Tuesday, July 14, 2009

French? Sounds Foreign

I’ve already given my opinions on the content of this article over on my other blog, but I’d like to have a look at the style a bit. Because, in all honesty, I found it really heavy going. The concepts were easy enough, as a rule, but the prose did my head in. And at times, rusty as my French has got since leaving Uni, I felt I would probably understand it better in the original than in translation. Though maybe I’m just being cocky. The other thing is, you can smell the French on it. I can feel the French words coming out my gob as I read some of it. And that makes me wonder. Now, this is a long article, so brace yourselves for a long post if you want to find out why I think this is important. Or just skip to the end.

Totalitarianly elected by 82 percent of voters
the Soviet at 82 percent,
Long time since I’ve read a French opinion column, so I don’t really know, but is this some peculiar French concept? Does getting 82% of the votes in a one-on-one election really make you a ‘Soviet’? Even if your opponent is an infamous neo-Nazi known for his Holocaust gags? Not in Britain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how French political scepticism works. Or does ‘totalitarian’ have slightly different usage in French? Would knowing this make Foucault easier to understand?
The Muslim invasion...has found its interlocutor
Ah, good old ‘interlocutor’. Everything you need to know about this word can be found in this Spectator article, where Matthew Parris bemoans the lack of a mid-register alternative in English. Though I’d add that if even the Spectator considers it poncy, I’d avoid it like the plague.

Idioms and Collocations
Idioms and collocations are particularly important to this kind of article, where he seems, wryly and ironically, to be drawing on the prejudices and tropes of the other side. This only seems to come through in what he says though, rather than how he says it.
There is no good headscarf.
See, you can say ‘there is no...’ here, and it works, but in French as with German and probably a lot of languages, this is the standard phrase for “there are no monsters” or “in my experience there is no luck”. Our standard phrase is different.
Strange is the rage reserved by so many feminist ladies for the few girls wearing the hijab.
I’m not quite sure what he means by ‘feminist ladies’. Is he toying with the language of misogyny? Taking a dig at the chattering classes along the lines of “votes for ladies”? Either way, while this phrase could be clear as crystal to the French, it really isn’t to me.
Guilty of being but old children playing with their manifold purchases.
They are thus afraid of everything a little less aged.
See that’s not exactly how we make fun of these people in English. We’d say ‘big kids’ or ‘overgrown children’, and that they are afraid of anyone younger than them.
the father is...“right out from the country”... An archaic guy, but stupid. The eldest brother deals hash.
Ok, there’s a lot of stereotypes being deployed here. I imagine an English-speaking journalist would use the clichés that go with them. The bunny-ears and italics in “right out from the country” implies it was an idiom. Sticks? Boonies? Middle of nowhere? Where fox and rabbit bid each other goodnight, as the Germans say? I don’t think you can pull off ‘archaic’ here either. As for the brother, he doesn’t just deal hash, he is a hash-dealer. Trust me, what with everything my racist countrymen tell me about him, I practically know the guy.
As for the fact of human animals grouping together according to their origins
Oh come on. Talking about people as animals? People of the same background grouping together? In the context of gripes about multiculturalism not working. You know what we say for this one.

Generally though, we may be able to excuse the translator, Norman Madarasz, for this on account of his being Canadian. These clichés were easy for me to think of because I follow British news, particularly discussions of Islam and multiculturalism, and the ideas Badiou draws on are surprisingly familiar to me. This might not be the case in North America, where ideas of melting pots and mosaics would affect attitudes. I imagine the translator follows French news very closely, but I don’t see why he’d follow British or Irish debates except out of curiosity, and so might lack connection to comparable anglophone discourse from a European perspective. However there are collocations you would expect a Canadian to get:
[on suicide-bombing] I am grieved whenever young men and young women tear their bodies apart in horrendous massacres
Blow themselves apart, surely? This one is a good example of how the author’s tone doesn’t quite come through, or comes through ambiguously. Was he deploying a standard journalistic phrase for this, or using a fresher, and therefore more emotive, one of his own devising? We don’t know, but the translation sounds almost poetic and so gives the impression of the latter.
It’s the really small crooks who draft laws against hijab.
This is a particularly interesting one. The French do a really clever thing with the word ‘grand’. Before an inanimate object, it just means ‘big’. But with people, it means ‘tall’ when it follows the noun and ‘great’ preceding it. How I always remembered it was that Napoleon was ‘un grand homme’ but not ‘un homme grand’. Anyway I’ve got a feeling they use ‘petit’ in a similar way. This would certainly account for the origins of ‘petty’ in English. ‘Petit escroc’ certainly sounds right to me in French, but to be honest ‘small crook’ just makes me picture Danny Devito. I’d think Woody Allen and go for ‘small-time’.

