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.


  1. He makes a valid general point and then gets the particulars all wrong.
    As for theatres round there, there’s of course the Théâtre du Rond-Point itself, but also quite a few others tucked into the side streets. Now I have been to the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, and it is indeed often accessed from the Rond-Point in the North. But you’re right that no one would say it’s at the Rond-Point.
    What I have more problems with is the translation of “saugrenu” as “preposterous”: the latter has just too negative a connotation. There is no exact equivalent of “saugrenu” in English, but why not leave it at its basic meaning, which is “absurd”? French does have “absurde”, but in my recollection it’s much rarer than “absurd” in English, precisely because “saugrenu” is available.

  2. marie-lucie says

    “Saugrenu” is different from “preposterous” but also from “absurd(e)” (meaning either the French or English word).
    To me, “absurde” belongs in an intellectual discussion. “C’est absurde!” cuts the discussion short: the other person, or the opinion being discussed, is illogical. “Preposterous”, a word with a very British flavour, seems to me to combine illogicality with ridicule, with some pomposity on the part of the speaker.
    “Saugrenu” is neither of these: it is not an intellectual word that would be used in philosophical discussion, and the meaning is something like (though not quite) “far-fetched” or “outlandish” or even “eyebrow-raising”. For instance, the parents of an overimaginative child might exclaim “Mais où est-ce qu’il va chercher ces idées saugrenues!” (Where is he getting those outlandish ideas from?): the point is that the ideas in question are far beyond the range of what a normal person would ever come up with. The word is also used about an utterance or action which seems out of place – not as a moral or social value judgement but simply because the behaviour is very strange given the context or the circumstances. For instance, one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is that the sufferers (like very small children) put things away in strange places – “des endroits saugrenus” – such as a piece of clothing in the refrigerator. Such behaviour is not totally absurd as it has a certain logic to it (a refrigerator being in a way like a closet), and it is not morally wrong, but it certainly departs from the routine of the average household.
    It seems to me that this latter meaning is the one in the text: the theatre in question is not really the kind of venue that most people would have expected to be chosen for the event.

  3. michael farris says

    I wonder how much preposterous was conditioned by presque (which I assume is ‘almost’). Off the top of my head, it’s about the only adjective that implies incredulity that can work with ‘almost’
    for me, none of the following makes sense (in this context)
    *almost absurd
    *almost ridiculous
    *almost incongruous
    They could work with enough context “The setting was incongruous, almost absurd …”
    “the theatre in question is not really the kind of venue that most people would have expected to be chosen for the event”
    Then what about recasting the sentence, along the lines of:
    “The setting was, oddly/strangely enough, a/the theater…” ???

  4. Michael Farris: Yes, “presque” means “almost.” Interestingly, for me it has the opposite effect: ?”almost preposterous” sounds very strange, while “almost absurd” sounds quite plausible.
    Insofar as we can trust Google counts, I’m not alone in this: about 0.29% of hits for “absurd” are hits for “almost absurd,” and about 0.016% of hits for “preposterous” are hits for “almost preposterous.” And this is neither here nor there, but the top hit for “almost preposterous” is Language Hat’s main page. 🙂

  5. stewart walduck says

    ‘Presque’ carries a lot of subtext with it. Something like
    ‘A lot of people might say that the setting is absurd (but not us since we don’t exaggerate…but it’s still nice to share with you what the common run think)’.
    Or so it seems to me. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my own linguistic habits.

  6. stewart walduck says

    May I be allowed another comment?
    I have a translation for ‘Le décor est presque saugrenu’….
    ‘There’s something not quite right about the setting’
    – This is polite, educated English for
    ‘The setting is bloody awful’ and seems to me to fit the context quite well (sc. ‘brilliantly’, but I have to understate, it’s in my genes)

  7. marie-lucie says

    I forgot the word “incongruous” in my attempts to translate “saugrenu” above. Definitely that is part of the meaning of “saugrenu”, but the word “incongru” does exist, and like
    “incongruous” it is a more intellectual, less everyday word than “saugrenu”.

