I met my Summer in Other Languages goal of reading Le Grand Meaulnes, the classic novel by Alain-Fournier, in French. I’d read it some years ago in English, but I forgot most of the plot and it was like reading it for the first time!
As with previous French reads, it was great to participate in a Discord group hosted by Emma of Words and Peace. This was an opportunity to attempt to express myself en français, aiming more for fluency than correctness, and to read and respond to others’ comments. It helped my comprehension and sense of engagement a lot, and brought up some interesting points for discussion. Merci, Emma!
I am not going to attempt to write in French here, but am going to focus on some questions of language and translation. In my prior post about the English version, I commented that the language sometimes seemed to me either awkward or dull, and that made it hard for me to understand why the novel was so beloved. So it was an interesting experience to read it in French. This novel was a good choice for my level of comprehension, because the sentence structure was straightforward, there was little in the way of flowery description and no discernible wordplay or irony, and isolated vocabulary words were easy to look up using my e-reader (what a godsend that has been!) I can certainly recommend this novel for intermediate learners who want to read something in the original language, and I wish I’d been assigned it in college as I think I would have enjoyed it much more than most of the other set texts.
Aesthetically, I did find this time through a more satisfying experience than reading the English translation. The sounds and rhythms flowed more harmoniously than in the relatively clunky English version, and were more in tune with the melancholic tale.
Sometimes I do think that the translators could have made better choices. In translation I think that rhythm is an important and overlooked element, that which carries the poetry of the language, even in prose. Many translators seem not to care much about this at all, and that’s a great pity.
Here’s an example, that I looked at in my previous post, now with the original to compare with:
L’arrivée d’Augustin Meaulnes, qui coïncida avec ma guérison, fut le commencement d’une vie nouvelle.
Here is the version by Frank Davison: “The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life.”
And by Robin Buss: “The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life.”
In French, each of the three sections of this sentence is about the same in length and has (by my count) three main stresses or points of emphasis. That makes it a marvelously balanced and solid sentence, perfectly in tune with a statement about healing and new life.
The Davison translation inserts too many unnecessary syllables, and also unnecessarily changes simpler words into more unusual or complex words or phrases. Why the archaic “advent” instead of the simple “arrival,” that is also the English word closest to the French? Why “coinciding as it did with” instead of the much more streamlined “which coincided with”, a word-for-word equivalent which works perfectly well? Why “marked” instead of “was,” which is the literal meaning of fut, and satisfyingly is also a simple, three-letter word?
“Marked” also complicates things too much with its extra consonants. With this novel I noticed how vocalic a language French is, how much the vowels carry the mood and music of the language. Although English can’t reproduce that quality entirely, I think a translator from French should try to avoid clustered, hard consonants where possible.
The Buss translation does better with parts 1 and 3 of the sentence. (I do like “beginning” rather than “start,” though, because it has the same number of syllables as “commencement” and is just a little less dry and abrupt.) But part 2 in both translations is awful, in each case inserting one of those prepositional phrases that can make English such an awkward and clumsy language when used injudiciously. What would be wrong with saying simply “which coincided with my recovery”? I don’t think in the context of the paragraph that it’s necessary to specify “from the ailment” or “of the disability,” and the shorter phrase would be so much more in line with the original.
Thus we would end up with this:
“The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, which coincided with my recovery, was the beginning of a new life.”
There! That’s better. Now, there are just a few thousand more sentences to consider. I am almost tempted to give it a try…
Do translation issues like this bother you too, or do you think I’m being too picky? What translators do you think are most aesthetically pleasing or successful? Have you read Le Grand Meaulnes, and what did you think?