Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Coming together.

It seems to be at a bit of a standstill. I'm not doing any actual work on the novel right now. I have a date with a friend, the fabulous Anouck Vigneault, to hash out some French-language expressions that I'm not sure about, and then I'll be sending out some copies to friends and relatives, asking them to be on editing duty, looking for... well, for badness. Poor wording, I guess, and incomprehensible passages and bad writing. I'm going to try and make it clear that there's only so much I can do, being only a translator. Even after staring at it for several months, I still find the text pretty lovely. However, that's not to say that everyone will.

On to the problem of the day:

Devanture. As in "Le restaurant du Vietnamien a une devanture tapisée d'affiches de cinéma."
A few examples (I couldn't find any examples that actually had movie posters...):

So does devanture mean that the actual windows of the restaurant are covered? That seems odd, I associate papered-over windows with a location that is either for rent and looking for a commercial tenant, or else just leased but not yet open, being prepared for a grand opening. Not with a restaurant that is open for business. Although this place in the novel is a rather shady operation, run by a drug dealer and with a clandestine poker table in the back, so maybe...?

Liam est peintre à temps perdu.
I know that "à temps perdu" is a French cultural thing, but I don't know what it means.
An example of its use: This photo is a still from Sergio Leone's film Once Upon a Time in America, described by British paper the Independent as "A Temps Perdue of the Jewish American underworld."

So. Peintre à temps perdu. A painter from a forgotten age?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quebecois soap operas?

I know that I'm not really up to snuff when it comes to Quebecois cultural references. I know some rad pop culture stuff... there's Têtes à claques...
Here's an English-language version here. (Who knew that there was English Têtes à Claques? The internet has everything!) And everyone tells me that I should check out Arianne Moffatt because "she'd be right up my alley", whatever that means. But generally, when someone is talking about Quebec public figures, I'm like "uh... who?" And that's why, when I came across this part, I didn't really know what to think.

Je crois maintenant que nous n'avons que les débuts sur lesquels compter. Quelque cinq ans au plus avant que je me fixe devant la télé pour écouter religieusement les téléromans du Bas-du-Fleuve sans décors extérieurs, feignant de ne pas l'entendre m'adresser la parole. 

Loosely:  I now believe that the only things we can count on are beginnings. So there's maybe five more years maximum before I find myself sitting in front of the TV watching Bas-du-fleuve soaps with no outside shots and pretending not to hear when he talks to me.

So now I'm sort of learning about a whole new form of entertainment, the Quebecois soap. Of course there are Quebec soap operas! Why didn't I know about this before? But what does it mean "sans décors extérieurs"? Why specify that? Does it give a certain impression about the show that I'm not picking up on?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rough draft finished!

It's amazing how nice it feels to be done a rough draft of the novel!

Equally amazing, however, is the impression that I'm nowhere near finishing it... Next comes the rereads and the rewrites and the edits. I'm already part way through my first edit, or my second draft, or whatever. My main concern in this draft is the actual parts of the text that I don't understand. And because my mother tongue is English, a lot of this has to do with French turns of phrase or expressions or slang words I don't know. So please, anyone, fill me in if you have any idea about the following:

On dit qu'il est pingre car c'est un "ramasseux", les gens huppés qui colonisent la region au sud de la rivière Diable, au volant de leurs Porche Cayenne, diraient un wabo.

They say he’s tight-fisted because he’s a hoarder. The upper-class Porche Cayenne-driving people that colonize the south shore of Diable River would call him a wabo.

I've never heard that word before in my life. The only thing I can find on the Internet is that Van Halen song called Cabo Wabo... Here's a hilarious commercial from 1989 featuring those ridiculous men.

And then some of the problems I'm running into have nothing to do with language.  At one point, Philippe is up on the roof en train de galvaniser un trou = galvanizing a hole. Now, our friend Wikipedia says that galvanization is "the process of applying a protective metallic coating to an underlying piece of metal, in order to prevent rusting." As Philippe is up there galvanizing, the cops drive by and he tenses up, he's terrified that he's been found out for his huge opium processing venture. His eyelids contract with fear and he starts blinking excessively, but il continue à clouer. He keeps hammering. Or nailing. Or whatever. But the thing is - and forgive me if this is a ridiculous question, perhaps it makes perfect sense for him do be doing this, and if so, please enlighten me, but - why would he be swinging a hammer at all? 

