Saturday, June 04, 2011

Translations and transgressions

Page 59 of Dominque Manotti's Affairs of State has a police-officer protagonist musing that "This is my patch. If that person's out there, I can find them."  The same page includes a description of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris, where a narrow street "glistens with a dampness that permeated your lungs," and this:
"Set back on the left, is a huge social housing block, at least ten storeys high, with a flat, uniform façade, the very worst of urban architecture, typical of the unbridled renovation of the Belleville district begun back in the 1970s."
In each case, I regard the boldface portion as less than perfect English. Them is plural, Sting notwithstanding. Your is jarring in a passage otherwise entirely in third person. The apartment block's description is wordier than I'd have expected for a setting the author clearly wants us to regard as grim and stark.

Blame may lie with the inevitable differences between two languages, differences unbridgeable by literal translation. Proper French would not permit a mismatch of number like that person's ... them, and French writers concerned with such matters presumably find other ways to fight sexism. In some politically correct quarters, however, English does permit such mismatches.  French also has the impersonal pronoun on, whose English counterpart, one, sounds stilted these days, especially in North American English. In general, French is more comfortable with impersonal sentences than English is.

French readers and authors may also find terseness less essential to hard-boiled writing than their North American counterparts do.  I'd have done less telling and more terse showing in describing the Belleville apartment block.

This is no knock on the translators, Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, just a reminder of the many masters the translator must serve: accuracy, readability, fidelity to the author and to the host and target languages.
*
Schwartz herself might appreciate this post, and if she reads it, I hope she weighs in. I took part in her translation workshop at Crimefest 2010, where she had participants work on another section of Affairs of State. Her goal was not to teach correct translation, but rather to get us to appreciate the many factors translators must consider.
*
Affairs of State is the fourth of Manotti's novels available in English. Its predecessors include Dead Horsemeat, Rough Trade, and Lorraine Connection, the last of which won the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger for translated crime fiction in 2008.

Manotti's cool depiction of France's political, business, security and journalistic elites gives chilling new life to the concept of decadence. She also writes with unsentimental compassion of those manipulated, sometimes fatally so, by the elites, and she juxtaposes her depictions of high and low to suspenseful effect.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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34 Comments:

Blogger Michael Malone said...

I read in another blog (can't remember which one) which posited the view that French crime fiction would be the new bandwagon to replace Scandinavian. Do you have a view on this, Peter?

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Michael and Peter, this idea was proposed by Nick Sayers [Publishing director at Hodder and Stoughton] during the Crime in Translation panel at Crime Fest moderated by Ann Cleeves and featuring author Deon Meyer.
I am old enough to remember Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon, so won't really be able to agree with French crime fiction is the mainstream's "new" discovery.

Yesterday watching the French Top 14 Rugby final [on cable TV] most of the elite in the corporate seats surrounding President Nicholas Sarkozy looked very much like characters in a Dominique Manotti novel.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Should have read- agree that French crime fiction is the mainstream's new discovery.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Thats exactly how I would say it: I can find "them" and permeated "your" lungs. I imagine its standard British working class dialect or possibly northern British working class British dialect. Certainly I would not have noticed anything strange with the passage had you not pointed it out. If this was colloquial French I'd say give them a pass, its very difficult to render argot from one language into another.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I imagine its standard British working class dialect or possibly northern British working class British dialect. ... its very difficult to render argot from one language into another.

Adrian, the book is wrotten in third person, but the POV character in this passage is a French cop of Arab working-class origin, so the passage may be an attempt to render one argot in another language, as you suggest. But that may be a reason to avoid the attempt. Here's what one German-to-English translator said:

"I live in Scotland, and there is a temptation to use a Scottish dialect (or dialects) for the Swiss, but I feel that would arouse the wrong associations in the reader (tartan, kilts, bagpipes etc). In other translations I have used British dialects a couple of times, but only for very minor characters in scenes which last half a page or so — and even then I’m not 100% happy about it."

