « slightest rustle » is a good translation although I’d have used « not EVEN the slightest rustling/rustle » as in :
    The branches were prostrating themselves, agitated, ready to snap, the wind was whipping the flake powder, but no sound could … That was all, nothing more, beyond the window of the mute house, not a sound, not even the slightest rustling. (The Lair. Norman Manea)
    Or :
    The air was quite still, not even the slightest rustle among the leaves of the elm in Cork’s backyard. Far down the street, the Burnetts’ dog Bogart barked a few times (Boundary Waters. W.K.Krueger)
    FROISSEMENT : : Bruit qui accompagne le froissement (de quelque chose). Entendre un froissement. Nul bruit, si ce n’est le froissement de feuillets de vélin sous les doigts du docteur Huylten (BERTRAND, Gaspard,1841, p. 79).C’était une immense pièce (…) que les fenêtres ouvertes sur trois côtés emplissaient tout entière du léger froissement d’eau de la lagune (GRACQ, Syrtes,1951, p. 107):

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