The Art of Translation
by Cecilee Linke
There I was standing in a tiny bookstore on a sunny and breezy March afternoon in the city of Tours, France. I only had a few weeks left before I would be returning home to the United States after a three-month stay and I was on the hunt for some easy-to-read French-language literature.
In my search, a book title caught my eye. Just one word: Dominique. Underneath was a name that I had not heard before. Eugène Fromentin. I picked the book off the shelf and began reading the first page. I must have stood there reading the rest of the chapter for about five minutes before I became so engrossed in the story that I needed to have this book. For only five euros, why not?
The more I read in this story, the more I wanted to know about this book. First I asked my French host family if they had ever heard of this novel. The answer was no. Then a Google search gave me some results on Eugène Fromentin as a painter, but not much about him as a writer. Then I found out that Dominique had only ever been translated once into English and that translation was done in the 1940s by a Sir Edward Marsh.
So I had unknowingly stumbled into a piece of obscure French literature. It made me sad indeed because despite its literary flaws such as the unreliable narrator and his very strange state of mind, the writing was absolutely beautiful and unless this book were brought to the attention of more people, Dominique would forever be an obscure relic of 19th-century literature. So once I finished the story almost a year later, I set myself a huge task: translating this 1862 novel into English.
I am by no means a professional translator and what I do know is from trial and error. The experience of translating Dominique was eye-opening. Not only did this endeavor help to deepen my knowledge of the French language, but also I felt extremely accomplished with every chapter that I completed. Before I decided to translate this novel, I had only ever translated short stories or French-language pop songs for my friends. Translating an 80,000+ word novel is a different beast indeed! It took me two years of work to take Fromentin’s words and writing style and convey them in a cohesive way in English.
Looking back on those two years that I spent translating this novel, I can tell you now that translating a written work into another language is not as easy as you might think it is. It is not as simple as putting text into Google Translate and watching the result pop up two seconds later. Language is a human development full of nuances that machines can and will never get completely right. There really is an art to it. You are putting another person’s words into your mouth so that someone who does not speak the original language of that work can understand the story. In the end, it becomes a rewarding experience because you have introduced a reader to a previously unknown work that would have otherwise remained obscure due to language barriers.
However, it takes some practice to really get it right, like any other writing. I cannot tell you how many drafts I completed while translating this book. Fromentin used such rich vocabulary that it took me a half hour to come up with a clear and concise way of saying a short paragraph in English. I could understand exactly what Fromentin was trying to say in the original French, but putting it in a comprehensible way in English took some time. I had to read the passage aloud to hear how it sounded and I constantly asked my husband whether a sentence I had translated sounded good to him. It really helps having someone else who can read your work and edit it, just like you would with your own writing.
In the end, I believe that the hardest part of translating is trying to convey the tone of the original work in a way that will make sense to the reader in a new language. French sentence structure like the kind that I encountered inDominique can come across as extremely formal when translated word for word into English. When reading some of Sir Edward Marsh’s 1940s English translation of Dominique, I was put off by the stiff way that he had translated the story. It was obvious that he was sticking very close to the formality of the original text. So not much of his writing sounded very good to my modern ears.
When translating this work, I wanted the language to be formal but also easier to read for modern readers. I wanted the reader to get a sense of the formality of the time but in a way that they could more easily comprehend. I wanted to use fewer big words that most people would not know and I also broke up the three-page-long paragraphs that littered the original French text.
Something else to keep in mind when translating a work is to not put too much of your own style into the writing. That can be a tricky balance. This is why it helps to have someone else read your work so they can tell you if you are making the work too much like something you yourself could have written. The most prominent example of this is the works of Jules Verne, the father of science fiction. The works of Jules Verne were so poorly translated into English by people who put their own political bents into his work or even excised whole passages that the translators did not like, that he is only now receiving the acclaim in the English-speaking world that he should have had during his lifetime.
Some people say that translations are only a shadow of the original work. In fact, there is a famous Italian proverb Traduttore, traditore. Translator, traitor. I do not agree. It all depends on who is translating. If it is someone who is doing their job, which is to properly convey a story in a new language while keeping the original style and making it easy to read for others, then I think that a translation can sit alongside the original just as well. It is a form of literature like anything else.