The Intricacies of Translating a Single Sentence
At this year’s ALTA Conference (which will take place October 3-6 here in Rochester and will be the Best ALTA Ever . . . get more info here and if you come, I promise you a good time), we’re going to have a roundtable organized by Aron Aji to investigate the difficulties of translating a single sentence. Here’s his current description:
Knotty Little Things: One Sentence Translation Roundtable
The collective craft and creativity of a group focusing intently on a translation challenge can often work wonders. This roundtable will focus on a series of sentences that each presents a particularly knotty translation challenge. We will workshop the sentences as a group. Your one sentence should be around 35 words in length. In advance of the conference, please email the moderator (aronaji[at]yahoo.com) a one-page document that includes: the original, the translation, and the brief statement of the translation challenge(s). Since there will be no panel of presenters per se, we will attempt to workshop as many sentences as we can.
I think this is going to be a brilliant event, and coincidentally, this piece in the New Yorker highlights exactly why:
For the modern American reader, few lines in French literature are as famous as the opening of Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” Nitty-gritty tense issues aside, the first sentence of “The Stranger” is so elementary that even a schoolboy with a base knowledge of French could adequately translate it. So why do the pros keep getting it wrong?
Within the novel’s first sentence, two subtle and seemingly minor translation decisions have the power to change the way we read everything that follows. What makes these particular choices prickly is that they poke at a long-standing debate among the literary community: whether it is necessary for a translator to have some sort of special affinity with a work’s author in order to produce the best possible text.
Ryan Bloom goes on to explain how the “traditional” translation of this opening line has been “Mother died today.” But that taints our perception of Meursault:
In 1982, both Joseph Laredo and Kate Griffith produced new translations of “L’Étranger,” each opting for Gilbert’s revised title, “The Stranger,” but preserving his first line. “Mother died today” remained, and it wasn’t until 1988 that the line saw a single word changed. It was then that American translator and poet Matthew Ward reverted “Mother” back to Maman. One word? What’s the big deal? A large part of how we view and—alongside the novel’s court—ultimately judge Meursault lies in our perception of his relationship with his mother. We condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits but on our assessment of him as a person. Does he love his mother? Or is he cold toward her, uncaring, even?
First impressions matter, and, for forty-two years, the way that American readers were introduced to Meursault was through the detached formality of his statement: “Mother died today.” There is little warmth, little bond or closeness or love in “Mother,” which is a static, archetypal term, not the sort of thing we use for a living, breathing being with whom we have close relations. To do so would be like calling the family dog “Dog” or a husband “Husband.” The word forces us to see Meursault as distant from the woman who bore him.
That little shift from “mother” to “maman” is fascinating and really gets at the heart of translation decision making. But wait! There’s more:
The linguistic fluency of any good translator tells them that, syntactically, “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte,” is not the most fluid English sentence. So rather than the more literal translation, “Today, Mother has died,” we get, “Mother died today,” which is the smoother, more natural rendering. But the question is: In changing the sentence’s syntax, are we also changing its logic, its “mystical” deeper meaning?
The answer is a resounding oui!
Rendering the line as “Mother died today” completely neglects a specific ordering of ideas that offer insight into Meursault’s inner psyche. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader comes to see that Meursault is a character who, first and foremost, lives for the moment. He does not consciously dwell on the past; he does not worry about the future. What matters is today. The single most important factor of his being is right now.
Highly recommend reading the entire article — it really gets at some of the most interesting aspects of looking at literature in translation.