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14 June 2009

Do you know Queneau?

Once again, the Author Author article in the Guardian Review might have been written for me. If I were so inclined I could imagine the editor is sending me secret messages. This week, Adam Thirlwell writes about Raymond Queneau, and particularly about Barbara Wright's translations into English. I love Queneau but I've never read the translations. Perhaps I ought to, since they must encounter fascinating difficulties. Here's an extract from the article:
The first sentence of Queneau's story "Anglicismes" sounds, in his Franglais, like this: "Un dai vers middai, je tèque le beusse et je sie un jeugne manne avec une grète nèque et un hatte avec une quainnde de lèsse tressés." But in Wright's Englench, because it is a literal translation, this story is now called "Gallicisms", and its first sentence sounds like this: "One zhour about meedee I pree the ohtobyusse and I vee a zhern omm with a daymoorzuray neck and a shappoh with a sorrt of plaited galorng."

Thirlwell calls this "a literal translation". Well, it isn't. I'm not sure what it is, but I don't think a literal translation is possible. The text has broken the model of translations. (It's dead funny, by the way.)

Thirlwell ends with the thought that
A novelist who thinks only about novels in his or her own language is no more a novelist, I think, than one who doesn't think about other novelists at all.
One translation I have read is Gilbert Adair's A Void, the brilliant rendering of Georges Perec's La Disparition, in which the phrase "un mauvais roman" is translated as "a Dick Francis". Somehow this is OK - so why am I upset when someone translates "cien metros" as "a hundred yards"? Translation theory looks like more fun than you might imagine.

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