PS - Check out this comic on Mox's blog... inspired by yours truly. The "autopsy reports" were really a course pack for an embalming course at a technical college... yuck!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The dictionary of rare and obscure words.

A somewhat similar issue as the previous one. Not translating a pun, but rather a rare word from French to English. Émile, in love with a vicar, is paging through her Dictionary of Rare and Precious Words (her Dictionnaire des mots rares et précieux, although in English maybe précieux should be 'obscure'? Or 'unusual'?) and there finds les plus beaux mots du monde:

abstème: (n.) a priest who is exempted from drinking from the chalice because of an acute aversion to wine.

oblatif(ve): (adj.) placing the needs of others before one's own.

I'm not sure an English equivalent exists for the first, but there is the adjective 'abstemious', meaning "not self-indulgent, esp. when eating and drinking." It loses the religious aspect, though, which is sort of important here. The second might be best translated as 'agape'. In the Deus Caritas Est, a document written by the current Pope Benedict XVI, the distinction is made between possessive love (Eros) and unconditional, self-sacrificing love (Agape). But... is agape a rare/obscure word? Maybe not so much, with over 17 million hits on the trusty old Goog. Any other ideas?


Monday, July 11, 2011

How to translate a pun

I can only imagine the agony of the translator who elects to translate a poem. The sound of the words is a huge factor in a lot of poetry, and that just can't be recreated without a lot of thought, if it is, indeed, possible at all.  I have a bit of a problem of a similar ilk. Anouk finds out the name of her husband's mistress: Sophie Zalewski.

Elle est polonaise d'origine et ma mère déforme son nom, en fait des calembours: Zalou, Zoulou, Zouzou, Zaza.
Now, I don't even know if "Zalou" means anything, other than referring to Zalewski. But.

Zoulou = Zulu

Zouzou was the name of an iconic French supermodel of the 60s and 70s.

Zaza?? I've heard that it may be the feminine version of "zizi" which is a child's diminutive for male genitals (like "weenie" or "willy"... I don't even know if there is common English diminutive for a lady's bits... "coochy-coo"? "hoo-ha"? I know my parents told me it was a "suzy", which is weird, because I now know at least 3 or 4 women named Suzy, and it makes me laugh.)

So. Whatever. Anything goes. I can even probably change the original name to make the rhyming words better, but if I go with Zalewski: "Zaloo, zulu, little rabbit foo-foo, go and take a poo poo..."

I dunno. Any suggestions?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Swimming laps in the lake; everything-proof.

Sometimes I come across parts in this book where I am not sure whether the problem is that I just don't get it, or whether it's actually an editing oversight... For example, there's a part where Anouk, the protagonist's mother, sends a private eye after Philippe, her husband, to find out who his mistress is. The guy reports back to her, bringing news of what the mistress likes to eat for breakfast, what she plants in her front yard, that elle nage trente-quatre longeurs au crawl le samedi matin dans le lac Creux, and that she loves Philippe. That's all fine and good, but is she really swimming back and forth across the lake 34 times? Or is this a bit of a logistical error? I know that there are such things as built-in pools in natural settings, like this:
This one is close to Sydney, Australia, where you can swim laps right in the ocean. But somehow I doubt that there would be this kind of set-up in middle-of-nowhere Lac Creux, Quebec. Or she could be swimming the equivalent of 34 lengths of a 25-meter pool, which would be 850 meters... I get the feeling that this 34-length thing was added to provide detail, adding a sense of the banality of life as a married man's lover. But the two details (the lake and the number of lengths) just don't jive for me. Can anyone enlighten me?

Another question: what does  "à l'épreuve de tout" mean? I know that:
à l'épreuve du feu             =       fireproof
à l'épreuve des balles       =        bulletproof
So is the above expression "everything-proof"? and how would that be rendered idiomatically? "Ready for anything"? Any better ideas? Here's the context. Émile, the protagonist, has recently been invited to go en voyage with Liam, meaning that her main goal, to get the heck out of dodge, is soon going to be met. That night, her friend proposes that they go on a little vigilante-justice adventure, which may end up being dangerous. But Émile's like, "I don't really want to go, but I'll do it anyways... Finally, I'm going to Tangier. Je suis donc à l'épreuve de tout."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mother vs. mom, liqueur vs. bitters, Polynesia vs. China.

I've sort of been powering through over the last couple weeks and have almost completed a rough draft of the novel... which just seems sort of surreal, really. Sort of, "I can't believe I'm getting the opportunity to do this."

