In an effort to find out what exactly is going on in the famous scene in Le Côté de Guermantes when the narrator finally gets to kiss Albertine, a kiss that takes pages and pages to approach the young lady’s cheek and then develops into something apparently much naughtier, I happened on an enjoyable talk by Arthur Goldhammer called “Translating Subtexts: What the Translator Must Know.” After a preamble about the philosophy and low pay scale of professional translation, Goldhammer gets down to the kind of detailed analysis I delight in:
“Straightforward” is not a word that can readily be applied to language, which, like a confidence man, is often most devious when it seems most plain. Consider, just to bring these abstract matters down to the level of concreteness, exhibit A, from a biography of Foucault, in fact, and written, as it happens, by a journalist from Le Nouvel Obs. The book begins:
Le décor est presque saugrenu. C’est un théâtre, situé au rond-point des Champs-Elysées.
I was asked to evaluate the work of another translator. The text began:
The setting was almost preposterous: a theater at the traffic circle on the Champs-Elysées.
What’s wrong with this? Nothing and everything. The translator has made a decision to use the English past for the French historical present, which is fine, though in biography sometimes the English present works better. He has combined the two choppy French sentences into one English sentence, which is excellent. The sense is almost right. But what are we to make of “the circle on the Champs-Elysées?” Rond-point certainly means “traffic circle”: the dictionary says so. But hasn’t the translator ever been to Paris? The avenue boasts two famous “traffic circles,” if you can call them that, one at Etoile, the other at Concorde. As it happens, the writer isn’t thinking of either of these. He means the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées, the smaller, less famous circle where, under the glassy-eyed gaze of Le Drugstore, the great avenue joins the avenues Montaigne and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perhaps the French publisher’s copy editor is at fault, because Rond-Point should have been capitalized in the French. A pedantic point? Maybe, except for one thing: the real intention of the sentence depends on it. For what is preposterous about the location is that the theater in question is the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the first reinforced concrete building in Paris and the site of the famous premier of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The gathering being held there, as described in the remainder of the paragraph, is a memorial colloqium in honor of the dead philosopher, a man more usually associated with such Left-Bank venues as the Collège de France than with this Right-Bank icon of modernism. The occasion being a memorial, the atmosphere was presumably decorously lugubrious, whereas the first performance of Le Sacre triggered a raucous riot. But how much of this can be got into a translation? Not too much. One doesn’t want to overinterpret or weigh heavily on a point the author would prefer to make lightly. Consider:
The setting was almost preposterous: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées at the Rond-Point.
This modified translation supplies some, but not all, of the information implicit but unstated in the French. The translator needn’t flaunt her knowledge; the naming of the theater is enough to compensate for the English reader’s presumable unfamiliarity with Paris geography. What of the writer’s other assumptions: the Left-Right Bank distinction, the début of The Rite of Spring? These are signs, to those who perceive them, of the position from which the writer speaks. Some readers, whether French or English, will fail to perceive these signs, will know no more of Stravinsky in 1913 than the prince d’Agrigente at the Guermantes’ dinner party in Proust knows of Flaubert. But that is the point, really. These opening phrases establish a degree of intimacy between the writer and the knowing reader—the reader who, like the cocky duc de Guermantes, considers himself anything but what he declares himself to be: a pedzouille, a country bumpkin; and the translator, however much he may deplore the writer’s “insider” tone, the meretricious glitter of false sophistication, had better not interfere, for the manner in which an author strikes that distance from his reader is a fundamental trait of style. Some authors, used to the podium, can only lecture; others can only whisper in the reader’s ear. Here, I think, the manner is one of winks and nudges. I conjure up the image of two habitués of the Latin Quarter drinking espresso in the Café du Panthéon or Le Soufflot. “You’ll never guess where they’re holding the Foucault colloquium,” one says. “Where?” the other asks. “C’est presque saugrenu. Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.” “Mais c’est quoi alors?” “Ben, tu sais bien, cette espèce de blockhaus en béton près du Rond-Point.” “Ah, celui du Sacre de Stravinsky?” “Ça y est, mon vieux, tu te rends compte?”
The problem is, though, that the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is not at the Rond-Point on the Champs-Elysées; it’s not even particlularly close, being several blocks south at 15, avenue Montaigne, near the Pont de l’Alma—in fact, you could probably throw a rock into the Seine from the entrance if you had a good arm. This means that his analysis of the sentence has to be wrong; a glance at my map of Paris suggests that the biographer means the Théâtre du Rond-Point, which has been open since 1981 (Foucault died in 1984), but at any rate it can’t have been “celui du Sacre de Stravinsky” unless the biographer, like Goldhammer, mistook its location. But never mind; as he himself says, “misreading is more common than one might think,” and what’s important is the effort to ferret out the subtleties that lie beneath the bare words of the text. I just hope he didn’t repeat the mistake in a published article.
The error that really annoyed me came a little later on, when he writes:
Errors can be signs. When we hear someone say, in English, “Thank you for inviting my wife and I,” instead of “my wife and me,” we suspect that, having grown up in a home where it might have been common to say, “Me and the missus thank you for the invite,” the speaker has, by way of overcompensation toward the “cultivated” norm, substituted the nominative where the objective case is required—a case of misguided or jumped-up politeness.
This “hypercorrection” theory is incorrect, and the fact that Goldhammer feels so comfortable repeating it is one more demonstration of how little awareness there is of the findings of linguistics.