Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sian Reynolds: An interview with Fred Vargas' translator, Part II

Blogging may be lighter than usual for the next day or two. In the meantime, here's an interview from 2008 with Sian Reynolds, translator of Fred Vargas' crime novels, with a brand-new comment from another prominent translator of crime fiction.
In Part II of our interview, Sian Reynolds discusses the challenges of rendering colloquial French into colloquial English and her approach to a text she is about to translate. She also reveals that readers can look forward to at least one more Fred Vargas translation. (Read Part I of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

What is the most difficult problem you have encountered as translator?

In fiction, as already mentioned, I think it has to be dialogue. and particularly such aspects of it as dialect, extreme colloquialism, slang, expletives (of the ‘good grief’ sort) and of course puns and wordplay. You have to find convincing speakable equivalents without sounding either too fuddy-duddy or using current colloquialisms that might date. A particular problem for example, is the common French word ‘un type’ which just means ‘a man’, but the register is more the equivalent of ‘bloke, fellow, chap’ – all of which are today a bit marked as old-fashioned in English, because so many people both sides of the Atlantic now say ‘guy’. On the other hand, peppering the text with too many ‘guys’ runs the risk of making it sound like an American intrusion into otherwise British English, which is what I write. (Of course many French books are translated ‘into American’ as the French say, that is entirely into American English.)

Swearing is another potential pitfall. French colloquial speech uses a number of terms which if translated literally sound rather stronger in English (merde, je m’en fous, etc.) Given what we know about the characters, you have to save four-letter words for times when the context calls for them. The reverse can be true: French translators of say, James Kelman, have been known to tone down the language, arguing that a French equivalent of the character wouldn’t have every other word in the sentence the same f-word.

How do you approach a text you are about to translate? Do you read it through one or more times to get a sense of the work before beginning the formal job of translation? What is your primary task as a translator of 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. Then in the course of translating a novel, I probably read the text tens of times in both languages, always noticing more things – (sometimes minor inconsistencies that have slipped in, but are probably only noticed by me, since most readers don’t read a novel many times over.) Your task in general is to do as good a job of conveying the original as possible – but no translation is ever perfect or ‘definitive’, and no two translators will come up with the same solutions.

Translators of poetry often speak of the tension between trying to produce a faithful translation and one that will flow smoothly in its "host" language. To what extent is this tension present in translating fiction?

The biggest question in translating poetry, according to the translators I know, is whether or not to preserve the form of the poem: its metre, rhyme, line length and so on. Views differ strongly. As it happens, in the latest Vargas (This Night’s Foul Work) one character sometimes speaks in 12-syllable alexandrines, (a pastiche of Racine’s plays,) and they were the devil to translate because 12 syllables, with a break after the sixth what’s more, is not at all common in English verse; but it seemed important to keep it, because of all the text references.

On the general question of ‘readability’, all translators in my experience face the same old dilemma: ‘whether to take the reader closer to the author, or the author closer to the reader’, i.e. make it more faithful to the original, or more ‘at home’ in the target language. It’s a matter of genre in some ways. My view is that it’s important that the reader should be aware that he/she is reading a translation, and not imagine that the book was originally written in English. Hence my decisions to keep things like street names and occasional French words in the original. But Fred’s books are very readable – if quirky! – in French, and I try to get as much of that across as possible, so that reading them is (I hope) fun.

A personal note: As a non-fluent speaker and reader of French, I find it easier to read social science than fiction and easier to read the philosophes and publicists of the 18th and 19th centuries than I do Montaigne, whose work I love in English translation. Is this often the case with non-native speakers of French? If so, why (other than Montaigne's meandering sentences)?

You’re right, Montaigne is very, very hard to read in French. Sixteenth-century authors are much more difficult generally than seventeenth and eighteenth because they wrote before French grammarians had set about rationalising the language. Eighteenth-century texts are written in much clearer French. Montaigne’s vocabulary and syntax as well as his own style, make it a real challenge. There are some modern French editions which have ‘modernised’ his French to make it more comprehensible for today’s French readers – worth a look.

With the publication of This Night's Foul Work, four of Fred Vargas' books about commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and one of three about the Three Evangelists will have been translated into English. Can readers expect more translations of Vargas into English?

You’ll have to ask the publisher that – but at least one more is in the pipeline: I have just finished translating the first Adamsberg story, originally published in 1991.

(Read Part I of the interview with Sian Reynolds here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Karen (Euro Crime) said...

Many thanks for providing that fascinating interview. I'm pleased to see that at least one more Adamsberg is on it's way.

Mathias from The Three Evangelists pops up in This Night's Foul Work, which I'm halfway through.

Incidentally, next Sunday's Euro Crime reviews will focus solely on Vargas :-).

February 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, and I'll look forward to those Vargas reviews. I've envied my European friends for being able to read This Night's Foul Work before we benighted North Americans.

Vargas will occasionally have a najor character from one novel appear in a smaller role in another. This adds to the illusion of a fictional world, a nice touch.

February 03, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a translator myself I compliment Sian on "This night's foul work" - great great job on a very challenging text!

April 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for your note. Have you read the book in both the original and the English translation?

April 12, 2009  
Anonymous Stephen Sartarelli said...

Fascinating interview. I would take issue with one of Reynolds's points, however. Despite Vargas's parody of Racine, one should never translate French alexandrines as alexandrines in English. The alexandrine line, as the 'noblest' of verse lines in the French literary tradition, occupies the same semantic space, historically speaking, as iambic pentameter in English, which is far more natural to the language. Blank verse, or if you must, rhymed iambic couplets, would have done the job much better, and required less effort, than trying to create alexandrines, since the allusion to Racine will be lost on most English readers anyway.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. It's been a while since I read the novel, but I think the allusion to Racine was lost on me.