So. The last part of the book is a bit surreal, also, about this adolescent girl watching her parents' marriage crumble and not really reacting to it in any way that indicates emotional attachment. It's almost like she's watching this happen to someone else's family, except for that she calls them 'mother' and 'father.' Which, by the way, is maybe a bit weird. Does anyone call their parents mother and father? In the French text, it's 'ma mère' and 'mon père,' which are words that can be construed as either formal or informal as the case may be, where as the words 'mother' and 'father' bring to mind a repressive British upbringing involving parents who don't spare the rod and a father who demands to be addressed as 'Sir.' So, should she be calling them 'my mom' and 'my dad' instead? It's a tough call, because there is an emotional distance between them... maybe that's a question that I'd like to ask the author.

Anyways. Two questions about alcohol.
1.  At one point, there is a party going on and the host has made alcool d'épluchures de fruits, or fruit-peel alcohol. The recipe came from a friend, who learned it while he was doing hard time... So is this best left as is (fruit-peel alcohol)? Or can I call it something more poetic, like fruit-peel brandy, or fruit-peel liqueur?

2. Liam, the protagonist's mentor, has a liquor cabinet and, upon the arrival of a friend, breaks out the alcool aux petites oranges amères. This, literally, is "small bitter orange alcohol." I'd like to just call it "orange bitters," but am not quite sure what a "bitter" is in terms on alcohol. Also, it is possible that this is referring to a Curaçao, which is a type of liqueur made from bitter oranges. I think that this is more likely... anyone want to weigh in? What would you bring out a bottle of for a long night of philosophical discussion with a friend?

Also. In the novel, the protagonist and her family go to a Polynesian buffet called "Jardin Tiki" in Ste-Agathe. The cuisine is described as Chinese, all the cooks are Chinese, and it seems like a Great Buffet of China sort of place and it occurred to me that... hey. China isn't in Polynesia.

Ther are a lot of places that are in Polynesia, but China isn't one of them. So I was looking around the Schminternet at all things Tiki, and lo and behold, there is actually a Jardin Tiki in Montreal, close to the Olympic Stadium. The reviews say that the food is predominantly Chinese, not Hawaiian or Samoan or Cook-Island-ese. So maybe Vincelette was inspired by a visit to the Tiki? To any and all who may be tempted, the reviews add that the food is nothing to write home about - pretty atrocious really - but the key is to go there and drink lots and lots.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Pop quiz: What is Toile de Jouy?

Aaaack! There are so many things that I don't know about in the world! Like Toile de Jouy. Do normal people know what this is? Do normal French-speaking people know? This is what it is:

Or this:
My god. Would you sleep in a room that looks like this? But anyways. Is it common knowledge, that this is Toile de Jouy? To me, what it looks like is Delft Blue patterns but in a fabric print version rather than on ceramics. In the novel, there is repeated mention of a Toile de Jouy sofa (by the way, who uses the word sofa? Doesn't everyone say couch?), and I want to be as accurate as I can to the text, but would talking about a Toile de Jouy sofa just make people scratch their heads? Does it matter? I could even go so far as to translate it as damask... would that be falsifying? They look basically the same (to my undiscerning eyes)!

Also. In reference to an octogenarian internet user, the novel talks about her typing on the keyboard "comme sur son engin de sténographie." What the heck? At first, I thought it was talking about a typewriter. But no... stenography, apparently a lost art. This is a whole world that I know nothing about. Are stenotype machines still used? I founds some photos of old ones:

OK. Pop quiz: who is the Count de Saint-Germain? If I was to tell you about an advertisement for Count Saint-Germain elixir, would you know that I'm talking about a potion that gives the drinker eternal life? Count Saint-Germain was a German guy who apparently discovered the secret to eternal life. Is this something that I should explain? Or let people figure out for themselves if they so desire?

The problem with leaving things up to chance like that is that I, personally, am not the kind of person who will go look up an obscure reference from a novel I'm reading. I will let it slide, and try to understand what's going on via context... and because I am this way, I feel like everyone else is as well. And although I understand that the narrator of this novel is trying to be obscure in order to prove how erudite she is, I also feel like it's necessary to make sure that the reader knows what she's talking about. Is this not true?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Forgive me, Internet, for I have sinned;

It has been two weeks since my last post. I said I would never leave it that long...

