3 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Françoise Sagan rocketed to international fame with her debut novel Bonjour, Tristesse. After failing her baccalaureate, she wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old and it became the novel that all her other works would be measured against. It has the trademark French style, lean and sober, with philosophical undertones. The quintessential coming-of-age story focuses on 17-year-old Cécile, a young woman struggling with her need to attract men her father’s age, the relationship with her playboy father and the shallow lifestyle that they both lead. Typical of Sagan’s novels, we are presented with the examined lives of the disenchanted bourgeoisie. In Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Sagan’s That Mad Ache (published as La Chamade in France and the U.S., originally), this theme once again presents itself as an integral part of Sagan’s psychological novel.

Instead of a teenage Cécile, we are introduced to a thirty-year-old Lucile who is living with fifty-year old real estate tycoon, Charles. She meets the young, attractive Antoine, a poor yet principled man working for a French publishing company. Antoine is also thirty and also dating someone older, Diane, a forty-five year old socialite. Lucile and Antoine meet at one of the many dinner parties that both of them are required to go to because of whom they are dating. