As most of you know, I am neither slow to words, nor brief. I like to think I can carry on with the best of them.
But that’s only true in English. Changing countries really takes you down a few notches! While my brain is the same pretty serviceable brain I’ve had for as long as I can remember, the new language it must express its thoughts in makes me sound like a 4-year-old dim-witted child most of the time.
That’s a hard way to live sometimes, verging 50. I try to concentrate on the fact that I used to sound more like a 2-year-old than the kindergartner I pass for most days now. I strive to develop my skills in French so that before I die I might at least be able to compete with fourth-graders.
And then there is the problem of comprehension. Listening is always easier than constructing sentences from scratch, of course, but I still miss alot of meaning in what I hear, and recently I was privy to a mindblowing discussion of just one of the reasons why.
Last month in a small translation workshop, the award-winning professional translator and author who is our workshop leader noted casually, off-handedly, something like:
Oh, well, the quandary you are talking about is a common trap of French-to-English translation, because, you know, the French are taught deliberately to vary their word choice, and that can make their usual phrasing somewhat baroque-sounding to us Anglophones.
That’s especially true if what they are talking about is quite simple, because the simpler and more focused the subject, the more extraneous and pointless-seeming their mutations of its original signifier can seem.
Even when you know why they are doing it, to show off their wit and polish, if you are not really practiced at it, you sometimes start to question what was the original antecedent, after a few pages of that escalating ornamentation. You really have to keep up.
By contrast, particularly after Hemingway and the modernists, in English we consider it almost a strength to remain plain and repetitive whenever we possibly can, and especially when something is important and deserving of emphasis. Consequently at times you may have to cut through a whole bunch of culturally conscribed elaboration in French in order to simply repeat the one sensible English word it signifies for English readers.
That’s a main pitfall of trying to keep the spirit of a piece when translating between these two languages, which are actually two different cultures. Do you go along with the “flavor” of variation, trying to do propers to the French author’s skillful and sometimes even wry flourish, or do you try to convey his or her point efficiently to those who may not otherwise understand that point?
And going the other direction, do you try to preserve the gravity and starkness of phrasing in something like Hemingway, starkness which is intended to carry it’s own meaning over and above the actual words, and risk sounding only dull and loutish in French, or do you try to make it palatable by adapting it intentionally into a more familiar and conventional manner of writing? Isn’t that really more powerful in the end? But do you even have the skill or right to add those variations yourself, if the English author chose not to?
There is a balance to strive for there between meaning and style.
He actually said quite a bit less than that, being an American man of Hemingway-esque economy, himself – but I paraphrase vastly with a development that comes from weeks of contemplation.
No. I did not know that. And it explains alot
Now I know that this sometimes irritating overweening ornamentation is one of those charming French cultural foibles signifying politesse and good breeding, along with never taking the last croissant, and being able to tie a neckscarf in a seasonal origami plait in one sweeping motion using only one hand.
And now that I take in French with this new knowledge, I can better understand why the phrasing of news stories can leave me lost and frustrated.
“M. Macron” becomes a barely perceptible synonym, “the French President,” in the second sentence of the story. But then more jarringly, “the leader of the Republic,” and then, maybe, upon his fourth mention, things start to spin out of control, to, “the Gallic nation’s Head of State,” and then, if I make it that far, something even more complex that ends up sounding to my ears like, “the leader of the Transalpine people, the occupant of that sacred seat which is the zenith of democratic governance, a bipedal politician who navigated the last election with perspecuity and who eats his ice cream only from cones of pure blé noir, prepared at the source in waffle-print with unadulterated spring water using the following noble recipe…”
I cannot of course do quick justice to the real French elaborate variations, and that is the point. But they do get quickly out of hand, and you can very much be forgiven, as a secondary speaker of the language, for entirely forgetting who or what was under discussion in the first place.
Armed with new knowledge, I feel less bad about not always being able to follow the storyline, weaving through subjunctives and florid phrasing which is intended to exhibit the author’s prowess in command of the language of Baudelaire and Proust, but I feel much worse now about repeating my own written subjects so often without any variation – something I never even considered before.
It’s infectious, you see. Once you know their is a hierarchy, you also know that you could score better within it, if you tried.