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...