Thursday, 1 May 2014

Translating the Language of Love

You might be forgiven that the title of this post refers to the cliché of how Anglophones often view French, the language from which I translate. And in the end the basis of that cliché may become clear. But what I am talking about is representations in literature of what lovers say to each other, how we describe feelings of love and how this is translated. Since this is an enormous subject, and, let’s face it, found in millions of works of literature across time and space, I’ll concentrate on one example I have found interesting, in the hopes that you will too. I made this translation myself, and directly encountered the occasionally cringe-inducing cultural differences which stand in the way of a text making its true declaration of/about love.  

The short comic by Charline Colette, L’Amour. . . Ça Gratte!1 or Love is Itchy! is a fascinating example of the ironic and playful use of love clichés. A little girl called Chouki finds a caterpillar in the school yard, names it Camille and rubs it against her cheek affectionately. Unfortunately, her older sister notices that Camille is an urticating caterpillar, which stings when touched or disturbed. Chouki is distraught and itchy and must leave Camille forever. However, she soon finds happiness with a nearby hedgehog.

When thinking about how I might translate this pretty simple, gently humourous comic, the way Chouki talks to Camille the Caterpillar proved a subtle challenge. She calls the caterpillar “Ma douce”(my sweet), and is told later by her sister that “Mais il va falloir t’en separer” (But you will have to separate from it). It felt as if the mixing of phrases usually used between lovers with those used between children playing at mothers and babies was what made the comic so charming and funny. To express something of this atmosphere of first love, I used a similar strategy, but had to adapt. The difficulties of translating for or about children are well documented2 but my feeling was that Anglophone children express different attitudes towards the aforementioned language of love. In my translation, when Chouki cuddles the caterpillar, she says “Little cutie” and when her older sister has to say that most difficult of things, it turns into “But you know you can’t bring her home”, which blurs the line somewhat between the ironizing of the language of adult relationships and the reality of the situation, without making the former uncomfortably overt. I found myself considering and then rejecting options involving friendship or maternal play as appropriate but missing the point.

The double meaning of the title is clear and adds a mischievous edge to the whole story. The truth is, it is no less subtle in French than it is in English, but could be differently received according to cultural differences. Due to the importance of the title to the humour in the story and even the idea of an older sister passing on important information to a younger sister, I did not make any change to it (well, apart from translating it!). Lastly, and very importantly, I tried to translate in a style that suited the pictures. The interplay between words and pictures in a comic gives very specific information about character and the world of the comic. The speech in this comic needed to make sense, correspond with existing pictures. I hope that in my translation Chouki is still innocent and very affectionate, and that her sister is exasperated, yet kind.



1 Colette, C. (2014) L’Amour . . .Ca Gratte!

2 See Oittinen, R. (2000) Translating for Children, Oxford: Taylor and Francis.



Anna Bryant is from County Meath, Ireland. She translates from French into English, and also occasionally from Irish. She is currently enjoying studying on the MA in Literary Translation course at the University of East Anglia and can be contacted at