  8. michael farris says

    For me (ymmv) in this context and sentence type, ‘preposterous’ lends itself better to degrees than ‘absurd’ (more of an absolute yes or no proposition as a predicate). Though, for the record, I don’t much like either and would be most inclined to recast the sentence.
    Also, though presposterous has undertones of disbelief, it importantly has no necessary undertones of censure (which absurd does have).
    While I’m here, I love this kind of discussion. In translation class, I talk a _lot_ about this kind of thing; the implications of individual words as well as combinations and configurations of words that suddenly mean much more than the sum of their parts (and how, often dictionaries don’t carry this kind of information).
    As I often say, the subject matter of most day to day translation work tends toward the not very interesting, but even the dullest texts can become interesting when looked at as a set of semantic puzzles and/or word games.

  9. FWIW, the book looks to be Michel Foucault, 1926-1984 by Didier Eribon, who isn’t what Americans call a journalist, though he does write for Le Nouvel Observateur and may even be / have been some kind of editor there, and the published translation, by Betsy Wing, reads:

    In a somewhat preposterous setting—the theater where Avenue Montaigne meets the Champs-Elysées—a small crowd assembled in a large room very early on the morning of January 9, 1988.

    The corresponding longer original being:

    Le décor est presque saugrenu. C’est un théâtre, situé au rond-point des Champs-Elysées. Dans une salle annexe, une petite foule s’est rassemblée très tôt, en cette matinée du 9 janvier 1988.

    I don’t know enough Paris to infer the exact location. Nor do the collected essays from the colloquium seem to say explicitly. Google isn’t helping, either.

  10. but even the dullest texts can become interesting when looked at as a set of semantic puzzles and/or word games.
    Not to rain on your parade, michael, but have you ever tried translating an EU directive?

  11. I don’t think of preposterous as British at all, and I have a considerable affection for it. For one thing, when a friend-in-common was asked what she thought of the rumor (as it then was, some 35 years ago) that Gale and I were seeing each other (we were keeping it a bit under our hats at the time), she replied spontaneously, “I think it’s preposterous.” This got back to us, as such things will, and we went into private hysterical laughter.

    Then there is the Shel Silverstein poem. His illustration shows a sort of fantastic bird’s egg with a pair of feet emerging from the bottom, and a very long neck (at least ten times as long as the egg) with a head on the opposite end, suggesting a bird that by nature breaks its shell but never fully emerges from it. The text is:

    This is Arnold,
    A Long-Necked Preposterous,
    Looking for a female
    Long-Necked Preposterous,
    But there aren’t any.

    As something of a Long-Necked Preposterous myself, I am happy to report that this rumor is quite untrue.

  12. I’m glad you brought this thread to life again, because for some reason I didn’t respond to MMcM’s comment at the time: Betsy Wing’s “the theater where Avenue Montaigne meets the Champs-Elysées” seems to me an excellent solution for “un théâtre, situé au rond-point des Champs-Elysées,” the latter being unintelligible to the uninformed, whereas her version enables the reader to easily locate the theater on a map.

  13. marie-lucie says


    Some years ago a new business making futons, bookshelves and other types of modern furniture set up in Halifax. Part of their ad said “… preposterous prices” (after two other adjectives, which I have forgotten). The adjective made me think “outpost of the British Empire”, and I supposed that the owner was British, or perhaps a New Zealander. In fact he was from South Africa. Indeed the furniture was well-made and the prices very reasonable, but unfortunately the business only lasted about a year. I think that there must have been a lack of fit with Halifax culture, symbolized by the word “preposterous” which I don’t think is used here at all.

  14. The life of a small business owner selling low-cost furniture is hard. Many years ago my brother founded a business called Cottage Tables in San Francisco in order to sell, among other things, his simple and cheap but very sturdy table, which he privately called the Volkstisch; it cost only $79. Unfortunately, he had to work so hard to make enough such tables to stay afloat that he had to drop it entirely in favor of his more pretentious and expensive offerings. Eventually he found that his trusted employees were stealing from him, and Cottage Tables was no more.

  15. marie-lucie says

    JC: That was probably what happened to the South African furniture maker. I think that quite often it does not do to price your merchandise too low, as many people will think it is low in quality too. In his case I think that being a recent immigrant a major problem was that he did not know the local market and culture. I hope he had better luck in another city!

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