Category Archives: Translation

Young Translators

Juvenes translatores

posted by Toby Garfitt

Why bother to expend any effort on translating from one language to another, when Google will do it for you? These days you can simply point your smartphone’s camera at any word or phrase in a sign or menu, and an app will give you its meaning. But translating literature is not quite so easy. If literary translation has always been at the heart of university language study, it is because it takes you below the surface of both language and culture. To translate even the shortest passage you have to have a developed sensitivity to nuance and register in both the languages you are dealing with, and also to the cultural connotations of the words. Is bourgeois the same as middle-class? What is ‘pride’ referring to in this particular context?

As well as the compulsory translation exercises, students of French and German at Oxford can opt to do a special “advanced translation” course in which they reflect on their own practice and on the insights of translation theory. Some of them then go on to do a master’s course in translation and/or interpreting, for instance at Bath or Edinburgh or London Metropolitan University.

Many of the Oxford tutors have published translations as well as their academic research, and some of them have won translation prizes. It is exciting to see that our undergraduates are already winning prizes before they join us. This year’s UK winner of the European Juvenes Translatores competition for 17-year-olds is Jonah Cowen, who will be coming to Magdalen College in 2016 (after a gap year) to study German and Linguistics. Here’s his video interview:

Last year’s winner, Walker Thompson, is currently at Magdalen studying German and Russian, although his winning translation was from French.

If you’re interested in entering a future competition through your school, the Juvenes Translatores website is here, and they also have a Facebook page here.

 

Lord Voldemort’s Middle Name

lordvoldemort

posted by Simon Kemp

I know from my students that for many people wanting to have a first go at reading a book in a foreign language, translations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are the gateway to reading books in French. They’re a good place to start: if you’re familiar with the stories already from the books or films in English, then you’ll always have a rough idea what’s going on if the language gets tricky, plus it’s always entertaining to find out how a Crumple-Horned Snorkack or a Dirigible Plum comes out in a foreign language. (It would be good if Harry Potter were your first step towards trying a book by an actual French person, rather than your final destination, though, as I sometimes feel when I see it as the sole text cited on a personal statement as evidence of someone’s burning desire to study French culture…) Anyway, because you know the story already, and because it’s one of the trickiest and most interesting pieces of English-to-French translation of recent years, let’s head back to the École des sorciers in Jean-François Ménard’s translation for a second look.

Voldemort’s real name, as revealed in the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, is Tom Riddle, which, with the aid of his middle name, Marvolo, can be dramatically anagrammatized from

TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE

into the sentence

I AM LORD VOLDEMORT.

I remember thinking at the time that this was a lucky break for him. Only a couple of letters short and he’d have had to make do with

ORVILLE DOORMAT

as his evil alter-ego, which would have made the task of assembling a power-hungry army of ruthless dark wizards that bit more difficult.

If only, though, J. K. Rowling had invented an anagram that smoothly converted one name into the other. That ‘I AM’ at the beginning makes the big reveal into an English sentence, and an English sentence that can’t be translated into a foreign language without the whole puzzle falling apart. What is the poor translator to do?

One option is to do nothing. The Croatian, Portuguese and Polish translations of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets give Voldemort’s name as Tom Marvolo Riddle, and then do the anagram sentence in English, as ‘I am Lord Voldemort’, with an explanation for their readers. The  Korean and Japanese versions  transliterate ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ into their own alphabets (톰 마볼로 리들 and トム・マーボロ・リドル), making it impossible to perform a new anagram in their own language or demonstrate the original one in English. Even if you’ve never seen the Korean alphabet before in your life, you can tell that 나는 볼드모트 경이다 (‘I am Lord Voldemort’, as it appears at the end of the Korean translation) is not an anagram of 톰 마볼로 리들.

Many translations, though, go for the more challenging option of changing the name to create an anagram that works in their language. So, in Italian, Tom Riddle is Tom Orvoloson Riddle (an anagram ofSon Io Lord Voldemort), in Spanish he is Tom Sorvolo Ryddle (anagram of Soy Lord Voldemort), and in Icelandic, he is Trevor Delgome (anagram of “Eg er Voldemort”). (Incidentally, if you’re wondering where I got all these from, they’re all here, along with translations into thirty-seven languages of the names of all the major characters.)

