10 June 2013

Maupassant, bowdlerisation and translation

I've continued to read Maupassant short stories, frequently wondering at how there could have been such a divergence in acceptability on the two sides of the Channel. Maupassant's characters have sex, quite often, quite openly and, in Le Crime au Père Boniface, quite noisily. We must assume that Dickens' characters had sex now and then, if only to fuel the inheritance dilemmas, but surely they always did so in complete abashed silence.

What did Maupassant's contemporary translators make of this? I've just read the story called Le Père. The sexual climax is as follows.
Et, tout doucement, ils s'embrassèrent, puis s'étreignirent, étendus sur l'herbe, sans conscience de rien que de leur baiser. Elle avait fermé les yeux et le tenait à pleins bras, le serrant éperdument, sans une pensée, la raison perdue, engourdie de la tête aux pieds dans une attente passionnée. Et elle se donna tout entière sans savoir ce qu'elle faisait, sans comprendre même qu'elle s'était livrée à lui. (Maupassant, Guy de (2011-03-30). Contes du jour et de la nuit (French Edition) (p. 20). . Kindle Edition.)

The translation in the Gutenberg library goes as follows:
[A church clock struck in the distance,] and they embraced gently, then, without the knowledge of anything but that kiss, lay down on the grass. [But she soon came to herself with the feeling of a great misfortune, and began to cry and sob with grief, with her face buried in her hands.]

(The things in square brackets happen in French, but in adjacent paragraphs.) So, quite a lot missed out, but an astute reader, I suppose would have known what to read in. Even in the French, the text requires some interpolation. Louise is "engourdie de la tête aux pieds", when it's precisely not the tête or the pieds that are important. And she "doesn't know what she's doing". We do. Later she becomes his mistress.
Pendant trois mois, elle fut sa maîtresse. Il commençait à se lasser d'elle, quand elle lui apprit qu'elle était grosse. (Maupassant, Guy de (2011-03-30). Contes du jour et de la nuit (French Edition) (p. 21). . Kindle Edition.)

Hilariously, in English,this becomes:
for three months they were close friends. He was beginning to grow tired of her, when she whispered something to him [...]

Ten years later he encounters his son. It must have seemed a miraculous conception. Except that once again, I'd presume a reader of the original translation would have known how to fill in the gaps, and what whispered insinuates. We don't, these days, and we expect that if characters have sex, we should be told.

The translators of the stories on Gutenberg are listed as

MME. QUESADA and Others

Those B.A.s, I suppose, are a hint that the translations will be used in schools, perhaps not exclusively. So, as well as making the stories fit the bienséance of their time, the translations have to observe a specific bienséance of what was considered suitable for schoolchildren.

All this has led me to a conclusion that might be obvious, might be meaningless, or might be something profound: bowdlerisation is a form of translation. And like other acts of translation, it is affected by the social context. So we don't just need regular new translations, we need regular new bowdlerisations.