Speaking of Catholicism: despite the Quiet Revolution and despite all the Quebeckers who fiercely reject the religion as an evil, repressive and authoritarian force that is best left in our shady past, it's still increadibly influential as a muse for Quebecois literature. It's only more recently, with the emerging generation of atheist or at least non-practicing writers, that religion has been tossed aside as a principal subject of the national literature. But even these young writers have grown up in the shadow of the hugely glorious and desolately empty churches on the corner of practically every street, now being zoned as residential and converted to condos. (How creepy is that? I'm not sure I would feel so comfortable living in a ex-church...)

This is the one down the street from my house: Notre-dame-de-sept-douleurs

Crimes is one of those not-really-about-religion-but-still-catholic-inflected novels, with the main character falling desperately in love with the loval vicar. There's an eager confessional scene, a stealing-from-the-offering-basket scene, a plot twist involving a Mary statue crying blood, the whole nine yards.

But anyways. The question of the day. In reference to a brothel that got raided by police. It is a brothel which is situated around the corner from the courthouse, primarily frequented by lawyers and judges. Here's the phrase:
À l'intèrieur, les policiers ont repandu de l'eau de Javel sur les vêtements d'apparat et les souliers à talons compensés brodés de dragons de Shanghai.

What I'm wondering about is "vêtements d'apparat". I think that it means something like "ceremonial garb" or "ceremonial clothing" but is it referring to the girl's little black dresses that they wore as the uniform of their trade (ceremonial garb?), or does it mean the clothing the  judges may have been left behind as they tried to escape the crackdown? I mean, I think that it means the girls clothing, but does that make sense in this context?


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The all-important Canada Council Grant

It was requested of me to post about the process of getting a grant. Well, here's what I know: with a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, you can get paid up to 18 cents/word for literary translation. Without, it may be half that, or less. But there are some pretty stringent rules surrounding these grants, specifically on the subject of who can apply for them. Briefly: as an author or translator, you may not apply for a grant. Coincidentally, usually as a translator you may not negotiate for the English-language rights for a French book from the book's publisher. I knew this when I set out, so I didn't try to negotiate with Leméac, I just contacted them to make sure that the English-language rights were still available, and they said something along the lines of "yes, but don't you come 'round here asking about them 'til you get yourself a publisher!"

Here are the criteria that the grant applicant must fit into. You can get an "emerging publisher" grant, or just a standard "block grant," but even the emerging publisher grant is only for publishers who have published between 4 and 15 books. So it's not like you can choose to self-publish and apply for this grant... unless you've already published 4 books.

Here is a pretty great little summary of the Canadian literary translation scene - including a list of potential publishers - found on the website of the Literary Translators' Association of Canada.

There are also provincial grants that you can apply for, but I really don't know much about them... I've got to look into that. But this site is a good resource for grants listed by province.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cattails as truck stop grub?

So I've been working on a "real" contract (i.e. one that pays the bills) all week and have barely looked at Crimes since my last posting... such is the life of a stay-at-home mom/freelance translator: I take what I can get. However, there is no lack of translation questions to look at in this novel, so I'll post about one from a few chapters back. Here's the issue:

Ce n'est pas en travaillant chez Miss Patate, à servir des quenouilles végétariennes et des frites à manger au cure-dent, que je me sauverai et que je deviendrai un être libre.

Miss Patate is the truckstop mentioned in an earlier post. This sentence is again talking about the food served there. Now, I'm no truckstop connoisseur, but I know that truckers aren't known for eating their fries with a toothpick, nor are truckstops often celebrated for bringing locally foraged eco-foodie delicacies into into their menus. The "quenouille" is a cat-tail, which is edible and can be made delicious, or so I've heard (see recipe here), but it's not liver and onions.

roasted cattails with hollandaise sauce
The truckstops that I've experienced have been mostly Husky gas-station restaurants and the like, which are renowned for their good, fresh coffee and their stick-to-the-ribs fare (mostly burgers and the like), not for their vegetarian cattails.
But it's not just the incongruity of the food vis-a-vis the establishment that is troublesome about this sentence. Literally:

"It's not by working at Miss Patate, serving up vegetarian cat-tails and fries to eat with toothpicks, that I'm going to get out of here and become free."

Does that sound unwieldy to anyone else?

Monday, April 11, 2011

How to get yourself a publisher for your literary translation:

Know someone in the business. Ouch! I hate to admit it, but the only reason that this translation is being published is because of having friends in high places... In my defence, this is true of the work of a number of celebrated writers, including Jack Kerouac and Emily Dickinson. But here was my process: I have a translation credit on a trilogy of plays that I co-translated with Shelley Tepperman, one of my profs from Concordia.

