Lost (and Found) in Translation
Written by
Anne Trager
October 2012
Written by
Anne Trager
October 2012

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

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  • Margaret Reardon

    I believe Palais de Justice is never translated to English. I have never seen it done. A quick google shows that on the internet, at least, no-one wants to try.

  • Anne Trager

    I agree with you, Hillary. If the reader can't understand what's going on, you sort of miss the point. Thanks to everyone for your comments.

  • Hillary Stevens

    Good morning, Anne --

    Like those who have commented before me, I love having French words -- especially place names -- included. It adds both flavor and history to the story. There's something so regal (and French!) about the Palais de Justice that just doesn't translate with 'courthouse.'  That being said, I read novels where whole sections of dialogue haven't been translated. Yes, the average reader can handle bonjour and comment allez-vous, but more than that? I think it's asking too much of the audience.  

  • Ruth Berge

    I like some foreign words in a book. It helps give me the flavor of the place as well as teach me a new word or two :)

  • Ariel Rosetti Publishing

    Yes I have try to make connections there. I feel it would be worth considering. Great advice

    Personally I still love to cram a paperback novel into my purse whenever I go to the city, to read on the Metro.

  • Anne Trager

    Ariel, yes, for now, the French prefer paper books. And, yes, the rights issues are a little complicated. I'm not a lawyer, but I'll try to summarize: the original rights owner (you in this case) has to give permission for anyone to do the book in another language. The translator could have copyright over the translation (unless it was "writing for hire") so you couldn't use that translation without the translator's permission. At the same time, the translator could not sell that translation without your permission. I do not, however, think that is the real issue. You just have to have the right contracts. The real issue is that it is never enough to just put a book up for sale. You have to market it, and marketing in another cultural context is hard. Similarly, the choice of books that will work in another culture is not easy. The French book world is very different than the US book world, which is why there it might just be best to find a French publisher interested in your books.

  • Ariel Rosetti Publishing

    Hi Ann,

        I always include French in my manuscripts, as I love the language. I had the idea of having my entire Allyce series translated into French as I understand that the French majority are into real books vs e-readers.

    But I read at another site that the issue of copyright might become a problem, since the original author is not actually doing the actual translating. Where would the original author stand in a situation such as this?

    This is something I really want to do in the future. I would like to discuss this with someone soon. AR.

  • Juliet Wilson

    I love to find foreign language words in a book I'm reading in English, and it's certainly the best thing to do with those elusive untranslateable words or songs etc.

  • Anne Trager

    I love your comment, Robin, about how much English is derived from French. And Marilyn, I truly understand that issue, and I suppose anyone who lives with more than one language does: sometimes there is just that right word in one language and not in the other. I personally love swearing in French, but that is another story. There's a great scene I think in the second Matrix film, with Lambert Wilson about how French is such a good language to swear in. Yours sounds like an interesting book. 

  • Robin Levin

    Personally, when I read books set in another culture with a different language, I like to see an occasional word or phrase in that language. I think it gives a more authentic flavor to the book. I write historical fiction about ancient Rome in English but I like to drop an occasional Latin word or phrase into the dialog. William the Conqueror brought the French language to England when he invaded England in 1066, so much of spoken English is actually derived from French. You'd have to be very vigilant to keep French entirely out of your translation.

  • Marilyn Yalom

    This is a problem I have been groping with for most of a lifetime.  My latest book, "How the French Invented Love," to be published this month by HarperCollins, has many examples of places where I opted for the French word because the English word wouldn't do.  Take words for the nuances of love: tendresse, amour-passion, complaisance, etc.  Sometimes I translate these words, sometimes I don't.  But the worst thing that happened in this otherwise beautifully produced book is a glitch in printing: a familiar French expression appearing in small caps for the Epilogue came out looking like Phoenician or some other unrecognizable language.  Tant pis!

  • Margaret Brown

    Anne -- we regularly feature books in translation in Shelf Unbound magazine -- please email me at [email protected] to discuss editorial coverage of your books. Also, the theme of our new issue is books in translation, which you might find interesting (click here to read it: http://www.pagegangster.com/p/Z9MYJ).