Vaporizing Nonstandard French.

When I started reading this passage from Jason Farago’s NYRB review of two books by Édouard Louis, History of Violence and Who Killed My Father, I thought I’d add it as a comment to my previous post, but as I read on I thought it was too much for a comment and would make a good post on its own. History of Violence is about Louis’ rape by a man he picked up late on Christmas Eve, 2012, and his ambivalence about his decision to report it to the police:

What elevates History of Violence beyond the limits of its social determinism is the marvelous structure of its narration. It is style, much more than characterization, that gives the novel its moral and political force. “Tell it in the order that it happened,” one police officer tells Édouard, but Louis does nothing of the sort. The novel begins after the crime, back in Picardy, where Édouard is staying with his sister Clara. We jump from there back to the morning after the rape, then forward to the police station, then months into the future. Édouard and Reda meet on page 45 but don’t get to the apartment until page 80. The novel’s climax is not the rape, which occurs about halfway through, but rather the argument over whether to go to the police. Fracturing the account this way does more than a hundred Bourdieu-parroting apothegms to establish the social stakes of the novel, and to demonstrate how violence stretches past the personal.

Much of this comes to us not through Édouard’s first-person narration but through quotations from Clara, whom Édouard eavesdrops on back in Picardy, “hidden on the other side of the door” while she recounts the crime to her husband, “her voice compounded, as always, of fury, resentment, irony too, and resignation.” It is not only that: Clara speaks in a demotic, regional French that flouts grammatical rules and brims with class markers. Far more than The End of Eddy, this book uses popular speech as a compositional tool; Édouard’s Christmas nightmare returns to him, and comes to us for the first time, in the French he abandoned along with his given name. Indeed, Louis often interrupts Clara’s working-class French with italicized asides in Édouard’s more formal language, the better to underscore their social distance.

This grinding between registers of French is the crucial trick of History of Violence. Hundreds of Clara’s sentences use a common colloquial form in which the subject of the sentence is followed by a redundant pronoun—for example, Reda il criait, literally “Reda he was shouting.” (This grammatical tic is called, in a coincidence some of Louis’s political opponents might appreciate, dislocation à gauche.) She uses nonstandard contractions like t’es or t’aurais, she uses the highly conversational quoi for emphasis, and she uses regional, lower-class pronunciations that Louis renders with misspellings (pis instead of puis, “then”). Multiple sentences are run together with commas or with no punctuation at all. As for Édouard’s own speech, more polished, more Parisian, Clara describes it as sounding “like some kind of politician” (“son vocabulaire de ministre”). Their father, in The End of Eddy, thought of such correct French as the language of “faggots.”

I found Louis’s rendering of Clara’s French winning in many places, hammy and overdrawn in a few. But the distinct linguistic registers disappear in Lorin Stein’s English translation, which makes almost no effort to reproduce them. A sentence of Clara’s like “L’usine elle embauche plus,” with both a redundant pronoun and a nonstandard negative, appears in English as the stiffly correct “They’ve stopped hiring at the factory.” “J’ai rien dit moi” becomes “I just kept my mouth shut.” Clara’s tumbling, unpunctuated run-on sentences get chopped up into bite-size morsels; conversational repetitions are omitted; colloquial ça’s and quoi’s get vaporized. All this makes the dozens of pages in which Clara, not Édouard, recounts what happened that Christmas Eve—at a personal, social, and linguistic remove—tonally indistinguishable from Édouard’s narration.

We discussed pis = puis earlier this year; I agree with Farago that the translator should have made some effort to bring across the difference in translation.


  1. Thought this has something to do with vanishing French dialects / languages of France, and got confused when the examples cited are entirely Hochfranzösisch, as most people would speak when they’re not making an effort not to.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Yeah – what confused me was the lack of commas!

  3. Learning French in Canada, seeing “pis” called a lower-class marker rather than a universal form of everyday speech is an interesting one…

  4. Trond Engen says:

    It seems to me that the contrast is rather between everyday speech and the intellectualism or abstraction encoded in the formalised language. Not that I’ve actually read anyhing beyond a few quotes in translation.