The plays were translated by Talon Books, so I figured that if I sent them my proposal for this novel, they might pick it up because I'm already on their register. The proposal included a cover letter, my CV and a writing sample of the prologue and the first 3 chapters (which you can check out here). Just for good measure, I also sent it to Anansi, and Oberon Press and a couple others too... Imagine my dismay when, in reply to the 5 proposals I sent out, I received 4 rejection letters. There was one that hadn't replied: it was Talon Books! I kept my hopes up for a good little while, until I realized that they hadn't even bothered to get back to me.

That year, I went back to Winnipeg for Christmas, and was telling my tale of woe to my friend from junior high, and she said, "Well, why didn't you pitch it to me?" She manages a small press that belongs to her friend; it's called Loon Books. I knew that she was running this company, but I also knew that the company specialized in childrens' books, and in books tailored to teach literacy skills to aboriginal children. The other end of the spectrum from Crimes horticoles. But she's taking it on (without a doubt, she accepted it because she wanted to support me, but also because she thought it would be a cool project) and we're negotiating a contract with Leméac, the French-language publisher. Yay!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Concoctions in the thousands?

So my publisher just contacted me about a timeline, to estimate a time of delivery and subsequent publication. I think I'm about half done an extremely rough (and when I say rough, I'm talking 24-grit sandpaper rough) draft of the book. What I've been doing is going through it and doing next to no research and almost no reformulation of phrases. If something makes no sense after a literal translation, I'll try to reformulate it, but it's mostly straight-up literal translation that I'm doing, and then picking out "problem areas" that will need some time and some serious thought to get them sounding nice in English. There's usually at least one "problem area" per page... Last week I was going through it so well, things were coming together quickly and I was feeling super confident, and then I came upon Chapter 18... wham! A brick wall. The entire chapter seemed to be filled with convoluted sentences that wouldn't cooperate and wouldn't contort themselves into comprehensible English whatsoever!

Here's an example:
Les préparations que mon père souhaite concocter dans ses mortiers industriels en inox sont millénaires.

Which is literally translated into: "The preparations that my father wishes to concoct in his industrial stainless steel mortars are in the thousands."

Good grief! what the heck do I do with that? Préparations is referring to concoctions (mixtures?) of opium from the poppies that he grows. An anglophone would never call it a preparation... but what would we call it? And mortar in English is hardly ever used without it's colocution, pestle. I doubt it would be confused with it's homonym in the domain of masonry, but would it be understood? And what the heck do I do with millénaires?

stainless steel mortar (and pestle!)

unprocessed opium

So after I finish this rough copy, I'm going to have to go through it with a fine-toothed comb -- probably many, many times -- reading it for style and comprehension and formulations that sound "too French." I've got a couple Francophone friends who have said that they would help me go over the "problem areas." So it should be done by - I dunno - next spring? I don't think that's too optimistic.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mémé Tartine

When I was little, both sets of my grandparents were called Grandpa and Grandma. But my great-grandparents were Opa and Oma, and I had a Baba, too. I've always been a bit fascinated by people who have a Poppy and Gran, or a Gigi or a Nona or a Yeye. It's only in my adult life that I met someone with a Mémé, which is, apparently, what every Franco-Quebecois person calls their Grandma. (What can I say, I grew up in the Canadian prairies.) And now that I'm in Montreal, I hear it everywhere; there's even a little cafe down the street called "Mémé Tartine."

What I'm getting at is that I would imagine that many Anglos would not even know that the word Mémé is equivalent to "Gran." In Crimes horticoles, there's a lady called Mémé, but it never really explicitly says that she's the protagonist's grandmother. It would be clear to any Francophone, but if I left her as Mémé, maybe an English-speaking reader wouldn't pick that up.

I see a parallel in Michel Tremblay's The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, (yes, I know, I refer to it a lot: I just really like that book!) where there's a character named "Ti-Lou." I got halfway through the novel, thinking that it was just a very original name, before I realized that it really meant "Petit Lou."

So maybe I could call her Gran or some such equivalent, or else call her Mémé and just add a little note that she's her Grandma?