Having read your translations of Camilleri, I'd guess that you'd have rendered the French alexandrines as iambic pentameter, then explained your decision in an end note.

March 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

An additional question: Does it take a poet to translate poetry?

March 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Kudos to Sian Reynolds. The translator's job is incredibly difficult -- and in my opinion you can forget about poetry pretty much.

In warning: I'm a tad hung up on verisimilitude:
I read THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK recently, having decided to hang in there bravely after tossing the first Vargas. The translation was great. The content of the novel is another matter. The word "quirky" to describe what Vargas does is weak. Nothing that happens in the novel, including the thoughts of the characters, is at all believable in the modern world and in a modern country. If you move all of it back to, say, the dark Middle Ages and play up the backward, gullible, superstitious, and odd, then you may have something.
And this is a police procedural with a team of officers, everyone of whom is eccentric to a greater or lesser degree. One of them sleeps most of the time. One, as mentioned, speaks in alexandrines. The whole team follows by cars and helicopters a fat, timid cat 36 miles to find an abducted colleague. And the protagonist illegally bugs a rival's car and home to listen in on his love-making with his estranged wife.
This investigation simply could not happen in the real world.

March 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't like the word quirky, but Fred Vargas is an argument for the defense of the word. The bit about the cat was a bit odd even for me, though I do like some ot the travels to Canada and all over France in her other books.

Reynolds has some especially interesting things to say on translation because she has worked both in fiction and in non-fiction. She translated the great historian Fernand Braudel, for instance.

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

I love Vargas. Her imagination and creativity--and quirkiness--are central to her work. That's a reason to be a fan of her writing.

I admire her brilliance and creativity, and will go wherever her mind, stories and characters go.

No one writes like Vargas does. She is one of a kind.

And her writing has been awarded with the Dagger award several times and world acclaim.

One sometimes just has to go with the writing, and know that one is not getting a formula, but something wholly original, not so easy today.

Can't wait for Eurocrime's Vargas posts and discussion.

March 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you don't have to wait for the Eurocrime posts; they've been up for years.

I put up this post three years ago but revived and reposted it now for two reasons:

1) I was out of town for two days without access to the blog to make new posts, and

2) I received a new comment on this post from Stephen Sartarelli, Andrea Camilleri's translator.

I'm generally pro-Vargas, though the cat scene I.J. mentioned is not one of my favorites. I like Vargas' characters' observations on their travels, usually to France but also to Canada and, in the next book, to London. The opening chapter to "Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand" is like nothing else I know of in crime fiction. Other than a possible distant relationship to the eccentric-investigator tradition, Vargas is an original, as far as I can tell.

I would not mind reading a critical article about what traditions her writing might spring from.

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

Oh, I didn't notice until now that Eurocrime's post is from 2008.

I have read some of their Vargas posts.

Vargas' books are just so enjoyable, a veritable roller coaster ride for the mind, fun and intelligent. Not for those who want traditional fare.

What does one want more out of books other than that they entertain, sometimes get us to think--and laugh.

Sometimes to feel that we've learned something new or read something differently written from the norm.

That's Vargas. It is with sheer admiration and delight that I read of her police inspectors' escapades, even though I often get irritated with Adamsberg for idiotic behavior--but then he solves these complex crimes, so, all is forgiven.

March 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I seldom, if ever, get irritated by Adamsberg's behavior. And I feel as I've learned something from Vargas' books about Parisians' attitudes toward other parts of France and vice versa.

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

A friend of mine, a man who is long-time happily married gets aggravated with Adamsberg's terrible behavior toward Camille, how he shoots himself in the foot constantly, even though he later regrets it.

But he never learns from his mistakes--and then is miserable.

March 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! I deliberately refrained from mentioning his behavior toward Camille because I wanted to avoid that whole issue of whether female readers might find this more objectionable than male readers did.

March 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I find Adamsberg's behavior annoying, but, as I said, my long-time male friend, who has been happily married for decades, finds it even more annoying--so much so that he mentioned it to me. I found that amusing.

He took it seriously, as if this were a real person he was discussing.

It's that he knows Adamsberg is miserable because he constantly shoots himself in the foot--and he wants him to get over it, do the right thing and be happy, not depressed.

I'm not worried about Camille. She is one tough woman and can take care of herself.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, it's been a while since I've read Vargas, but I don't remember Adamsberg as self-lacerating in the way some fictional detectives are. He's dreamily miserable. It's difficult to feel that he's a bad guy even though he may not behave well.

March 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I don't think Adamsberg is a bad guy, just can't get it together in his personal life, and he does have period of being unhappy and miserable. Not like Wallender, but he does ruminate about his personal life, including in "This Night's Foul Work," where there is a new element about which to feel badly.

The friend doesn't think he's a bad person, just a shlemiel who is unhappy about his personal life, and makes mistakes in judgment which will further his frustration and unhappiness--a trait that makes him very human.

March 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think your friend assesses Adamsberg accurately.

March 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Or, this is my interpretation of the character and my friend's remarks about him.

Either way, Adamsberg has human traits and is bumbling along, making mistakes like most mere mortals do, though he is a fictional being.

March 10, 2011  
Blogger Dominic Rivron said...

To be fair to Vargas regarding the cat scene, it was - I think - 36 km and not 36 miles as quoted above. It does seem a little improbable. Apparently, from what I've read,cats can follow scent trails - they just usually don't want to.

I like the oddness of Vargas' crime fiction. It almost, but not quite, borders on "parallel universe" scifi at times.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"... - they just usually don't want to."

That would certainly fit the reputation of cats. The town crier in "Have Mercy on Us All' is something out of a parallel universe, or rather a part of a past universe brought forward into ours. I suppose this is something that fantasy novels do

March 18, 2012  

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