I often tell the story about the day I was walking around outside the Palais de Justice in Paris, getting a feel for the place, since the main character in the book I was translating at the time (Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer) is a lawyer occasionally found herself there. As I walked, it occurred to me that there is no way to translate “Palais de Justice.” “Courthouse” is not nearly grand enough for this edifice. Justice has been dispensed in this building since medieval times. It still holds the chapel of the royal palace that once stood here, not to mention the former prison where Marie-Antoinette was held before literally losing her head. Sure, none of these details actually impact the story, but they are things that a translator must consider. Translation issues of this sort are many, particularly in crime fiction, as different countries have varied judicial systems and police procedures.
I am reminded of the question David Bellos discusses in his book Translation and the Meaning of Everything: “Where’s the bonus in having a French detective novel for bedtime reading unless there is something French about it?” With that question, my thoughts immediately jump to Cara Black’s series set in Paris. In them, you have not only setting but also the use of French words giving that something French.
I founded the digital-first publisher Le French Book to publish books that, well, “have something French about them.” Our books are by French authors, so necessarily, whatever the topic of the book, they do, because there is a different cultural perspective. For now, all the books are set in France, which also gives them something French.
But I wonder what you at She Writes think about this question, whether the book comes from France or some other country. Should the books have French words in them? Should the institutions keep their names? How much of a French flavor do readers really want? Is that what counts?
With each book, I’ll spend some time pondering what of the “Frenchness” to lose in translation. Some of it I don’t have a choice about. Take our recent release, Treachery in Bordeaux. It is a classic whodunit set in wine country, and I learned the full diversity of wine-related vocabulary in French. It is somewhat more limited in English. Barrique, tonneau, fût and futaille were all used very regularly (sometimes in the same paragraph), but all referred to what in English we commonly call barrel. That is a detail that ultimately doesn’t impact the final story, but is a fun translator’s issue. There were a lot of them in that book: some local rhyming songs and ditties, a very colorful character with very colorful vocabulary, and lots of information about winemaking. In the end, though, the book has a fantastic sense of place that is really part of the story, so I didn’t need to keep some of those French words in there.
In his book, Bellos discusses at length the meaning of translation and what translators actually do. Bellos determines that “no translation can be expected to be like its source in more than a few selected ways…If meaning and force are kept the same and if in a limited set of other respects a translation is seen to be like its source, then we have a match.”
Of course, readers will not necessarily know how close the final result is to the source, so I would add that ultimately, for readers, what counts is that the end result is a good read. Isn’t that the whole point, no matter what language the story is told in originally?
Anne Trager is the founder of Le French Book, a digital-first publishing company that translates the best of contemporary French fiction into English. She is writing a short series of posts for She Writes based on her experiences with the venture. Le French Book is having a special promotion of Treachery in Bordeaux starting on October 9. They are giving away a trip to France, French wine (of course) and lots of other gifts, and dropped the usual list price for a limited time. Check it out: http://www.treacheryinbordeaux.com