Monday, March 21, 2011

To translate or not to translate

Something that has always baffled me about languages and translation is the general inclination to translate place names. There are some places that stay the same in every language - Canada stays Canada no matter what language you're speaking - and some translations of places make a bit of sense, like calling the United States "les États-Unis" or the United Kingdom "le Royaume-Uni." However, why in the world have the French decided that it is necessary to call London "Londres?" Why does Mexico morph into "Le Mexique?" And it's not just French; all languages are guilty of this kind of appropriation of place. Why, for example, do we Anglos call Firenze "Florence," for pete's sake? Why don't we just leave it alone?

One of the big dilemmas I have in translating this novel is deciding when I should just let well enough alone. There are so many instances where I think I should translate something, but could just as easily leave it in French and that would be okay too... Some of the notable examples are the titles of paintings.
This is La Mort de Marat by Jacques-Louis David.
This one is Le Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore Géricault.
And this one, L'Origine du monde by Gustave Courbet.
These are by French guys who painted them in the 18th and 19th centuries. They're all pretty famous, and so they have generally accepted translations of their titles (The Death of Marat, The Raft of the Medusa, The Origin of the World), but they are paintings that are sort of household names that many Francos would recognize immediately, just as we Anglos would recognize references to paintings like The Lady of Shalott or maybe American Gothic. Is it necessary to translate them? Does it matter? Would it make the text more or less accessible? I think that for the Anglos who, when reading the English translation, would get the reference, they would understand the titles in French, and if I translated them, it might even be less comprehensible. But the main issue is maybe less about whether the references will be understood than about the aesthetic of the thing: I sort of want to leave them in French just beacause it sounds cooler, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Coming of age.

The thing that I love about good novels with child protagonists is when the author has the capacity to express the depth of knowledge that children have for some things, and the obvious gaps in knowledge that are only filled with experience. Especially when they're written in the first person, novels that use this device come across as so... I don't know... so true.

I have to say that when books have been foisted on me they make much less of an impression on me than when I choose to pick them up. This is unfortunately the case with the much-acclaimed Catcher in the Rye, reputed to be the epitome of the coming-of-age novel, which I read in high school and no longer remember anything about, other than it leaving me with a vague sense of distaste. But others - like Ian McEwan's Atonement and Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness - have that depth-of-knowledge-but-lack-of-emotional-maturity balance happening in them that just floor me.

Crimes horticoles is sort of the same way: Emile, the protagonist, is home-schooled by a well-travelled adventurer Frenchman and is obviously highly knowledgeable in some domains. The novel is in the first person, and Emile's voice is screaming "listen to me, I know big fancy words!" to such an extent that I'm sometimes tempted to explain the references to quattro-cento painters and the Chiaroscuro technique in parentheses, and sometimes I just want to go and give her a good shake for using "Gastropod" over the more accessible "snail."

But that's the 12-year-old in her coming out, isn't it? And it's the writer in me who's read Strunk and White and who admires clarity and concision and comprehensibility over fancy words, going slightly nuts over Emile's loquaciousness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Researching opium

One of the benefits of being a freelance translator is that you don't really get bored. And yes! I am a freelance translator. They say that you shouldn't get into literary translation until you're independently wealthy, and can't say that I fill that criterion... So I take contracts from anyone who will pay me a decent rate, and because of this I end up translating everything from top-secret corporate documents to government grant applications to pedagogical materials. Suffice it to say, I end up doing a lot of research, and learning about lots and lots of different things. And now, there's Crimes horticoles. And I seem to be finding out a lot about poppy tea.

Opiates have long held a fascination for me. Maybe it's because of the movie From Hell, which I saw at a young, impressionable age, in which Johnny Depp's character disappears for days into opium dens. It's not necessarily his finest hour in terms of acting, but I remember the scene of him emerging from the den: groggy, irresistibly handsome, and as though he has been to some place beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

In Crimes horticoles, the protagonist's mother drinks poppy tea every morning, and the book describes at length how she prepares it, as well as its effects. The mother drinks it herself, but also serves it to her clients as a way to ensure customer loyalty: they can't stop coming to her if they're addicted. It's actually a pretty good step-by-step guide, talking about the types and the parts of flower to use, when to harvest, etc. I would be tempted to try it were it not for the life-eating reputation that opiates have, reiterated by the protagonist: "Liam tells me never to drink this tea."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Because really, it WASN'T written in English

I think one of the things that makes me nervous about this project is the complete lack of guidelines. I just have my own head, and that's it... and this is my first novel translation. I mean, more specifically, how far can I push it away from the literal translation before being accused of just making stuff up? I think that mostly I tend to err on the side of being too literal. That way, I won't offend the author and whatnot. But check out this review of a translated novel that I just read on the Globe and Mail:

In English, Rioux’s writing withstands – but at times only barely – translator Jonathan Kaplansky’s literal-minded approach which cleaves too often to the letter rather than the spirit of the original, leaving us with such awkward constructions as, “The magnitude of the task exhausts me in advance,” “antipersonnel bombs that tear to pieces innocent people,” or, “Hope Mary looks daggers at her.”

