Monday, 16 January 2012

Translating a Tom Stoppard Play on Words into French – and yes, pun very much intended...

Sarah Adams: “It ain’t what you lose, but how you gain it in translation...”
Maybe contrary to popular opinion – or do I mean unpopular opinion? Either way, it’s not like I’ve carried out a survey – the pun is a challenge I always relish when faced with a new translation; in fact, I would go as far as to say: the more the merrier.
There are many reasons for this, as I see it, but mainly it is because I have very much come to believe in Sarah Addams’ above philosophy. I also take Lena Kaarbebol’s point, the Danish writer of children’s stories. She translates her own books into English: “Translation is impossible,” she states, but “Transformation is not.” She sees translation as one more re-write; or a “writer’s tool”, with which she is able to “gain new insight into what my characters might say or do” – she sees the story afresh! More importantly, she says: “Language is bound up with the way we see the world. And despite teasing similarities, even the most closely related languages do not match, word for word. A switch in language means a switch in perception.”
Indeed, it is armed with these last two sentences that I approach any play-on-words. And while I do not normally adhere to the concept of believing that the original author is sitting beside me – ‘this is what the author would have written, here, today, were s/he writing in English’ – I believe that translating the pun is where we, as translators, shouldn’t feel too guilty in allowing ourselves that romantic privilege – all translators do it in spite of themselves, I am sure.
Without resorting to a dictionary, or another quotation, I need firstly to ask just what a pun is and its intention. Actually, I prefer to think of a ‘play-on-words’, for such a title offers me at least two clues to go at: ‘play’ and ‘words’. Having fun with words, then? This, however, should not distract me from the pun’s possible intention, which could be anything from comical confusion – staged farces couldn’t live without them – to corrosive satire – extract the puns in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and we’d be left with half a book.
But I do believe that Lena Kaarbebol’s wise words offer that handy “tool” with which to approach the pun, which either works by a rare literal translation, or by creating another pun – all depending upon its satirical importance. Or it doesn’t work at all, in which case I might look to ‘compensate’ with a preceding or subsequent sentence – gain something elsewhere in translation, as Sarah Addams might put it. After all, as Phyllis Zatlin rightly points out: ‘A pun that is not translated as a pun stills yields its information content.’
Bearing in mind Laurence Venuti’s very valid concerns about the status of the translator today – which isn’t a good one – I guess what I’m trying to say is that a translator should strive to get as much fun out of translating as possible. Language is bound up with the way we see the world, and conceptual metaphor, the proverb, the pun, are all ways in which we have the possibility to delve right into the spirit of the text – why not imagine the source text author is looking on with a smile?
As for the pun, then, my strategy is a simple one: if nothing comes to mind immediately – which is rare; I tend to work quickly – then I move on, leave it to the subconscious process; something will come along in the next 24 hours, rather like the source text author might work.
For Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, I did just that: met with my first ‘hurdle’ on page 3 and decided to move on:
AEH: ‘[...] There are places in Jebb’s Sophocles where the responsibility for reading the metre seems to have been handed over to the Gas, Light and Coke Company.’
The salient word being ‘metre’ – either poetic beat or something we might once have put a shilling in.
My response was:
« Il ya des parties dans le Sophocle de Jebb où la responsabilité concernant la scansion semble avoir été mise en place en accordance avec les mesures de sa taille. »
My gloss is:
‘It there has parts in the Sophocles of Jebb where the responsibility concerning the scansion seems to have been put in place in accordance with the measurements of his waist.’
What is the purpose here of Stoppard’s pun? Primarily to make the audience laugh. One doesn’t put money in a ‘metre’ in France exactly, so I chose to play with ‘mesure’ – ‘measurement’ in English – which can be used for poetry as well as clothes sizes. If I’ve managed to keep with the theme, yet chosen to play with a different word, then perhaps I’ve attained my goal with part compensation. I believe the translation works equally well.
A pun I was actually able to put to the test earlier this year, on a real live French boy, was my translation of a chapter from children’s author Roald Dahl’s The BFG – now here’s a writer who enjoyed his word play! And rightly so: nobody appreciates a pun more than a child; I think it’s the thrill of getting it. My daughter loves this one in particular:
‘Meanings is not important,’ said the BFG. ‘I cannot be right all the time. Quite often I is left instead of right.’
The translation I tested on the French boy reads:
« Les signifiances n’avons pas d’importance, dit le GGG. Je ne peux pas toujours avoir des raisons. Des fois c’est plutôt des raisins. »
Here is something of a part back/part literal translation:
‘Meanings has not any importance, said the BFG. I cannot always have reasons. Sometimes it’s more like grapes.’
The ‘left’ and ‘right’ wordplay was out of the question, but again I was able to work with the same sentence, and add to the theme of food: ‘avoir raison’ – translating as ‘to be right’; literally ‘to have reason’ – and ‘avoir raisins’, literally ‘to have grapes’. Once more, if something was lost, something else was gained – Roald Dahl is one of those writers I can’t help but feel is sitting beside me! As for my little French friend, well, his mum tells me he now uses it at parties.
Very free rewriting is better than omission, I have heard said somewhere, I just can’t remember where... And as I sit here writing this blog, keeping in mind all I have said, I arbitrarily turn a page of Lewis Carroll’s The Annotated Alice and meet with:
“Why did you call him tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily. “Really you are very dull.”
Still looks scary out of context, doesn’t it... but that’s all it is, out of context. I must have a go at translating the book one day.
Sarah Addams and Lena Kaarbebol quotations taken from a copy of Outside in, Translating Children’s Literature
Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, 1997, Faber and Faber
Roald Dahl’s The BFG, 1996, A Ted smart Publication
Phylis Zatlin quotation taken from her Theatrical Translation and Film Adaptation, 2005, Multilingual Matters Ltd
The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll – chapter provided by BJ Epstein

Biography of Chris Rose:
After graduating in French Language and Literature with subsidiary Spanish from The University of Sheffield, I have mainly taught English, in London, on the south east coast of England, and in France, where I lived for nearly eight years. It was in France where I also began to write, completing a novel as well as a number of short stories. I’ve also dabbled in children’s stories – not the easier option some might believe.
I am currently reading for a Masters in Literary Translation at The UEA, where I am able to combine just about all my language interests in the one package; it is a course I’d recommend for any budding novelist/poet/ translator...

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