An article by Ros Schwartz (in Dalkey Archive’s Context, reprinted from the Feb-March 2003 issue of The Linguist) discusses the importance of the translator (at one point making a comparison to the performer of a work of music); the whole piece is interesting, but I’d like to single out this example from her own work:
In Orlanda, by Belgian author Jacqueline Harpman, one of the characters suddenly switches from the formal “vous” to the informal “tu.” This is a crucial moment in the narrative. The speaker is a prissy, bourgeois woman of thirty-five. She is addressing a young man with whom she entertains a somewhat ambiguous relationship. For the Francophone reader, this unwitting switch from “vous” to “tu” signals an important shift in the woman’s feelings. The problem for the translator is how to convey this to the English-speaking reader with equal subtlety, when we only have the word “you” for both “tu” and “vous.” The characters are already on first-name terms, so that is not an option. I decided to have the woman put her hand on the man’s arm.
As-tu remarqué que depuis tout à l’heure tu me tutoies? Elle ne s’était pas rendu compte et rougit violemment.
“Haven’t you noticed how you’ve suddenly become quite familiar with me?” She had put her hand on his arm without realising and blushed deep red.
I think this works in terms of cultural equivalence. And that is what translators need to do—find cultural as well as linguistic parallels.
I disagree, at least in terms of this example. To me, inventing a touch on the arm goes too far. What’s next, changing a troika to a snowmobile because Americans aren’t familiar with troikas? Sure, it’s a little awkward to say “Did you notice you used tu with me?” (or “a familiar pronoun”), but I think it’s the translator’s responsibility to translate what the author wrote, not create some sort of “cultural equivalent.” Of course, authors translating their own work frequently rewrite it in the process, but that’s their right. But I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me, and as always, I welcome debate. (Via wood s lot.)