Who Shapes la langue française?

Last night I attended a group reading at Alwan for the Arts featuring francophone Algerian poet and translator Samira Negrouche, who presented her beautiful poems along with translations mainly by Martin Sorrell but also by Barbara Ungar with Beth DellaRocco and Stuart Bartow. (Negrouche will be reading again this Sunday afternoon at the Bowery Poetry Club, so if you’re free at 2:00 p.m., I highly recommend you stop by.) In the post-reading discussion, the question of translations-by-translators versus translations-by-poets came up. Negrouche drew a strict distinction between the two and was clearly convinced that translators approach texts only “academically and analytically,” whereas translator-poets enjoy writerly freedoms in their approach to their translations. After some confused discussion, poet and translator Anna Moschovakis (who had just read gorgeous work: an essay on difficulties with approaching the foreign and a long poem) was able to sort things out helpfully by pointing out that the activity of translation is professionalized in France to the extent that many (though not all) translators who wind up translating literature are also – and above all – translators of legal, business and other non-literary texts. I was surprised to hear this, since I do know a number of very literary literary translators working in French, but Negrouche confirmed Anna’s point. And this attitude toward translation in the francophone sphere (well, in France in particular) is powerfully backed up by an article just published by Bernard Hoepffner in the May 27 Times Literary Supplement entitled “Proxy Literature.” Hoepffner, a literary translator into French, describes his adventures in the worlds of French and English dictionaries. It turns out that English-language dictionaries, above all the Oxford English Dictionary, quote translations as examples of usage far more liberally than their French counterparts (Grand Robert, Trésor de la Langue Française, etc.) Hoepffner notes, for example, that “The OED cites Rabelais more than 2,000 times in Urquhart’s translation (1693)” and “Montaigne (903 times) enters English only eleven years after his death,” including with the lovely word “abecedarian” coined by his translator John Florio. Even my hero Barbara Wright shows up with some coinages from her pioneering translations of Raymond Queneau. The great French dictionaries, on the other hand, are largely silent on the subject of words and usages contributed by even the greatest French translators unless they also happen to be prominent as authors. This lexicographically enforced invisibility of the translator is particularly ironic given the relative numbers of translations into English and French: in English, only about 3% of books published in a given year are translations, while in French the figure hovers around 30%. What’s more, reviews of translated French books do not mention (much less discuss) the merits of the translation nearly as often as reviews in the English-speaking world, which many of us already find on average woefully inadequate. Hoepffner’s essay is a call both to the French literary world to open its eyes to the contributions of its translators, and also to the translators themselves to remember who they are and what their calling is: as Hoepffner admirably remarks, referencing the Schleiermacher-influenced French translation theorist Antoine Berman, “Translators should never forget that, despite their constitutive invisibility, their task is also to alter the complexion of their language for its own good.”

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  1. Philip S says:

    The best translators, in my experience, are writers in their own right (no pun intended). They understand the importance of voice, can hear it in the original text and are able to reinvent it in their (usually) native language. It’s a talent I hugely admire, and slightly envy.

  2. BernardH says:

    I was very surprised by the comment that most French literary translators made a living translating legal or technical texts. Most translators I know translate literature. It so happens that France is one of the few countries where it is possible to make a living from literary translation.
    Bernard Hoepffner

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