An interview with Fred Vargas' translator – Sian Reynolds, Part I
Sian Reynolds is professor emerita of French at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Her most recent crime-fiction translation is Vargas' This Night's Foul Work. In this two-part interview, she discusses Fred Vargas, the art and practice of translation, and why the merde flies so liberally in French writing. (Read Part II of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)
You have translated one of the 20th century’s great social, or human, scientists, Fernand Braudel, into English as well as one of the world’s most popular crime novelists, Fred Vargas. How did you make the transition to translating fiction? How does fiction differ from nonfiction from a translator’s point of view?
Until quite recently I translated only works by historians because it fitted my own academic interests. Translating Braudel was an education in itself. You tend to get typecast, so for ages no one asked me to translate fiction. The two are not as different as you might think. In both cases, you are concerned to provide as accurate an equivalent of the original text as possible for readers in the target language, and you need to be committed to the author’s project. Briefly, for history that nearly always means acquiring expertise in the context: doing a lot of reading around the text in both languages, so as not to mislead through ignorance. In fiction, the novel provides its own context, and you have to be attentive to the world the writer has created.
In the particular case of Vargas, that world is partly that of the classic French ‘polar’, or police-novel, but at the same time it has undercurrents from fairy-tale and medieval romance. And translating a detective novel always means being scrupulous about stylistic detail,because such texts are full of hidden references, often verbal, which may be clues.
How did you come to work with Fred Vargas? And how does it feel to be the only translator ever honored by the Crime Writers' Association?
I already knew Fred Vargas’s books well, and had taught them as examples of fiction and translation exercises with my students at Stirling. My former Edinburgh colleague David Bellos, now in Princeton, did two excellent translations of the first of her books to appear in English (Have Mercy On Us All and Seeking Whom He May Devour – shortlisted by the CWA). When his academic work prevented him having time to do more, Harvill Secker, with David’s encouragement, offered me a contract, since the publisher already knew my Braudel translations.
About the awards, Fred’s books weren’t the first translated books to win CWA daggers. For instance, the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indriðason’s Silence of the Grave won the Gold Dagger in 2005, and his translator, Bernard Scudder, was thus honoured too, though I don’t know whether the prize was shared. And there must have been others. I’m a Henning Mankell fan myself.
The difference with the new arrangement, when the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger was created in 2006, is that for the first time, it included a separate CWA-sponsored dagger for the translator. I felt surprised, grateful and honoured to get it. I think it’s both generous and right of the CWA to recognise translators as a group, since their work is sometimes taken for granted. I’m sure the competition will always be very stiff. There are many terrific translators of foreign crime fiction these days!
I've just spoken of your working "with" Fred Vargas. To what extent is translation an act of collaboration with an author? To what extent is it an act of individual creativity on the translator's part?
With a living author, it’s always possible to have some communication. When I’ve asked Fred questions about particular points she has always been very cooperative. And she reads and speaks English well herself. But in general she has been pretty hands-off, and left it to me. The translator is a kind of representative of the English-speaking readership: Fred’s books are quirky and often fantastical, sometimes with historical elements, and much appreciated in France. They are about French characters usually in a recognizably French environment, and will necessarily seem a bit foreign to anglophone readers, so the aim is to make them enjoyable on their own terms – but in English.
In Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, a group of Parisian police officers travel to Quebec for seminars with Canadian investigators. Vargas makes each group’s occasional misunderstanding of the other’s brand of French a source of friction. You chose not to render this into English. Could you give an example or two that help explain why you decided as you did?
I did aim to have the Canadian – Quebecois – characters speak in a different idiom from the French ones as much as possible, and had a Canadian friend read it through. The French spoken in Quebec is quite hard for French-from-France people to understand the first time they hear it. In the book, the French characters openly express their difficulty at following their Canadian colleagues’ speech. There is a distinct vocabulary, syntax and a set of colloquial idioms, as well as a particular accent. One short example which I cut (there are very few such cuts) is when Danglard is explaining Quebecois idiom to his colleagues, p. 109 in the French edition:
‘Par exemple, répondit Danglard, ‘Tu veux-tu qu’on gosse autour toute la nuitte?’The French are also surprised at immediate ‘tutoiement’ which I changed to ‘using first-names straight away’ which is (still, just) a slight European-North American difference. The Canadians on the other hand say that the French officers ‘talk like in a book’, so I tried to mark that too a bit.
‘Ce qui veut dire?’ ‘On ne va pas tergiverser là-dessus toute la nuit’ [Eng: We’re not going to dither about it all night’]
The chief problem in this case is that English speakers from Britain have no problem understanding English speakers from Canada or the US and vice versa – we can always understand transatlantic English, even if there are some turns of phrase particular to Canada. The question of linguistic variants or dialects is very tricky in fiction. You could argue, for example, that many English people find it hard to follow Glasgow speech, so the quebecois characters could have been ‘lent’ a Scottish idiom – but in a novel about Canada that would sound pretty unconvincing! It doesn’t affect the plot at all, it merely adds to the atmosphere of ‘dépaysement’ – uprootedness, which Adamsberg in particular has to face in Canada. I felt in all honesty I should put a note in the book saying that I had cut a few examples of incomprehension, but I compensated by referring quite often to this misunderstanding, introducing as many Canadianisms as possible, and pointing up the friction in other ways.
A more humble problem arises in The Three Evangelists, where a character finds a beech tree has materialized in her yard and wonders who or what is haunting her in this strange manner. The uncanniness is magnified by the identical pronunciation of the French words for beech (hêtre) and a being (être). Perhaps, Sophia wonders, she is being confronted by something less innocent than a tree. ("Un hêtre. Un être?") You chose a different sort of wordplay for the English version. What factors guided your choice? How often does Vargas’ writing force you to make such decisions?
In that case an exact equivalent wasn’t possible, though the echo of ‘being’ was one solution. But there is a much more important example in the same book, which I can’t reveal: a clue is left on a car and the wordplay in French is ambiguous, with an effect on the plot. I thought a lot before coming up with my version which I think works OK and doesn’t give the game away too soon, while respecting the original. In the latest book, there is some play in chapter 1 on the word ‘parquet’ which means both the prosecution in a court of law and a parquet floor in French – you’ll have to see whether you think my solution works. This one doesn’t affect the plot.
(Read Part II of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
French crime fiction
Crime fiction in translation