Summer in Other Languages: Le Grand Meaulnes

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?

Shared in the Paris in July linkup at Thyme for Tea

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20 thoughts on “Summer in Other Languages: Le Grand Meaulnes

  1. Great review! One of my missed goals for Paris in July was to try to better understand what made this book such an enduring favorite with young people in France. You may or may not have nailed it, but you gave it a good try!

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    1. I do think I got closer to the answer with the French version. The English just does not have the same impact.

  2. I agree with your critique of the translation. I like a wealth of synonyms but I suspect that in the context of the novel any transaction would need to keep things simple. I’d’ve translated the passage pretty much as you did, for much the reasons you gave.

  3. Wow, great post!
    Congratulations on persevering with me till the end, and on your enriching comments on our Discord server.
    You did a fabulous demonstration of the difficulty and importance of translation.
    I can now see why someone reading it in English would be discouraged and unimpressed, if there are many passages like this one! Your translation is by far the best. The text needs to be flowing, and not “reek of translation”.
    See you next Summer for another French buddy-read

    1. I think the Davison translation, which was the one I read in full, was really not good. I mean, why all those extra words? Why the archaism? As far as I could judge, the French text was quite simple and lacking in obfuscation, it flowed easily and was not all bumpy and jerky. The translation did not give the right impression at all.

      I read only some samples of the Buss translation but I found it went a bit too far in the other direction, becoming rather dry and abrupt. Something in between was needed.

      Thank you as well for the Discord discussion, it really was a big help and also kept me motivated to keep up with the schedule! Another read next summer sounds great.

  4. Great post. I intend to read it in Spanish and soon. I would hope that Spanish can stay closer to the French in words and tone. I hope to let you all know if I love it as much as the French readers.

  5. I totally agree with you regarding the translations. I always say, there are three people involved when you read a translated novel, the author, you and the translator. And the latter is a very important part of that reading.

    I also agree think that French books are different from others but that they are easer to read and express themselves better when reading the original. Maybe French is difficult to translate? I read a lot of translations, mainly into German and I often find, that the German translations are better than the English ones. Maybe because they translate many, many more books into German than into English? I don’t know, it’s just something I noticed in our international book club that often those who read the books in the English translation were not as satisfied than those who read it in any other language, even if they all were translated.

    Do you just read French books in your Summer in Other Languages or do you also read books in/from other languages? Ever read a German one?

    1. Hm, interesting about the German translations being better. Translation is a hard job, I don’t want to judge too harshly those who take on the task, but sadly there are have been some subpar results in English for whatever reason.

      This year I set myself a modest goal of one book in French. Just trying not to be too ambitious. Last year I read books in French (L’etranger) and German (Die Kleine Hexe). I’ve been taking a break from German but I think I’m going to give it another try with Krabat, which I started and found a bit too difficult. Maybe now it will be easier.

    1. Thanks, I still feel like a kindergartner in French but I’m plugging away. This is not the book cover that I read (which is a brown-paper sort of e-book edition) but I like it, so I’m using it anyway.

  6. I’ve never given a lot of thought to the difficulty of translating a book from one language to another, so I thank you for this post. It does explain why many classics that have been translated from the language in which they were written into English are a disappointment for me—perhaps it’s simply because the translation is poor.

    A related story: I couldn’t find an inexpensive copy of Nana by Zola in English to read for Paris in July, but I did find a free copy of Nana in French, and I got the idea to put the whole novel into Google Translator…Oh boy. I’m sure you can imagine how that went! I ended up buying an ebook of a good English translation.

    1. Haha, Google translate must have produced some pretty funny results! I appreciate it so much for its usefulness, but for translating literature it doesn’t work. So appreciative of good translations where they exist. Otherwise we’d not be able to experience so much of the world.

  7. This is a really interesting analysis about the need for translators to consider both words and rhythm. I’d never thought about this before. Then again I haven’t read any books in French since Le Petit Prince in high school so kudos to you!

  8. I don’t read another language well enough to know which problems with a translation are due to the translation and which come from the original, but I loved hearing your thoughts on this example sentence. I liked your translation much better than the other two!

  9. I love LGM and “did” it for French A-level and wasn’t even put off by that. There was a super film we went and watched with some other students (so produced before 1987 or so). I love the French original and its plaintive sounds. I agree that some translators get the rhythm and some just do not.

    1. Glad you were not put off by doing it in school. I think it would make a lovely film but I’ve not seen that one yet.

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