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.

 

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Library Haul for January

I’ve been trying not to borrow too many library books these past few months, since I still have so many unread books on my shelf. But I cannot help but heed the sire call of the Senate House Library just above my workplace… I went in yesterday for just one book and came out with four.

I have the English edition, of course, but isn’t this Romanian cover pretty?

The one I went in for was Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, because this is the first book chosen by Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, who is starting an informal book club in honour of his father, who was ‘a beast of a reader’. Apparently, online booksellers have been inflating the price of this book since he announced his choice, because it is currently out of print. I’ve only ever read biographies by Peter Ackroyd, so this will be my first novel by him.

 

On the shelf above this book I found Leila Aboulela’s The Translator. As if the title alone wasn’t enough to entice me, the blurb says it is the love story between a young Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a British university and a Scottish academic. Intercultural relations and university environment? Count me in! Maybe I really am an old Romantic after all.

On my way out, I then stumbled into the French literature section, as one does. I had to check quickly to see if Marie Darrieussecq‘s latest was available, as one of my writer friends recommended it, but instead I came across an early one, My Phantom Husband. The first paragraph proved to be irresistible:

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.

Of course I had to get the original French version Naissance des fantômes as well, to compare and contrast the two. It has been a while since I’ve done that – the last book I read simultaneously in two languages was by Maylis de Kerangal and I really enjoyed that experience.

See what I mean about the joy of open shelf libraries and serendipity?

 

March Reading Summary

The reading mojo is on its way back this month, although it has been quite heavily loaded on the crime fiction side of things. Out of the 15 books I read this month, 10 were by women writers and 12 were crime-related. That is the sort of comfort reading I crave, although I have also ventured into self-help, true crime and historical fiction.

Women on the cliff of change:

Katie Kitamura: A Separation – even this has a mystery at its heart, although of course it is about much more than death.  When the narrator’s husband goes missing in Greece, she does not have the heart to admit to her in-laws that they have been separated for six months, so she travels there to find him… and in the process finds herself.  A full review to come on Shiny New Books.

Rachel Cusk: Transit – Kitamura’s book reminded me very much of Cusk’s Outline, so I moved on to the second in the trilogy. This is also a series of vignettes about the people the narrator encounters as she sets to buy and renovate a property in London. A more subtle, less self-centred book than Kitamura’s.

Marie Darrieussecq: Men – read this one for France in the #EU27Project, about a French actress’s ill-fated passion for a black actor/film director as they prepare to film in the Congo.

Women in crime:

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

Emma Flint: Little Deaths

Andrea Carter: Treacherous Strand – crime solved by a female solicitor on the Inishowen Peninsula in Ireland – review to come on Crime Fiction Lover

Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – urban thriller set in hipsterland Shoreditch – gulped it down in one night, review to come on CFL

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

Non-Fiction:

Harriet Lerner: Why Won’t You Apologize?   – Psychologist Lerner examines why it’s so hard to offer a heartfelt apology and how to repair relationships and restore trust. Witty, candid and with some great personal examples, it’s a delight to read even for those who shun self-help books.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief – Deliberate revenge or tragic accident? Garner examines the court case of Robert Farquharson, who in 2005 drove into a dam with his three children. I expected this to be more of an examination of the background and family life which led to the tragic event described, but it really is a detailed account of the trial (plus appeal and retrial) and the reactions of the author and the people around her to the unfolding of procedures. Interesting, because it shows how subjective the law can be in court, how easily swayed public opinion (or the jury’s opinion). A great companion piece to Little Deaths.

Books for Review:

Matt Johnson: Deadly Game

Dylan H. Jones: Anglesey Blue

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road

Just for fun:

Stephen May: Stronger Than Skin – psychological thriller from the man’s perspective, which makes a nice change. I admit that one of the two time frames, the Cambridge setting of the 1990s, played a big part in my decision, although I did not feel truly transposed into that world. A story of obsessive young love and more mature realisation of responsibilities and limitations. I did enjoy the poke at the pretentiousness of middle-class, middle-aged life, in particular through the unconventional character of Lulu, the photographer girlfriend of a former pupil of the main character Mark Chadwick. Goodness, that sounds complicated – I should have started that sentence elsewhere!

Terry Pratchett: Snuff – even when I pick something amusing from the library, there is still a crime element involved, as Sam Vimes finds a corpse waiting for him when he goes on holiday in the countryside.

 

#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)