So what does Ménard do in his Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets? Well, he takes the more ambitious option and goes for an anagram that will work in French. The sentence he wants to reveal at the climax of the story is

JE SUIS VOLDEMORT

and so the name that replaces Tom Marvolo Riddle in the story is, wait for it…

TOM ELVIS JEDUSOR.

That’s right, Voldemort’s middle name, if you’re a French reader, is Elvis.

It’s actually cleverer than it may look. Ménard has managed to give Tom a real name for his middle name, unlike Rowling’s ‘Marvolo’, which looks suspiciously cobbled-together from the left-over letters she had after she’d come up with ‘Tom’ and ‘Riddle’. And ‘Jedusor’ is a phonetic spelling of ‘jeu du sort’, a phrase that means somewhere between ‘twist of fate’ and ‘game of chance’, and which perhaps also has undertones of the phrase ‘jeter un sort’, to cast a spell. Ménard weaves the meaning of the name into his story, making the Riddle House into La Maison des Jeux du Sort, and also has Voldemort himself tell Harry: ‘Tu crois donc que j’allais accepter le “jeu du sort” qui m’avait donné ce nom immonde de “Jedusor”, légué par mon Moldu de père?’.[‘Did you think I would accept the twist of fate that gave me the foul name Jedusor, bequeathed to me by my Muggle father?’] – a slight variation of Rowling’s original that helps to anchor Ménard’s new wordplay into the story.

And yet… and yet… Elvis? It has to be said that the name injects a rather incongruous element of rhinestone jumpsuits and Las Vegas glamour into Voldemort’s character. It also rather hilariously illustrates the perils of translating a story before the author has finished writing it. As you may remember, in Rowling’s English-language original, the name Marvolo turns up again in the sixth volume. Voldemort has in fact been named after his grandfather, the vile, abusive, squalid and half-insane dark wizard, obsessed with his aristocratic descent from Salazar Slytherin, who goes by the name of Marvolo Gaunt. And yes, in Harry Potter et le Prince de sang mêlé, penultimate volume of the French saga, we meet a vile, abusive, squalid and half-insane dark wizard, obsessed with his aristocratic descent from Salazar Serpentard, who does indeed go by the name of Elvis.

Translating Cats

posted by Simon Kemp

In the previous post, I included Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet, Les Chats, and a translation of it by Roy Campbell. I took both from this website, which is worth a look for anyone interested in Baudelaire, or in translation, since it contains every poem from Baudelaire’s collection, Les Fleurs du mal, each accompanied by four different English translations.

Anyone who thought translating was simply a mechanical process of transposing words and phrases from one language into another would learn a lesson from these competing versions of each of Baudelaire’s poems. Let’s take a brief look back at the cats.

Here, once again, is Baudelaire’s original:

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

— Charles Baudelaire

And here is Roy Campbell’s translation again:

Cats

Sages austere and fervent lovers both,
In their ripe season, cherish cats, the pride
Of hearths, strong, mild, and to themselves allied
In chilly stealth and sedentary sloth.

Friends both to lust and learning, they frequent
Silence, and love the horror darkness breeds.
Erebus would have chosen them for steeds
To hearses, could their pride to it have bent.

Dreaming, the noble postures they assume
Of sphinxes stretching out into the gloom
That seems to swoon into an endless trance.

Their fertile flanks are full of sparks that tingle,
And particles of gold, like grains of shingle,
Vaguely be-star their pupils as they glance.

Now, take a look at these three other translations of the same poem, by George Dillon, Claire Trevien and William Aggeler, and see how differently the text comes out each time:

Cats

No one but indefatigable lovers and old
Chilly philosophers can understand the true
Charm of these animals serene and potent, who
Likewise are sedentary and suffer from the cold.

They are the friends of learning and of sexual bliss;
Silence they love, and darkness, where temptation breeds.
Erebus would have made them his funereal steeds,
Save that their proud free nature would not stoop to this.