  5. Since Farago clearly knows French well and has read the book in the original, I think we can take his word for it about “a demotic, regional French that flouts grammatical rules and brims with class markers” regardless of how we feel about the few bits quoted.

  6. oof. the kind of translation that destroys what a book does, while making it read smoothly to exactly the audiences who most intensely need what it does… my absolute least favorite kind.

    and it’s so odd to be in a moment where publishers will go for translations of “classics” that explore registers that are likely closer to the original positioning of their language (i’m thinking of maria dahvana headley’s Beowulf, which i haven’t read all of yet), but when it comes to translations of contemporary writing, they’re so committed to their glottophobie that they’ll do this kind of thing.

  7. Exactly!

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    maria dahvana headley’s Beowulf

    I read a review of that which made it sound very good indeed. What do you think so far? (Wondering about putting it on my Christmas list …)

    Vaporising non-standard French


  9. >“J’ai rien dit moi” becomes “I just kept my mouth shut.”

    Would “Me, I said nothing” be that much of a stretch of the imagination? That seems a no-brainer, though I’m sure most of the so-called demotic and ungrammatical dialog must be much harder to render — and to do so consistently across the book harder even still.

    E.g., for “L’usine elle embauche plus”, maybe something like “The factory ain’t hiring no more” would do — it’s nonstandard, it gets at the pervasive double negative, and it transposes the “redundant” duplication from the noun/pronoun to the adj/adv. But it also strongly suggests a particular English regionality, which I’m guessing might not jibe with other elements of the novel.

    The true challenge isn’t rendering any particular phrase, but confronting the fact that in general it is not easy to systematically map nonstandard dialects from one language to another — that is, without doing so in the highly intentional way of “The Guid Sisters” or some such.

    Having now said that, I expect readers of this blog will have plenty of examples of consistent long translations of nonstandard dialects that manage to render the original character and also avoid analogical implications of regionality in the Anglosphere, and I certainly look forward to those.

  10. No, you’re right, it is hard, and I’m sure any attempt would be picked apart by critical readers. But the attempt should have been made anyway.

  11. One way to render Louis´ more demotic French dialogues into American English would be to throw in a little more profanity. “J’ai rien dit moi” = “I didn’t say shit”, “L’usine elle embauche plus”=”The factory doesn’t fucking hire anymore”. That has the advantage of seeming informal without being regional or coded as “gangster speech”. When I see a double negative on the printed page in my head I almost always hear a Jimmy Cagney voice. “That ain’t right, see..”

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    I get the impression that in English profanity is more specifically deployed as same-sex informal solidarity-speech; it might not be a good match for Clara’s sociolect when talking to her husband.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    demotic, regional French

    While Hat is surely right that Farago knows whereof he speaks, this is actually a confusion of two quite different things; a fact which would be immediately obvious to a German (or Scot), if less so to an Englishman or (perhaps especially) to a Frenchman.

    The actual examples given strike me as pretty much all standard features of French as She is Actually Spoke, as much in Paris as in Picardy.

  14. As an aside, the frequent absence of the double negative in colloquial French (“j’ai rien dit, moé!”) contrasted with its frequent presence in colloquial English (“I didn’t say nothin’!”) has always been the best argument against the good old double-negative grammar pedants.

    They’ll crow that the double negative is “sub-standard” because it supposedly defies mathematics and logic. But since the principles of these two disciplines are universal, then the double negative ought to be “sub-standard” in French as well.

    Yet in that language, it is the single or “ne”-less negative that is considered “sub-standard”.

  15. I explained about the French double negative to a peever coworker once, and he immediately responded that the French were wrong. “The whole French language is… wrong?” “Yes.” Such is the peever mentality.

  16. I suppose he would also be the type to deal with linguistic barriers by talking. more. LOUDLY.

  17. Very likely.

  18. David Eddyshaw: You are quite right, the examples look like colloquial spoken French. Period. With the exception of “quoi” as a discourse marker, every feature listed is quite alive and kicking on this side of the Atlantic.