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'm skeptical of bandwagons, especially of the current rage for Scandinavian crime fiction. I've also long thought that Ireland and South Africa were the sources of the most dynamic and exciting current crime writing.

As Uriah suggests, French crime writing has probably been around too long to be novel and exotic enough for bandwagon effects. Manotti is one of the very best, but I don't see her as a new Stieg Larsson.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yesterday watching the French Top 14 Rugby final [on cable TV] most of the elite in the corporate seats surrounding President Nicholas Sarkozy looked very much like characters in a Dominique Manotti novel.

Uriah, I don't think anyone who has read a novel by Manotti will ever be able to look upon such a group with a neutral eye. Nor will such neutrality be possible if the Socialists or any other party wins the next French presidential election.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

As a reader far from the cutting edge of crime fiction, this is the first mention of Dominique Manotti I've heard. I will read her very soon.

I'm ready for a new, non-Scandinavian, wave of crime fiction.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

A lot of writers and translators seem allergic to the gender-inclusive "he." I suppose they think it's sexist. "He or she" is always an option, I guess, but it sure sounds awkward.

June 05, 2011  
Anonymous JoyfulA said...

"Who would ever pick out such fine points in crime fiction?" I wondered, as I started reading. Then I noticed your bio: you're another copyeditor! (Probably on a newspaper, given the two-word spelling---those of us who work on books make it one word.)

I'm currently reading crime fiction set in West Africa.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I suppose the bigger question is...why arent you reading it in French?

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., she's very good. Her books share with thrillers a sharp political orientation, but they also have that sympathy for the little guy. The good guys occasionally win in her books, but the victory is ambivalent.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I just found myself using the impersonal "you" several times in a reply to a comment, and I left it in. I just can't get used to it in formal writing, and the passage in Manotti's novel is formal; the "you" comes out of the blue.

I also confess that sex may have played a role in my objection to the singular them. The character thinking the thought is a young female police officer, and she is thinking it about a woman who has been shot in the head and left in a parking garage, dead -- a crime far more likely to have been committed by a man than a woman, I would think. Call me sexist and chivalrous, but I found it hard to believe that the police officer would think "them" rather than "him" in such a circumstance.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I have never felt comfortable reading fiction in French. Some nonfiction yes, but with fiction, I always fear I'm missing something. With nonfiction, I feel more confident that I can get what's going on even if I don't understand a word here and there.

June 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A friend of mine who is multi-lingual thinks he's "cheating" if he reads a book in English, rather than the original French, Italian, Spanish or German. (He is the one who's seen the Montalbano episodes on Italian tv in Italian.)

If he could read Swedish or other Nordic languages, he'd say the same.

On "he," "she" or "them," I once wrote in about this issue, and my impression was that you said that to avoid the assignment of a gender in a sentence, to use the plural. No, you weren't saying to use singular and plural in the same sentence, but to change the words and use plural forms to avoid this problem. Is this what you said?

On this particular issue, you weren't being sexist to assume "he" is correct here. Unfortunately, most crimes committed against women are committed by men, often a partner or former partner.

This reminds me that Affairs of State (in English) is sitting on my TBR pile, and now I must read it to see what the hoopla is all about in the sentence structure. Also, to read the content.

Also, the "Socialist" party in France is by name. It doesn't really stand for socialism in the meaning that is universally known. It's not even the socialism thought of by Sjowall and Wahloo.

On crime fiction veering away from Nordic noir, I agree about Ireland. I would also toss in Scotland, and Italy. India is up and coming, as is Latin America and South Africa, as you mention.

And what about Australia or Australasia? I say hats off to crime writers from there, including many women. I see so many writers and their books mentioned on the blogosphere.

My pet peeve is that my library barely carries books from Australasia, and many other global tomes, but the administrators will order 300-500 dvd's of a current movie, even if a small number of people reserve the title. It's aggravating for global crime fiction readers, and expensive as some of us turn to the Book Depository, Amazon or Abe Books.

June 06, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I did post on this thread. What happened?