Like those great sphinxes lounging through eternity
In noble attitudes upon the desert sand,
They gaze incuriously at nothing, calm and wise.

Their fecund loins give forth electric flashes, and
Thousands of golden particles drift ceaselessly,
Like galaxies of stars, in their mysterious eyes.

— George Dillon

Cats

The ardent lovers and the stern students
in their maturity, love equally,
the gentle, powerful cats, pride of the family,
they too feel the cold and favour indolence.

Companions of knowledge and desire
they seek the silent horrors darkness breeds,
Erebus would take them for his funeral steeds,
were they able to soften their pride.

They take as they dream the noble pose
of the great sphinxes, reclined in desolate land,
lost, it seems, in an endless doze

Their fecund loins brim with enchanting glitter,
whilst their haunting eyes at random flicker
with particles of gold, like fine sand.

— Claire Trevien

Cats

Both ardent lovers and austere scholars
Love in their mature years
The strong and gentle cats, pride of the house,
Who like them are sedentary and sensitive to cold.

Friends of learning and sensual pleasure,
They seek the silence and the horror of darkness;
Erebus would have used them as his gloomy steeds:
If their pride could let them stoop to bondage.

When they dream, they assume the noble attitudes
Of the mighty sphinxes stretched out in solitude,
Who seem to fall into a sleep of endless dreams;

Their fertile loins are full of magic sparks,
And particles of gold, like fine grains of sand,
Spangle dimly their mystic eyes.

— William Aggeler

As you can see, many of the equivalent lines between the translations have barely a word in common. Much of the disparity stems from the translators’ desire to capture not only the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, but also something of its form: its rhyme scheme and metre, as well as, within the lines,  sound-patterns and structures of emphasis, symmetry or repetition. Poetic form isn’t the only factor in the differences, though: note, for instance, that the four translations have four different words for ‘savants’ in Baudelaire’s opening line (‘sages’, ‘philosophers’, ‘students’, ‘scholars’), but only one of these choices is determined by the rhyme (Trevien’s ‘students’/‘indolence’).

We can also see how the different translators have different priorities. Aggeler’s translation, for instance, sticks very closely to the sense of Baudelaire’s poem, translating almost word-for-word. He goes for the most accurate expression of the original meaning even where it might appear clumsy, such as translating both ‘orgueil’ and ‘fierté’ as ‘pride’, and both ‘songeant’ and ‘rêve’ as ‘dream’. In capturing the sense so faithfully, though, he has completely abandoned the form: his poem has neither rhyme nor rhythm, and no more sound-patterning within its lines than might occur by chance.

The other three all sacrifice precision of meaning to some extent in order to mimic Baudelaire’s form. Campbell recreates Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme beautifully, but at the cost of a few deviations from Baudelaire’s meaning and a couple of awkward moments: rather than ‘sable fin’ (fine sand), the gold flecks in cats’ eyes are now ‘shingle’ (basically, pebbles), and Baudelaire’s final image of cats’ eyes is rather let down by the tacked-on ‘as they glance’ Campbell needs to rhyme with ‘trance’ in an earlier line.

Dillon goes even further in imitating the form. His poem not only recreates the rhyme scheme, it also retains Baudelaire’s twelve syllables per line. Not surprisingly, his poem ends up furthest from Baudelaire’s original sense and imagery. In particular, he seems to have been left with a bunch of unused syllables in each stanza, which he’s filled up with little additions of his own invention here and there, like ‘where temptation breeds’, ‘upon the desert sand’, or ‘galaxies of stars’.

Trevien strikes a good compromise between all these positions.Her lines drift in and out of traditional English iambic pentameter, and her rhyme scheme drifts between full rhymes (‘breeds’/‘steeds’) and half-rhymes (‘glitter’/‘flicker’). This loosening of the straitjacket of versification allows her to capture Baudelaire’s meaning and images more closely than the other rhyme-and-rhythm translators. A little reshuffling and a touch of artistic licence take her further from the sense of the poem than Aggeler’s version, but at least in Trevien’s, unlike Aggeler’s, you can still see that the poem is a traditional sonnet.

