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26 April 2011

Spiral gears

Translating 'late' from English to French is a trap. The temptation is to translate 'I was late for work' as 'je suis arrivé tard au travail', which doesn't mean the same. You have to say 'je suis arrivé trop tard' - making it explicit that you were too late.

I've lately started watching Spiral, the English version of the French police serial Engrenages (which literally means gears). I don't know if I'm trop tard or merely tard; probably both. Despite the fact that French is my strongest foreign language, I know I wouldn't be able to follow the programme without the English subtitles: it's too fast and slangy. But, inevitably, those subtitles are sometimes a cause of annoyance.

I have sympathy for the translators. The French criminal legal system is so different from the English that you'd need footnotes to explain the role of the character Roban, a juge d'instruction. He's not quite police, not quite prosecutor, and certainly doesn't act as a judge as we know it. But surely we could cope with the fact that the leading detective is called Capitaine Berthaud. Why does she need to become a Chief Inspector in the subtitles? The most egregious act of domestication though occured when the flics needed to know the registered owner of a certain vehicle. The subtitle said the DVLA had provided the information. Again, you can understand the stress on the translator, needing to find a quick equivalent, but I can't help thinking a less specific, less Swansea-based term could have been found ('the vehicle register'?). That seemed to me to cross the line, where the next step is to change the name of the locale of the crimes from Belleville to, say, Hackney, to ease the viewer's understanding that it's a poor area with a large immigrant community.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying the programme. Capitaine Berthaud is one of the worst investigators you'll ever see, leaping to a conclusion of who the murderer is, and then focussing on any evidence that supports that view, and ignoring everything else. Which is probably just what most police detectives do, just not as blatantly.

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