Never mind. I'm with you on this, Peter. Happens rarely enough. :) There are ways of avoiding both the unwarranted shift to plural and the awkward "he or she" (which gets worse if the next clause moves it to another case).

Political correctness is, in general, irritating to me and not just in matters of grammar, but then I'm still hung up on split infinitives. And what about the replacement of "whom" by "who"?

Are we catering to the poorly educated?
Some of these shifts are becoming the rule, particularly in genre writing.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, there is ample reason to read Affairs of State other than the sentence structure. I finished it last night, and I was not disappointed.

"Them" as a plural may come to be regarded as correct one day and, more important, may come to feel natural. But it's not there yet.

One Socialist parties, one of the impressive features of Manotti's novels is that she will not differentiate between parties based on policy. That's not what she's interested in. She writes about the greed of France's political-industrial class, which does not discriminate on party lines.

Australia has long been a source of good crime fiction, but much of the talk of the great crime fiction source is really a weird quest for the next Stieg Larsson.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or a weird longing, one might say, at least on publishers' parts.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

I haven't got access to various corpora and databases at home, but "them" as a singular pronoun has a fairly long and not entirely dishonourable history, which certainly goes beyond pointless political correctness. Blithely dismissing it is, I think, unnecessarily prescriptive.

I can dig out the data if anyone's interested...

(And honestly, I work with non-native speakers of English all day, and an attachment to 'correct' pronoun usage generally correlates with using the masculine as default and attitudes towards gender - even among female students - which make the fifties look progressive. So these things do matter.)

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, here’s an article about singular they. It’s from Wikipedia, so read it with appropriate skepticism. It, too, suggests that singular they has a long history (without citations), though it correctly notes that singular they's use in standard English continues to be debated.

That same article includes a section on generic he, however. If one side equates grammatical gender with human sex and argues that standard usage may be overturned in the same of fighting sexism, the other is entitled to argue that gender is not equal and congruent with sex and that generic he no longer implies male dominance. The underlying meaning can change even as the surface word that expresses it remains the same.

Besides, as I noted in a comment above, the passage is written from the perspective of a woman thinking about the violent killing of another woman -- an act far likelier to have been committed by a man than a woman and thus to make "he" the suitable pronoun.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joyful, we should discuss this profession of ours and its parlous state.

Yes, I am a copy editor for a newspaper, though I have done a few free-lance book jobs. If newspapers spell copy editor as two words and book publishers give it as one, should I compromise and use a hyphen?

What crime fiction are you reading set in West Africa? A novel by Robert Wilson, perhaps?

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., maybe my computer simply refuses to publish comments in which you agree with me.

Yes. there are any number of ways of avoiding misuse of "them" as singular. Shift the entire sentence to plural. Use "or." Rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem. Stick to one gender. Context will dictate which solution is best.

It is the way of language that former mistakes become the rule. Scholars might suggest that this is how Medieval Latin, came into being, for example. Closer to home, I titled my recent Scobie Malone post "Who do you like?" "Whom" would have been correct but also would have sounded stilted. Did Ronnie Hawkins call his song "Whom Do You Love?" Will a politician ask "Whom do you trust?" English has lost the who/whom distinction in questions, where the object stands in the first position in the sentence. Call it decadence, or call it part of the decline of the case system, which has been going on for many centuries. Either way, it's a fact. [I once read "Whom do you trust?" in a newspaper. The hyper-correctness struck me as silly.]

June 06, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This problem in the language does lead to many suggested solutions, such as using "one" or "a" and then a noun, or using convoluted sentence structure or using "He or she." Someone I use, an English professor uses, "S/he" and so on. Or perhaps the problem of missing pronouns in a sentence.

Aren't there some languages without feminine and masculine pronouns? (Not any derived from Latin)

June 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if any languages lack gender in their personal pronouns, but French is more comfortable with the impersonal "on" than English is with "one," as in "One gets the feeling that this is the case."

June 07, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I was recently reading Snow Angels, which is set in Finland, and noticed a comment by the protagonist that Finnish doesn't use male or female gender pronouns, if I read it correctly.