There’s a few more, including:
A rust-proof principle!
Go on, let the capitalist grinder turn
If I were to aim at hitting a bull’s eye here – aiming big
Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant
And there’s this, where standard French usage doesn’t translate literally, at least not very smoothly:
And you’d like me to hold that hijab as a crime?
“Et vous voulez que je tiens cet hijab pour une crime?” That’s what it was, I BET that’s what it was.

Awkwards and Extras
Or, contrariwise: it is they who freely want to wear that damned headscarf
I think I’ve heard ‘contrariwise’ about five times in my life, and never unironically.
Must I suspect husbands, lovers and eldest brothers?
’Must’ isn’t, I don’t think, the word most people would use. ‘Must’ is quite unusual in English, as I’ve said before
And then there are these phrases: Almost no English speaker would bother with ‘-wise to’, ‘styles’ or ‘be’ here. I assume they are more necessary in French:
This is how, once again, likewise to the surrender in Sedan...
“As a specialist in hairdressing styles, he only played a small role in the scandal.”
Or have them be killed by your American friends.

That my life as a human animal is wrought with particularities is the law of things.
This “that [sentence] is” construction is quite common in French, but it sounds rather unnatural in English.
Where then does the need to ban the scarf come from?
Again, this one sounds fine, but the French “d’où le besoin...” is much snappier, more akin to “why the need...” The position of the ‘then’ is also odd, and it should be remembered that English word-order is inflexible by most languages’ standards, including French.
As it used to be said – even non-Muslims said it
Generally, I don’t think we’d use a full sentence for the second half of this. We’d probably just say “even by non-Muslims”.
the hardships of family incarcerations, the turnabouts of which kept audiences laughing for centuries
Something with ‘imprison’ or ‘lock up’ and ‘whose’ would also work here, the translator has on both counts plumped for overly formal options. Had Badiou?
And especially of the ruining of political thought, which Westerners have attempted to organize everywhere
Same here, the presence of ‘the’ and ‘of’ either side of ‘ruining’ is unnecessary, and makes the whole thing sound far more formal. In French, on the other hand, the sentence would be nonsensical without them.

The End
This might all seem like a petty gripe, especially as the sense of the article has not generally been lost and there’s no visible bias on the part of the translator. But one problem with translators is that, in becoming familiar enough with the source language to translate it, they must have a strong gut feeling for it, which can end up influencing their feel for and use of the target language. Worse still in this case, English has a peculiar relationship with French, as its influence on us goes back to 1066 and is basically colonial. French-rooted words tend to be governmental and aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon ones earthy and everyday – see our different words for animals and their meat. Working as an English teacher in Germany, I’ve seen a few French-speaking students placed in groups well above their level, and I have a feeling it’s because using French-rooted words in English makes you sound undeservedly clever and well-spoken.

And this is something to be wary of, as I think it determines a lot of our attitudes to France and the French, particularly French academia. The temptation to use French-sounding words in texts translated from French is entirely natural, but since French doesn’t have our Romance-Germanic hierarchy, doing so can make the text sound much more fanciful and esoteric than it was originally. I’m thinking of the Derrida texts I’ve read in English, riddled with ‘that is to say’ for ‘c’est à dire’, where ‘that is’, ‘in other words’ or ‘i.e.’ would suffice. Playful, folksy language can be lost, but worse still, as in this case, it can end up seeming out of place and condescending, like a Telegraph editorial saying “innit, guv”. It also makes texts, quite simply, a lot harder to read than they originally were. When I compare this to our more down-to-earth perception of German literature and philosophy, I start to speculate that the popular disdain for the obscure, incomprehensible, beret-smoking French intellectuel and, by extension, the postmodernism, poststructuralism and all the other post-x-isms he and his ridiculous little moustache have come to symbolise, is at least partly down to this.