Brigid Brophy doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but Bernard Hoepffner (who’s been working for a decade on a French translation of her In Transit that he can’t get publishers interested in) has an interesting discussion of the problems of translating a novel full of multilingual puns—a novel, to make things worse, whose narrator is of indeterminate gender:

This creates different problems in English and in French, and it is of little importance to try to work out in which language the constraint is more difficult to overcome (e.g. personal pronouns in both languages, possessive pronouns in English, adjectives and participles in French); it is sufficient to know that when writing the book, the author, if faced with a particular problem which seems impossible to solve, can always choose an alternative formulation (decide to remove a word, a sentence, a paragraph, scrap the whole book even); this solution is not available to the translator, who must translate each sentence as it was written, more or less each word, but unfortunately not as it was written (Pierre Ménard was not a translator)… To take just one example, the adjectives applied to the narrator, innocuous enough in English, are gendered in French. To take a single instance, in the sentence «The problem was the more acute because I was alone in a concourse of people» «I was alone» would normally be translated by «j’étais seul» or «j’étais seule» depending on the gender; this being impossible, another construction had to be found: «Ma solitude au milieu d’une foule de gens ne faisait qu’aviver le problème», which would retranslate back into English as «My solitude in a concourse of people made the problem more acute.» A different sentence although not a mistranslation. Numerous examples show that, in the case of a translation of In Transit, the French text will rarely be, through the simple test of back-translation, a strictly faithful translation of the English original. A count of the adjectives used in the translation would certainly indicate that a great number of them (at any rate a greater percentage than is normally found in a text written in French) do not change according to gender (propre, aimable, etc.). In most cases, the passé composé was also ruled out as the auxiliary être requires a past participle with an «e» if the subject is a woman, or, if the verb is constructed with avoir, the object (if the object is the narrator) cannot not be placed before the verb («Il a regardé Patricia», «Patricia, quand il l’a regardée»).

He says “In Transit has been a frequent companion; in the same way that, in nineteenth-century novels, it was through the Bible that the children of the poor were taught to read and write, I somehow learned to read English «in transit».” Even if I’m not enthusiastic about the idea of reading the actual book, I enjoyed reading about his difficulties in wrestling with it. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Nice to see, at least, that he was using my local library, Swiss Cottage.

  2. Transductor, treasoner. –Douglas Hofstadter

  3. I cannot imagine the horrors of translating such a piece. En français, bien sûr, all agreements must be accurate so as to remove any possible ambiguity of subject. To avoid such ambiguity all while maintaining ambiguity of gender by replacing « J’étais seul(e) » and re-working it to « Ma solitude au milieu d’une foule de gens ne faisait qu’aviver le problème » is an impressive demonstration of traductological savoir-faire, un cas exemplaire, if you will, of the untranslatable becoming translatable (though this was sans doute ulcer-inducing).
    My only hope is that the Brophy will be remunerated for his translation per word count in French!

  4. John, the phrase is a lot older than Hofstadter.

  5. Yes, but I think he was quoting it for Hofstadter’s peculiar way of transducing.

  6. Incidentally, someday I’ll have to actually read Le Ton Beau de Marot and post about it. People keep bringing it up in discussions of translation, but much as I enjoyed GEB, when Le Ton Beau came out and I leafed through it in bookstores I found myself intensely irritated by what seemed to me his excessively clever superficiality. But I may have been unfair.

  7. No, that’s fair. But it does have its moments.

  8. I agree with Conrad.

  9. French is bad enough, imagine translating into a language like Arabic – which has, if I recall correctly, gender distinction in the first and second person pronouns. It seems that once you got to that point it would be completely impossible to remain agnostic about the narrator’s gender. What would the correct response be in that case, other than “hope that the market for Arabic-language books dries up”?

  10. David Marjanović says

    I’ll ask my sister how old “traduttore, traditore” is… certainly several 100 years.

  11. “French is bad enough, imagine translating into a language like Arabic – which has, if I recall correctly, gender distinction in the first and second person pronouns. ”
    or tanslating into a language that requires marking of social hierarchy, or is more specific about differnet varieties of plural, or that doesn’t allow much use of tense to sequence events……. All that is what translators get paid for. Sometimes they just punt and you get the King James Bible.

  12. Well, I think there’s a difference between providing information that’s required by the grammar but not specified in the text, like hierarchy, and hiding information that’s deliberately hidden by the text but is made hard to hide by the grammar of the target language. The latter is considerably harder.

  13. I see the difference. I think it depends on your personality type. In the second case what the translator is doing is a kind of passive-aggresssive behavior. That comes pretty easily for some people.

  14. My or rather Hofstadter’s point was that to translate “Traduttore traditore” as “Translator, traitor” or “Translators are traitors” is far too clever a translation, thus undermining the point of the saying; therefore (as LH has rightly inferred) Hofstadter devised a truly crappy translation which would by its form illustrate the saying’s truth.
    As for Le Ton Beau de Marot, I could write a book of about half the length expatiating on its errors and inconsistencies, and actually considered doing so, first as a letter to the author, then as an open letter to the author, until I concluded that as much fun as it would be I couldn’t justify the time that would have to be spent — but I loved the book (unlike, say, the books of Bill Bryson, which have about one error per page and fill me with weariness and disgust (for I am hobbitlike enough to like to read books explaining things I already know)), and I carried it about with me for weeks, causing total strangers to start up conversations with me in French, which I neither speak nor read, so that I would have to explain over and over that only the title is French; at that, I’m grateful I didn’t have to read the francophone Egbert B. Gebstadter version, The Graced Tone of Clément: A la louange de la mélodie des mots.

  15. Yup, I’m with John on this one. Hofstadter isn’t (and doesn’t claim to be, I think) the greatest authority on translation issues, or French, or anything at all outside his fairly narrow field of computer science. But to pass by him (& especially this book) entirely is probably to miss a lot of smart thoughts about language.

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