This review shook me to my bones! What, you mean I actually have to think? To stretch my creative muscles? To make it sound as though it was written in English? That last one is not, actually, a unanimously agreed-upon quality in a literary translation. You know, I don't really agree with it myself. Some of my very favorite foreign novels (read, of course, in translation) are unabashedly awkward in English... which for me, only adds to their appeal, that hint of "foreignness." Understand me, though, that finding this balance of sounding-ever-so-slightly-like-a-translation-and-yet-still-being-well-written must be done with the utmost care and skill; as you can see from the review above, not everyone feels the same way. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tin-Fluting It and Vinegar Tongues

Gabrielle Roy, a Franco-Manitoban author who settled in Montreal, wrote a book called Bonheur d'occasion. A literal translation of that would render it into "Second-hand happiness," which could possibly work as a title. Maybe. We'll never know. The translator, Hannah Josephson, chose to call the English translation The Tin Flute. This example is surely not the first example of a translator drastically changing a book's title, but somehow, the name stuck, and the practice is now referred to in some circles as "tin-fluting."

Tin-fluting is not reserved for books alone. Movie titles are routinely altered to try to convey a message or to hit a target audience. The Sound of Music got changed into My Songs, My Dreams... and that was in Austria, of all places, where practically no one has even heard of it. Mexico changed Good Will Hunting into Untamed Mind, Italy thought that A League of Their Own would sell better as Winning Girls, also changing City Slickers into the interminable Escape from the City Life, Love and Cows. We may find these titles somewhat hilarious, but there's a reason that they are changed. Sometimes there's another choice that would pack a better punch. Sometimes the original title includes the name of a character has been changed in the subtitles, like the above example with Good Will Hunting, or the Italian An Unpredictable Type for the Adam Sandler "classic" Happy Gilmore And sometimes, concepts and insinuations are simply untranslatable from one culture to another. 

Polish Poster for The Godfather II, Russian poster for Rabbit Hole, Polish poster for The Terminator

All this to justify, again, my hesitance about the title. I'd love to work with the author on this project, she would be the ultimate resource to have on my side, to clarify points and be able to ask "what did you mean here?" and all that. I just hope she doesn't have any particular attachment to her title.

Anyway. My translation problem for this post: food. This novel has a few passages that go into quite a lot of detail about food and food preparation and what things are called. At one point, it mentions items that would be on a "typical" truckstop diner's menu:
Du pâté chinois
Du Salisbury steak
Des langues dans le vinaigre.

I know that sometimes people call pâté chinois shepherd's pie or cottage pie, and Salisbury steak is self-evident, but tongues in vinegar? Really? Is this someone being facetious? Or do they, somewhere in Quebec, serve this at truckstops? And what would the equivalent be elsewhere? Pickled eggs? I don't think so...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Crimes horticoles

Ooh la la... it's been a week since my last post. I wasn't going to leave it so long, but I guess I've been up to things.

I thought it would be a good time to get into specifics. So... in order to publish an English-language translation of a book that was originally published in French, the Anglo publisher must first buy the English-language rights of the book from the Franco publisher. I'm not sure if my publisher has sealed the deal yet, but I think that the process is far enough advanced to allow for me to talk about the book in specifics. So. It's called Crimes horticoles, by Montrealer Mélanie Vincelette (here is a link about her from the site of the publishing company that she started). Thus the title of this blog. 

Thus, in addition, an accident waiting to happen. Despite popular wisdom to the contrary, I feel like an awful lot of books are bought based on their appearance. I, too, am susceptible the siren song that is a beautifully bound, beautifully printed book. About a year ago I picked up a book that was so visually stunning that I was almost desperate to read it immediately... not unlike the pheromone rush experienced upon meeting an inordinately handsome potential lover, perhaps? The book was Hunger, by Elise Blackwell (which, amazingly, you can read in it's entirety on Googlebooks here... I mean, is that even legal?), and the edition was a beautiful hardcover copy that looked like this:

Ooh, those vibrant jewel tones on that sleek black. How could I resist? Fortunately for me, the book, a slim but powerful little beast which centres on a Russian immigrant to New York looking back on the siege of Leningrad, turned out to be quite a good read. But back to the point, which was that many books are bought and sold based on how their cover looks, or perhaps on their... title?