Trevien is my favourite, but my point is that, in literary translation, not only can we not answer the question, ‘Which is the correct translation?’, we can’t even answer the question ‘Which is the best translation?’ without a heavy dose of personal taste in the evaluation. Each of the translations manages to capture some aspects of Baudelaire’s original poem, and sacrifices other aspects in order to do so. There’s no objective measure of which aspects are the important ones. The process is so fraught with difficult decisions that another of Baudelaire’s translators, Clive Scott, managed to write a whole book about the agonizing trade-offs involved.

To finish, my friend Mike Metcalf reminds me that there’s another translation of Baudelaire’s Les Chats, by the French writer Georges Perec and included in his novel, La Disparition. Perec translates the poem from French into… French, but a very particular variety of French. If you haven’t heard of this extraordinary novel, then I’ll tell you about it (and its equally extraordinary English translation, A Void) in a later post, but hold off googling it for now until you’ve had a good look at the poem below and tried to work out what Perec has done. The trick is simple to grasp, but oh so difficult to pull off. Over to Perec:

Nos chats

Amants brûlants d’amour, Savants aux pouls glaciaux
Nous aimons tout autant dans nos saisons du jour
Nos chats puissants mais doux, honorant nos tripots
Qui, sans nous, ont trop froid, nonobstant nos amours.

Ami du Gai Savoir, ami du doux plaisir
Un chat va sans un bruit dans un coin tout obscur
Oh Styx, tu l’aurais pris pour ton poulain futur
Si tu avais, Pluton, aux Sclavons pu l’offrir!

Il a, tout vacillant, la station d’un hautain
Mais grand sphinx somnolant au fond du Sahara
Qui paraît s’assoupir dans un oubli sans fin:

Son dos frôlant produit un influx angora
Ainsi qu’un gros diamant pur, l’or surgit, scintillant
Dans son voir nictitant divin, puis triomphant.

Bookshelf Film Club: The Class (Entre les murs)

Entre-les-murs_portrait_w858

François Bégaudeau was a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in an area that had been designated a ‘zone d’éducation prioritaire’ due to its social problems and low-achieving students. He then wrote a novel about his experiences, called Entre les murs (Within the walls). He then, with the director Laurent Cantet, adapted his novel into a screenplay for a film. He then played the starring role in Cantet’s film as ‘François’, a young teacher of French language and literature at a school in north-east Paris, in a… well, you get the idea. The film was a huge success, and won the 2008 Palme d’or at the Cannes film festival, and it’s easy to see why. Bégaudeau clearly knows what he’s talking about, and it’s rare to see a film set in a school that rings as true as this one. Bégaudeau’s teacher shows a passion for bringing out his students’ potential, but also shows the frustrations involved in having to teach French versification or the use of the imperfect subjunctive to a bunch of not always interested and often rowdy teenagers. He’s also not afraid to show his character making mistakes. The film’s turning point comes after the class’s delegates to School Council, Louise and Esmerelda, have giggled and whispered their way through a staff meeting, then promptly relayed all the sensitive information discussed by the teachers to the rest of the class, including all the grades people are due to receive at the end of the term, and the fact that François described one pupil in particular as ‘limited’ intellectually. The following day, as the class grows increasingly hostile towards him, François loses his cool and inappropriately accuses the two delegates of having behaved like ‘pétasses’, a word which makes the whole class erupt and will have consequences through the rest of the film.

I use this scene from the film in my fourth-year Advanced Translation seminars, where we always spend a good few minutes merrily discussing what exactly the teacher has called his students. When he is forced to defend himself later in the film, he claims that a ‘pétasse’ is ‘une fille pas maligne qui ricane bêtement’ (‘a girl who’s not too bright and giggles stupidly’). His students insist that it means a prostitute. I shall leave you to discover how the dispute is resolved. The word obviously causes trouble for the people doing the subtitles too, who have to come up with a term in English that can fit both meanings. The UK DVD release opts for ‘slut’, which strikes me as being rather more offensive and less ambiguous than the original. Or at least it did, until I discovered recently that for some people in this country it simply means ‘someone who doesn’t clean behind their fridge’.

