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How translators vault over culture gaps

From The Wall Street Journal - May 25, 2012

Years ago, the novelist and linguist Ursule Molinaro and I were discussing her work translating Hermann Hesse's "Narcissus und Goldmund," a book whose German edition she'd been lugging back and forth from her home to the cafe where she worked for almost a year. Her dry-cleaner, unable to contain his curiosity, finally asked her why she was saddled with the heavy volume. "I'm translating it," explained Molinaro. "Every word?" the dry-cleaner asked, eyes widening in disbelief.

Not really every word. All nine novels I've translated from the French are much shorter in English. Our language relies mostly on syntax, or word order, to create meaning and uses a lot of one-syllable action verbs. French is full of prepositions and word endings because of its syntactical nature. Its utterances are longer but often more precise.

Consider this seven-word sentence from Philippe Sollers's postmodern novel "Drame": "C'est de là qu'il lui faut partir." I translated it simply as, "That's his starting point." In that same translation, I used a great many convenient compound words, a construction mostly forbidden in French. Can anyone explain the grammatical relationship between the two nouns crammed together to form the compound noun "stun gun"? That relationship is clarified in French, using a noun and an adjective, but at greater length: pistolet paralysant.

No translation is a word-by-word inventory, as my friend's dry-cleaner had imagined. To do it well you must also be an illusionist. You make the text disappear into thin air like a magician's dove that reappears in a completely different place, partly refashioned by your own sensibility. This is the dirty little secret of all vital, appealing translations.

Sometimes we inject our own views because the values a text portrays seem unreal in our own culture. We find ourselves face to face with the fact that a three-hour Parisian workday lunch must be portrayed as humdrum and normal. What to do? You forge ahead and hope that a majority of readers are familiar enough with the culture not to think something very ordinary is terribly surreal.

At other times, there's nothing to do but confer with author and editor to find a radically new solution. This happened several times during my translation of the novel "Delicacy" by David Foenkinos. In the French version, a major character recovers his resolve while watching the French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal on television. When Americans come to that part of the novel, they'll find Barack Obama instead.

Cultural differences can come out most blatantly in that linguistic challenge considered the bane of translation, the pun. I had to craft a host of imperfect solutions for Grégoire Bouillier's pun-ridden comic memoir "Report on Myself." In it, he sullies the name of his girlfriend, Laurence, by pointing out that it sounds like l'eau rance (rancid water), so I translated this as best I could with the term "low rinse." When Bouillier rejected that same girlfriend's flirtatious, "Tu me plais" (I'm attracted to you) by awkwardly punning back, "De quelle plaie parlez-vous?" (What wound are you talking about?), I settled on, "You appeal to me," followed by the equally obnoxious answer, "Who's peeling, Miss?"

And what about the prickly question of the title? Cultural norms and marketing usually take precedence over fidelity to the original language. My most amusing experience in this domain involved the title of Virginie Despentes's punk-feminist novel, "Baise-Moi," whose literal translation cannot appear in this paper. The editors eventually decided on "Rape Me," justifying this by the fact that it's also the title of a punkish song by Nirvana.

All well and good, I suppose. The best of translations pass for genuine—without being quite the real thing.

—Mr. Benderson is an American novelist, essayist and translator.

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