The title Crimes horticoles is a reference to the poppies cultivated by the protagonist's father, intended for opiate production: a fairly minor subplot in the grand scheme of the novel. I'm not saying that it's inconsequential, just that it's hardly the focal point.

Felonies of a Botanical Nature is just a lark, really. A wildly improbable title for a novel. But it's a joke that is, in reality, hiding my own discomfort with the title, both of the French novel and of its obvious literal translation, "Horticultural Crimes." Ask yourself, would you pick up a book with that title? And then you see my dilemma.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Metalanguage as Art

And what's a girl to do with language that talks about language, that describes what kind of language a person speaks? Imagine translating Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (check out this hilarious link) into another language. What a nightmare for the translator. I imagine it would feel like multiple levels of subtlety and nuance slipping through their fingers as they struggle to convey the essential material...

Michel Tremblay has a style that is somewhat comparable. His narrative is in more or less standard French, while the dialogue, which happens to be a good chunk of the text, is in joual, a Quebecois slang dialect. I've read both his La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte and it's English translation, The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, which was remarkably well done by Sheila Fischman - the goddess of Canadian French-English literary translation. But even a killer awesome translator like Fischman can't make an English reader understand what it means to be speaking in joual, or feel the colour and the culture that is behind the dialect.

My problem with language is much less complex, but still is giving me pause. There's a character named Liam who is from the south of France, and his accent is described in the novel, along with examples. 

Il dit : « J'aime le paigne frais », mais parfois ça se complique : « Tu as les yeux bordés d'anchois. » Ce qui veut dire : « Tu as l'air fatigué. »

This would be child's play for Fischman, and yet... maybe I can leave some of it in French, or do a little explanitory "He says paigne instead of pain" or something of that nature...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Pathé, Baby.

It seems like, in translating a novel, the problems one comes across can be divided into the aesthetic and the cultural. 

The aesthetic ones are, if not necessarily more easily tackled, then at least less dire to the actual flow and comprehension and relevance of the novel. These are the ones that have to do with poetry: picking between "naked" and "nude" and "unclothed," or between "pious" and "religious." These questions must be tackled in every phrase, on every page, and they are what contribute to the general flow and readability of the novel. No one is going to misunderstand you; at the very most they will call you a lousy writer. 

So the issue at hand, mostly, is what to do when an English-speaking public has mostly no idea about what you're talking about. This came up for me the other day in a reference to the Pathé Baby, an amateur home movie camera, sort of a precursor to the Super 8.

 Pathé Baby, 1923

In the novel, the reference was thrown out there as though everyone and their dog would know what Pathé Baby minirolls would be. And hell, maybe it's true, maybe I'm the only one who's never heard of that. But I don't think so. I'm not even sure that it wouldn't be a fairly obscure reference even to a francophone audience. 

So. I have to make the decision. Either adapt the text, substituting an alternate, more well-known but similar object for the Pathé Baby 9.5mm film rolls, (perhaps a Kodak 8mm, or a Super 8?) to make the text accessible to an English-speaking reader, or to leave it as it is, inspiring some readers to look it up and find out what the heck the novel is talking about, but perhaps alienating others with such an obscure reference. 

This is the endless debate over whether a translation should be "dumbed down" for its target audience (a less-than-appealing term for a widely embraced practice), or maintained as close as possible to the original text, and damn you if you don't get it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

First post: the why and the wherefore

Ok. First post. So. I've never blogged before, I figure maybe anyone who blogs does it at least in part to indulge their vanity, so that's maybe part of the wherefore. But here's what I'm up to:

I am translating a novel. From French to English. And as I go about this business, it occurs to me that it's not so easy to make the decisions required to create a finished piece of work that will be readable at the end. Create, you say? I understand your skepticism. Translation is hardly creating something out of nothing. But because I am translating a book that I like, it is important to me that the translation be not only faithful, but also good. Poetic. Rolling trippingly off the tongue, and all that.

So here's a forum for me to put out some of my ideas, and if people end up reading this, I can maybe get some feedback about how the book should be. In fact, maybe this translation can be a collaborative effort between you, dear blog-reader, and I.