Literary translation: problems and perils
Translating a literary work is a serious challenge. The translator somehow has to move a text into the target language while preserving as much as possible of the quality and character, the ‘spirit’ of the original. A tall order that involves the translator in the tricky task of carrying the distinctive character and rhythms of a work, its style, tone, imagery and emphases, from the original language into a quite other language that imposes its own demands of style, pace, and rhythms. Basic questions arise: is everything in the original to be translated into the target language? To what extent should the translator respect the language and idioms of a particular historical period? On the one hand lies the danger of alienating, or even baffling, the contemporary reader with mystifying idioms and references, while on the other hand, ‘updating’ runs the risk of hatching hideous anachronisms.
I recently translated two Zola novels for Oxford World’s Classics, Money (Oxford, 2014) and The Sin of Abbé Mouret (to appear in 2017); they each presented very different problems. They were not those conventionally associated with Zola, resulting from his use of often crude, popular language, or the robustness of his representation of physical and sexual matters, as found, say, in L’Assommoir, or Earth. They were problems such as may be found in almost any serious literary translation.
The first of my two novels was Money, Zola’s L’Argent, written in 1890, but set in the 1860s, the eighteenth of the twenty novels of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. It had not been translated since 1894, and for the previous translator, Ernest Vizetelly, the question of how much was to be translated was crucial. Under the watchful and bigoted eyes of the ‘National Vigilance Association’, a great deal had to be omitted to appease Victorian ‘morality’, and consequent gaps filled in by the translator. It was in fact less a question of morality than of political expedience, deriving from the need to keep the novels away from the already more and more literate working-class, who, it was feared, might get ‘inappropriate’ ideas from Zola’s highly socially-conscious works. Meanwhile, the novels remained freely available in the original French, to be freely read by the educated upper classes, who were not regarded as a threat.
In 2014, unlike Vizetelly, I was able to translate the whole novel without any risk of prosecution or incarceration. A number of passages expunged from the previous version could now appear. Conversations among the menfolk could regain their original, colourful vivacity. A scene in which Saccard and his mistress are caught in flagrante could now appear in all its flagrancy, and the unfortunate young woman, who was merely robbed in the bowdlerized version, could now be raped, as she had been (though off-stage and fairly discreetly) in Zola’s novel.
If translating Money in the twenty-first century no longer included cutting and then rewriting great chunks of Zola’s novel, there were other problems – such as dealing with the economic, political, and financial terminology of the 19th century, starting, at the most basic level, with francs, sous, and centimes. Should francs be converted into British pounds and pennies? Or even into equivalent euros? As values are very far from stable, conversions were an extremely dubious option, so it seemed preferable to leave them in the original French. However, to avoid leaving the reader in the dark, a footnote would indicate roughly what in 1860 an average worker might earn in francs for a day’s work, and what he or she could buy for their sous. Many readers find footnotes annoying, but they are sometimes needed, for it is, after all, the translator’s job to help readers into the full sense of the work they are reading.
And again, when it comes to names of well-known places, would it really help the reader to present the ‘Gare du Nord’ as the ‘North Station’? Or the Bourse as ‘The Stock Exchange’? Even street-names give rise to some queries: few would wish ‘la rue de la Banque’ to become ‘Bank Street’, but when such a street appears in the English text, should ‘rue’ be capitalized as in ‘the Rue de la Banque’? The capitalization seems to me more natural in English, but others might disagree. The central, admirable, female figure in Money is known throughout, and to all, as ‘Mme Caroline’: so, in the English text, should she be ‘Mrs Caroline’? Surely not! The abbreviation ‘Mme’ is awkward in English so I chose ‘Madame Caroline’ to keep more closely to the sound of her name. Special care, of course, was needed for the dates and names of the multiple Wars, Treaties, and Conventions of which there were far too many in the complicated historico-political context of the Second Empire.
The Sin of Abbé Mouret
My second Zola translation was very different. La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875), the fifth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, is almost a poem in prose, with scarcely any historico-political background, but a great deal of ecclesiastical terminology, from the details of priestly vestments to the accessories, utensils, and elaborate choreography of the rituals of the Church. My first concern was the title: what should it be? ‘La Faute de l’abbé Mouret’ had been variously translated as Abbé Mouret’s Transgression, The Abbé Mouret’s Sin, and The Sin of Father Mouret. I opted for The Sin of Abbé Mouret. ‘Father Mouret’ seemed especially inappropriate in the case of Serge Mouret.
A priest lives of course in ‘the priest’s house’ — in French, the ‘presbytère’. To use ‘the priest’s house’ throughout would prove extremely cumbersome, and to have the priest looking back at ‘the priest’s house’ would be excessively odd. ‘Presbytery’ tends to suggest Presbyterianism, but still seems preferable to ‘vicarage’, with its almost aggressive evocation of the English parish, complete with W.I. and cucumber sandwiches. It had to be ‘presbytery’. One alternative would have been ‘parsonage’ but then a ‘parson’ is not a priest vowed to celibacy as Abbé Mouret is.
Some French expressions will not work in English. For instance, while one can say, and Zola does say, in French, ‘il se signa à voix haute’ (‘he crossed himself aloud’), it takes a few extra words to say it nicely in English, as ‘he crossed himself, saying the words aloud’. In this clerical setting, in which Zola re-runs the story of Adam and Eve, Zola develops a passion for the biblical ‘And’, which he uses over and over again to start sentences and paragraphs. I found myself occasionally jibbing at adding yet another, so did some quiet culling. Similarly for Zola’s beloved semi-colon. When a paragraph runs on and on and on, linked by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of semi-colons, something has to be done about it. English style eventually refuses, and insists on a full stop and a new sentence, as indeed also happens with long paragraphs that run exclusively on commas. This happens particularly in the long and beautiful descriptions and listings of plants and trees in the densely luxuriant gardens of the Paradou. The really essential problem in both novels was to make them read easily for contemporary readers, while preserving the flavour of their own period and setting, and above all to keep the rhythm and emphases, the verve, the energy, and the poetic dimension of Zola’s writing.