Upon looking up gender-free pronouns at Wikipedia, I found a sentence that says that some East Asian languages and some Uralic languages,which includes Finnish (language groups near the Ural mountains) do not distinguish between genders in pronoun use.

So the problem doesn't even arise.

June 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I suppose Finnish and other languages that lack gender for personal pronouns just use context to make the necessary distinctions, just as Russian gets along without definite articles and Irish makes do without words for "no" and, I once read, "yes" as well.

June 07, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I am bi-lingual (English/Spanish) but I read very little Spanish. It just doesn't compute in the old frazzled brain anymore for me. I mean, I can do it, but I don't want to, don't like to, don't need to.

I can also read a bit of French, but only a very little bit.

Anyway, reading books in translation. I will read most anything in translation except Spanish to English. And why is that? Because the few books I've read so far translated from the Spanish don't work. One of the reasons everybody's favorite book, THE SHADOW AND THE WIND by Ruiz Zafon of a few years ago never worked for me was that while reading it in English I burst out laughing at some of the words I just KNEW could not be direct translations of the Spanish. It was all too clunky.

Spanish (like French, I suppose) relies heavily on word pictures - idiosyncratic idioms (make any sense?) and often, formality of phrase. You can rarely capture this in English. At least in my view.

So I miss out on a lot of great Spanish writing, I suppose.

I do enjoy reading the work of Boris Akunin - his Erast Fandorin books translated from the Russian into English. And how do I know that the translations are any good? I don't, after all, read or write in Russian. Well, I would say, that the tone and the rhythm works for me.

Maybe translations work best when you don't know the initial language at all. Just an idea of mine.

June 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The one translation about which I’ve had serious complaints was from the Spanish.

June 07, 2011  
Blogger Mr THomas said...

Noir Nation will have lots of stories translated into English from many languages, and you'll be able to download it to your Kindle.

June 09, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Thanks for the link your 1006 post on a faulty Spanish translation. I agree with everything you said. It just may be that since Spanish is such a flowery and often formal language, it just cannot be literally translated to English. At least successfully.

June 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One person who responded to that post suggested that the fault was probably the author's. That led to the interesting of possibility of a translator's having to write down to the level of his or her original material.

If a language can't be translated literally, a translator, especially one of a popular form such as crime fiction, has to be able to produce a readable counterpart. I have read excellent translation of T'ang Dynasty Chinese poetry. That can't be any easier to translate into English than a Spanish crime novel is.

June 09, 2011  
Blogger Mr THomas said...

Noir Nation will pay $100 USD for short(minimum 3 pages) non-fiction pieces/articles on topics like:

1) Crime fiction pushing the envelope of literary style
2) the effect of noir on the existentialist philosophers
3) Crime literature as social comentary
4) the merging of crime lit and science fiction
5) the continuing escalation of violence in mainstream fiction.
6) etc.

http://www.facebook.com/noirnation give us a thumbs up if you will.

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Noir+Nation&aq=f

June 13, 2011  
Anonymous May said...

Wow...so many interesting comments!

- I did not know there were translation workshops at Crimefest. Good to know!

- Replacing regionalisms in one language with regionalisms in another language is always problematic... even dangerous. Invariably, a statement is being made about those respective populations, and oftentimes, its not something nice.

- I agree with you Peter! I'll read non-fiction in French without any qualms, but dislike reading fiction in French because I feel like I'm missing out on detail. Besides, if reading is supposed to be 100% pleasure, it has to be in English!

June 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was not at Crimefest this year, but the 2010 version offered a number of interesting non-traditional sessions. One was the translation workshop. Another was a session on self-defense led by Zoe Sharp.

Sian Reynolds, who has translated both Fred Vargas and the great historian Fernand Braudel, had this to say about the differences between translating fiction and non-fiction:

"I always read the text first if it’s fiction. For non-fiction it’s not so essential – you’ll get there in the end. But much crime fiction, as you know, is constructed backwards – as a rule you move back from the discovery of a crime to what occasioned it. You need to know the end to understand the beginning. "

June 14, 2011  

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