The performances in the film are extraordinary – especially from the teenagers who play the pupils, who never once look like they’re acting a part – and the film is hilarious, gripping and moving. Sean Penn called it a ‘perfect movie’ when he awarded it the Palme d’or, and I notice that it also received a five-star review from Heat magazine. When the Cannes film festival and Heat agree on a film, it surely must be something special.  I recommend you see it straight away. (It’s available here, or to rent on Lovefilm, Netflix and the like.) Also, it offers good ammunition should you later find yourself at university required to learn the forms and usage of the imperfect subjunctive. The French kids have never heard of it either.

 

posted by Simon Kemp

Harry Potter and the Translator’s Headache

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posted by Simon Kemp

From the fourth Harry Potter book onwards, once the saga’s French translator, Jean-François Ménard, was most definitely not translating the work of a little-known British children’s author any more, his working routine was the same. The publisher’s paranoia about plot leaks meant that translators were refused advance access to the English original. Ménard’s copy arrived on the day of publication of the English-language version. Two months later he would be expected to present the publishers with the French text to be rushed into print for millions of impatient francophone readers. Every day of those two months would be spent translating  J. K. Rowling’s prose, starting at 6 a.m. and finishing at midnight, barring a long lunch-break to refresh his brain and a weekly trip to the physiotherapist to ward off writer’s cramp.

Translating Harry Potter presents unusual challenges. What to do with the latiny riddle-language of Rowling’s spells, which allows English-speaking readers to work out that wingardium leviosa implies ‘wings’ and ‘levitation’, or that the cruciatus curse will bring excruciating pain? What to do with the names of people and places, with their hidden jokes and clues? Let’s take a look at a few, so that we can appreciate what Ménard was up against. In the original, Hogwarts school is divided into the four houses, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. In Ménard’s translation, L’École de Poudlard (‘Poux-de-lard’, or ‘bacon lice’) is divided into Gryffondor (‘Gryffon d’or’, or ‘golden griffin’), Serdaigle (‘serre d’aigle’, or ‘eagle talon’), Poufsouffle (which suggests ‘à bout de souffle’, or ‘out of puff’) and Serpentard (which contains the word serpent, meaning snake). Some are quite different, presumably because literal translations of Hogwarts (‘verrues de porc’) and Ravenclaw (‘serre de corbeau’) are not as mellifluous, or as funny-sounding, in French as in English. A little of the subtlety is lost from Slytherin, who are now bluntly linked to snakes, and even the name which stays the same, Gryffindor/Gryffondor, is different, since the French allusion in the original becomes a straightforward label in the translation.

The characters become an exotic mix of French and English names, with Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione and Ron remaining unchanged, but now finding themselves sharing classrooms with Neville Londubat (‘long-du-bas’, or ‘long-in-the-bottom’), Severus Rogue (‘haughty’), and Olivier Dubois, who has to be repatriated from his original identity as Oliver Wood to accommodate a gag about Professor McGonagall needing to ‘borrow Wood’, which Harry misunderstands as an implement for punishment. This oddly franco-British establishment becomes odder still with the introduction of an actual French school of witchcraft, Beauxbatons, in the fourth book, leaving us wondering why the French-named students enrolled in Scotland. And talking of French names, Rowling’s own liberal use of them gives the translator an extra headache. Fleur Delacour may sound sophisticated to English ears, but to a French reader it means the rather more ordinary-sounding Yard Flower. Similarly, Voldemort transforms from a figure of fear and mystery to a comic-book villain when his name simply means ‘Deathflight’ (or ‘Death-theft’) to the reader of the translation.

And it would not escape the notice of the French audience that a surprising number of Rowling’s bad guys have French names, such as Malfoy or Lestrange. Rowling perhaps meant them to sound like ancient, aristocratic Anglo-norman families. French readers who missed the implication might have felt a little hurt. In a project fraught with difficulty, and scattered with no-win situations pitting sound against sense, or humour against consistency, Ménard pulls off a sterling job seven times in succession. I wonder how many French readers realize just how much Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers and its sequels owe, not just to J. K. Rowling, but to J.-F. Ménard as well?