Tag Archives: translation


Delighted t’other day to stumble across this letter from the Times, sent to me once by a friend:

Some years back I dated an American who was a graduate student at the Sorbonne. When in France, he would try to improve his conversation skills by attending American movies with French subtitles.

One, a Western, featured a cavalry officer and his men charging up a hill where the Indians and their chief waited silently. The officer greeted the chief who raised his hand and said: “How!” This was translated in the subtitles as “Enchant√©”.

Ooh la la la difference

When you read War & Peace, you’re reading War & Peace, right? Well der. Except, you’re not, quite. What you’re reading is someone’s *take* on Tolstoy’s famous novel, not ‘the thing itself’ – not unless you’re reading it in Russian.

A fellow book clubber was telling us last night about an event she’d been to, in which two translators, modded by a third, were discussing the challenges of their trade. They took for an example, Camus’s L’Etranger. French > English, pretty straightforward, no?

Well, no. The problems begin before even p1. What do you call it? The Stranger? That’s not quite right. The Outsider? That’s not quite right either. But you have to go for one or other of those options; most plump for the latter, though it’s ‘not quite right’. And it’s been widely published as The Stranger too.

And that’s just the damn title!

Ok, moving on, sentence one: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte.”

Well? Do you start your translation with ‘Today’? English sentences seldom start with that word. Consequently, it sounds kind of arch, consciously ‘literary’, which is almost diametrically opposed to the deliberate banality of the original. Put that to one side, while we consider ‘Maman’? Do you go for ‘Mother’ (surely more stiff and formal than the feel of the original)? Or ‘Mum’ (surely if anything even more grotesquely wrong, for quite the opposite reason).

Still, once you’ve decided, that’s the title and two words safely banked. Only 100-odd pages to go…