    JJM: An even better example of the arbitrary nature of linguistic prestige is how you can have a complete reversal of the prestige (or lack thereof) of one and the same feature across space or time. An example of the former is loss of rhoticity: this is low-prestige (and therefore losing ground) in the United States and Canada, whereas in the British Iles rhoticity lacks prestige and thus is losing ground to non-rhoticity.

    An example of the latter involves Québec French: the diphthong spelled “oi” is realized as /wa/ in standard French on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Québec the older realization /we/ is possible with a number of words: realization of (say) “oiseau” as /wezo/ instead of /wazo/ is either uneducated/vulgar or intimate/affectionate (I normally realize the word as /wazo/, but when I recently saw a wounded bird my spontaneous reaction was “pauvre oiseau” /povwezo/). Students of the history of French familiar with this sociolinguistic variable in Québec are typically amazed when they learn that back in the seventeenth century, the realization /wezo/ was associated with the aristocracy and royal court, with /wazo/, in Paris, being decidely vulgar (and, of course, condemned by many peevers of the time).

  19. …and in the above “British Iles” should be “British Isles”. A spelling gallicism, I guess one could call it.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Pah. We only put in the -s- in the first place to show that we knew French, and then the French went and deleted the -s- from their own word just to make us look stupid.

  21. As marie-lucie explained a while ago, French negative concord is not “double negative”, at least historically and etymologically. pas, rien, jamais are (or were) not intrinsically negative. Obviously, in “J’ai rien dit moi” rien is negative…

  22. @D-AW, LH, DE:
    to me, the thing that matters isn’t capturing the grammatical traits of the french (be it slang-y, regional, or just(!) vernacular) in the english, it’s reflecting the range of the frenches used in the original, the gaps between them, and the social connotations of each. i really appreciate how the review does that descriptively (“grinding between registers”, etc); it’s a harder task to enact in a translation, of course. and any solution is going to be successful only in a particular time and place, because language isn’t static…

    it’s not exactly shocking that all this is ignored in translations, since u.s. literary english in general is usually awful at doing this in itself – in large part as a result of the flattening effects of MFA programs, and the narrow range of who gets published. we rarely get vernacular english as she is actually spoke in literary fiction (and even most paraliterature), as opposed to a kind of self-perpetuating fake-vernacular that’s at best dated and stilted. i do wonder if french literary writing manages to be better at that, since there’s more of an active/enforced/acknowledged distinction between registers…

    i think that kind of explicit awareness is part of why most of the u.s. anglophone writers i can think of who do vernacular well are black, queer or both – and i should say that i’m very much not thinking about black folks writing AAVE, but (for example) delany’s white characters in The Mad Man and Hogg, who speak a wide range of vernacular englishes (of the 1980s & 90s). chevisa woods (The Albino Album) is a good white (queer) example, but she’s from the south and lives in nyc, so there’s some of the same effect from the markedness of those regional dialects…

    i’m enjoying the headley so far, and would recommend it as good to think with to anyone who’s down to read another version of the poem, though the flavor is definitely going to work for some a lot more than others… i have to confess a little bias, though, because she and i have crossed paths enough that i get the added pleasure of hearing a familiar voice in the writing.

  23. we rarely get vernacular english as she is actually spoke in literary fiction (and even most paraliterature), as opposed to a kind of self-perpetuating fake-vernacular that’s at best dated and stilted.

    Exactly! This is one big reason I generally prefer reading Russian writers, who have not lost that connection to the rhythms and usages of the spoken language.

  24. John Emerson says:

    Long time no see. I got kicked off Facebook for insulting my Hoog Blokland ancestors, so I wandered over.

    This reminds me of the thrill I felt when I read Celine’s Voyage au Bout de Nuit. It was like nothing I’d read before but I found it totally intelligible , and more intimate somehow, even though I know only written French.

