Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Epigrammatic Prose In Translation (edited)

And now a little exercise in translating epigrammatic prose. Only for the pedants!

"La vie est douloureuse et decevante. Inutile, par consequent, d'ecrire de nouveaux romans realistes. Sur la realite en general, nous savons deja a quoi nous en tenir; et nous n'avons guere envie d'en apprendre davantage."
--Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie.

Translation by Dorna Khazeni, pub. forthcoming (Believer Books), excerpted in The Believer Magazine:
"Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more."

I'd go instead with:
"Life is painful and deceptive. So it's useless to write new realist novels. On reality in general, we already know where we stand--and we don't really want to know more."

Problem 1--"Decevant" means both "disappointing" and "deceptive." Since a French reader would hear "deceptive" in the original and an English reader would have to work to find something similar in "disappointing," and since "painful" and "disappointing" are nearer to each other than "douloureuse" and "decevante" are, I'd err on the side of the extreme here. It's the first line of the book: it should go strong.

Problem 2--The second sentence is a fragment. This is more acceptable "high prose style" in French than it is in English, where it's a near-fatal grammatical error (unless you're writing noir). In French academic style, it signifies a dead-serious, seemingly throw-away line. The translation has got to seem colloquial and fluent. The "it is...[infinitive]" phrasing is a dead give-away for stultifying academic prose.
It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to write...
It is important, thereby, to think...
It is entirely bourgeois, thus, to consider...

Houellebecq's meaning is prescriptive, but his syntax is what you'd hear in a university pub or on public radio. Yes, academics will use such syntax to make serious points, but it's a conscious gesture towards the oral. A translation should indicate the oral, indeterminate nature of such a prescription by using more colloquial, fluent language.

I wanted the present progressive to work here--my first attempt was "there's no use, then, in writing new, realist novels"--but it didn't fly. Just too unwieldy. In the new version, my contraction moves toward the colloquial, the modulated syntax of the "so," I think, gives a sense of the rhetorical effect of the paused "par consequent," which in French is less weighty in usage than its meaning would indicate. And of course my version remains a fragment; whether it transcends its grammatical error into acceptable sense, I'm still not sure.

Problem 3--Realist vs. Realistic. I'm sure that Dorna Khazeni agonized over this choice. "Realist" is a major claim, both generic and historical, while "realistic" gets to remain vague. Another problem: "nouveaux romans realistes" raises not only the specter of the realist novel but also the specter of the "nouveau roman," that major critical genre of the 60s and 70s! Khazeni's translation cops out of raising either dispute by making the argument about mimesis in general. Houellebecq's categorical little introduction, on the other hand, advocates Lovecraft against the major critical tendency of the 19th century (le roman realiste) and the 20th century (le nouveau roman), and implicitly, he is saying that the "nouveau roman" is actually a sophisticated, 20th-century version of the realist novel. And you know what? I think he's probably right. It's hard to indicate this degree of condensation in a translation, of course. I alternated between "realist new novel," which is abhorrent to English prose-style, and "new realist novel," which didn't sufficiently indicate the distinctions. A comma between the adjectives, however, might give enough of a clue. I'm not sure about this; it looks weird with a comma. One thing I do know: "realistic" is a cop-out.

Problem 4--Syntax in third sentence. A translator doesn't really get to change everything to suit the current usage guides of his or her country. Houellebecq wanted an anaphor--give the man his anaphor. Don't streamline his prose. The repetition of the "nous" subject is key to the impact of the rhythm. I do not understood the justification for destroying the sentence's internal rhythms. This is, after all, the first paragraph of the book: the man is trying to make an impression, and given his attention to Lovecraft's bold opening statements in later parts of the text, this here introduction is surely intended to ring out with hubristic and insistent clarity.

Problem 5--"A quoi nous en tenir." I gave up here, but then I only tried for about fifteen minutes. "Where we stand" is a decent compromise, but the French indicates a sense of desparation: not just "that to which we hold," but, and particularly here, "that axiom to which we cling tenaciously because we must believe." My Larousse (the online wanna-be OED Tresor de langage francais kept timing out) suggests some military aspects to the debate: I would be tempted to render the clause as, "where we draw the line."


Dorna Khazeni took the safe route on every possible translation problem posed by these three sentences. The only major risk she took--combining the independent clauses of the third sentence into a single complex sentence--appealed to the desire for clarity of an academic Anglophone audience while destroying the emphatic syntax that has made Houellebecq a popular icon (so much so that this text of literary criticism has gone into a second edition by a new publisher). Houellebecq is alive and speaks some English, and although he seems to be, um, a bit difficult, he could surely be asked about a more chancey translation.

I've taught Lovecraft: fans came out of the woodwork to find new takes on their icon. These fans are smart, though; they know how to filter out the bullshit. Khazeni's translation makes Houellebecq's article seem more bullshittish than it is. My first reaction on reading the Believer article was: Oh, cool, I didn't know Houellebecq had written on Lovecraft. Sucks that the translation is awkward. I'd better order a French copy. The original epigrams are brave, off-the-cuff, and yet quite serious.

I'm really, really glad that this project of translating Houellebecq's work on Lovecraft is happening, don't get me wrong. I'm glad the excerpt in the Believer caught my eye and brought me to the original. But the style is off: what reads in French as flippant wit comes off as heavy pronouncement.

The very international Literary Saloon has been scratching out its eyes, wondering what might bring US readers to foreign texts. I'm a somewhat 19th-century kind of translator: I want the original to be conveyed vibrantly in the new language, and more so than faithfully. I want excitement and even argument about the faithfulness to the original. Even an opinionated, sexy, but false translation of a foreign-language text might be a good thing. Put that shit out there, crazy, strong, popular. (The legal stuff, I don't know about.) If it takes, someone will come around later to retranslate the work and of course condemn the earlier translator as inauthentic and all that. Much like I'm doing now...


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8/09/2009 02:41:00 PM  
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