The things gained in translation

Untangling abstract words from one language to another is a subjective task – and translations often reveal as much about their translator as their original text

Gervaise and Coupeau at the Assommoir. Roofer Coupeau's language has proved especially challenging to translators. Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo
Gervaise and Coupeau at the Assommoir. Roofer Coupeau's language has proved especially challenging to translators. Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo

The limp phrase, ‘like this but not quite’ is often the only disappointing solution to the unsatisfying work of wrangling stubborn, abstract words from one language into another. Translating can be seen as an act of mediation between the author of a text and its foreign readers and while this can bring inspired results, there are some words, especially abstract ones, which in translation leave a lot to be desired.

There has been a recent increase in awareness of this phenomenon largely thanks to the Danish word hygge, a trend that took 2016 by storm. Words such as hygge (meaning, in essence, a cosy, friendly atmosphere), razbliuto (a Russian word describing the sombre feeling you have towards someone you used to love), and Saudade (a Portuguese word expressing a feeling of longing or nostalgia for something you have never experienced)— are especially troubling for the translator. They are words trying to capture an almost intangible feeling or an atmosphere and are consequently encumbered with an extra degree of subjectivity.

The solution to this in the case of the overhyped hygge trend was to accompany the deluge of articles and coffee table books on the concept with stock images of woolly socks, fireplaces, and flickering candles— it is worth noting that mass-production is not a very hygge activity, but never mind. But unlike the great art form that is the lifestyle feature, others, such as the novel, cannot make such ample use of pictures. This calls for some creativity. With innovation, however, comes subjectivity and quickly a watertight piece of poetry or prose is punctured by the assumptions and opinions of the translator and their culture.

For instance, the perceived, and often stereotypical, character of languages and culture (French is chic, German is logical and robotic) can infiltrate even the most direct translations. Take, ‘savoir-faire. In French it literally means ‘to know-to do’. When used in English, however, the impression is given of a charming, worldly person who knows how to dress for any event. In its home language, it is a far less glamorous idea: someone who knows which phone contract is best value for money or how to put up a shelf – experienced and competent rather than rakish. It is the same for lingerie: in English it is frilly and sexy, in French, it is all underwear, from a grand-mèreish beige bra to thermal leggings and everything and anything in between. In short, the English see France as synonymous with sexiness and sophistication – et voila every French word becomes imbued with that impression, regardless of its original meaning.

On the flip side, French has its fair share of anglicismes – or rather americanismes. ‘Chiller’, to chill, is a rising favourite among the Francophone youth. There are already plenty of ways to suggest relaxation in French, but chiller carries a certain amount of uninhibited coolness with associations with the US, or rather, the French perception of what the US is. Chilling is something one might do on a palm-fringed beach in Malibu, not Brittany.

The basest parts of language – swear words and slang – often require the most sophisticated translation. Much was said last week on the subject of how to translate the French word emmerder after President Macron stated that he wished to emmerde his unvaccinated citizens. Rather than attempting to capture the mood Macron was attempting to curate (whatever that may be), translations used in headlines of English news outlets instead reflected the character of the publications themselves: ‘hassle’ for the BBC (then, quite possibly after some agonising debate, changed to the more accurate but less palatable ‘piss off’), The Daily Mail, went for ‘P**s off’ for, and there was an elusive reference to a ‘crude threat’ in The Times

This is just another addition in a long line of attempts to grapple with foreign colloquialisms, especially vulgar ones as translators ponder: how rude is this word? What means the same thing, but is equally offensive, in English?

To muddy the waters further, most works read in translation are classics, written and set many years ago so they have the added culturally distancing force of the past. Emile Zola’s 1877 novel L’Assommoir is often used as an example of this. Zola said the book, a study of alcoholism and poverty in Paris’s working-class districts, was the first novel which tells the truth about the poor, and much of this comes from his efforts to accurately capture the language heard in nineteenth-century Paris slums. The meaning of much of the dialogue, however, is not immediately apparent to even a modern Francophone reader, and as such, L’Assommoir is notorious amongst translators dealing with what one called ‘the problem of slang’.

One fix would be to implement the British equivalent— Oliver Twistesque cockney rhyming slang, for example. But to an Anglophone reader in New York or Sydney this would be as illuminating as the original French. Equally, creating a translation corresponding to the slang of each city’s proletariat is hardly feasible –the story’s set in Paris not East London, after all.

The approach to dealing with this challenge has changed with each edition. The 1897 publication was translated by Ernest Vizetelly who saw the work not so much as an accurate rendering of the lives of the Parisian poor but a means ‘chiefly to diffuse the wholesome lessons against drink, sloth, and ignorance’. Therefore, while trying to preserve some of the ‘spirit of the original’, sought ‘milder expletives and less coarseness of expression than will be found in the French work’. This Victorian earnestness becomes ironic upon learning that after translating La Terre, one of L’Assommoir’s sequels, Vizetelly’s father was prosecuted under obscenity charges and imprisoned for three months.

L’Assommoir’s 1970 translator, Leonard Tancock, also approached the translation of slang with some caution, noting that the most ‘in’ or ‘with it’ expression by its very nature never lasts and ‘becomes incomprehensible in a very short time’. However, his alternative solution — littering the word ‘fuck’ throughout the text according to a sliding scale of the speaker’s class and intelligence, rather than what they had actually said — had no shortage of pitfalls and subjectivities either.

Despite the idiom, I often find that that meaning is not so much lost in translation but rather, as new ideas and implications are heaped onto a translated text, that a new tinge of meaning is gained. There is no real solution apart from undertaking the difficult and time-consuming task of becoming fluent in another language. Until then, it is worth remembering that translations often reveal as much about the translator and their sensibilities as they do about the original text.


Eve Webster