    And it also reminded me of the long Balzac story (Gobseck I think) edited as a learner’s text for intermediate students. The notes talked about Balzac’s signature grammatical error (something about the conditional) over and over again but made few helpful points.

    A companion volume to Voyage put Celine’s language differences into six categories — informal educated speech. class dialect, regional dialect, two others, and Celine’s personal idiosyncracies.

    Mark Twain notes at the beginning of Hickleberry Finn that he was rendering three different non-standard dialect. not just one.

  25. This reminds me of the thrill I felt when I read Celine’s Voyage au Bout de Nuit. It was like nothing I’d read before but I found it totally intelligible

    Yes, same here! And do stick around; you don’t have to ignore your old blogpals just because FB exists and is newer and shinier.

  26. On the regional-dialect translation point, I remember my delight as a child watching “Taggart” – a Scottish detective series, set in Glasgow – in France, and realising that the dubbing artists had carefully given every Glaswegian character a Marseillais accent, and left the rest – east of Scotland and England – in standard Parisian French.

  27. Brilliant!

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Taggart” wiz brull.

  29. John Cowan says:

    An earlier discussion of translating dialects by dialects, including in Taggart (to which I have linked). But it is all to the point (even digressions at LH are on point).

  30. @ John Emerson— please, what was the signature grammatical error of the character in the Balzac novel? I have googled it to no avail

  31. Perhaps this is relevant. Hopefully JE will come back and provide more details if he has any.

  32. John Emerson says:

    It was a rarely used verb form, conditional or subjunctive, which no one used in speech but which was required for ”pure classical French “. That’s all I remember. It is the main thing responsible, as I have read, for the idea that Balzac is a bad stylist.

  33. PlasticPaddy says:

    @je, neil
    In French, the particular usage of simple past (which is largely absent from the spoken language) and imperfect is something where writers have different, often “ungrammatical” approaches.
    Hrre are some Flaubert examples:
    Here is one from Balzac:
    Dix minutes après, Petit-Claud entrait dans l’horrible chambre de David et disait à Eve : « Retournez chez vous, Madame » (Balzac, Illusions perdues).
    I do not know if this is what JE meant, i.e there is also some hesitation about infrequently used subjunctive constructions, but I could find nothing really concretely citable.

    There are also “opposite” examples, where the simple past is used when the imperfect is expected, e.g., after déjà.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bourdieu-parroting apothegms

    This will henceforth replace sapristi as my default imprecation in moments of extreme frustration.

  35. Apothèmes perroquet de Bourdieu!!

  36. Lars Mathiesen says:

    L’eusses-tu-cru? is the same (synthetic) verb form, I think. Or maybe that’s the subjonctif plus-que-parfait while the ones at the link are the (identical?!) conditionnel passé, deuxième forme.

    (Some of them have aurait/serait which makes it the conditionnel passé, première forme).

  37. PlasticPaddy says:

    Having looked some more, I suspect the problem may be like the possible errors in English when trying to form “grammatical” sentences like.
    (a) if I was ill, the cause was understandable.
    (b) If I was ill, the cause would have been understandable, if you had tried to understand.
    (c) if i were (had been) ill, the cause would be (would have been) understandable.
    I can find isolated examples in Balzac online, e.g.,

    Si le savant vieillard quittait le tribunal, le président était hors d’état de formuler un jugement (Le cabinet des antiques)

  38. John Emerson says:

    Lars may have it,

    I read “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” after I had read Celine, but as I remember, the innocent seducee also spoke an illiterate version of French.

    Also as I remember, once seduced she became too enthusiastic for her somewhat older seducer to keep up with. Sed non satiata (cf. the holy Bible and Baudelaire).

  39. per incuriam says:

    …and in the above “British Iles” should be “British Isles”

    Actually one ‘s’ was correct, you just had it in the wrong place i.e. “British Isle”.

    And Scotland? If rhoticity lacks prestige there then that’s Jean Brodie past her prime.

  40. @per incuriam: I have a tendency, when discussing the Harry Potter films with overenthusiastic children, to refer to them as “The Prime of Miss Minerva McGonagall.”

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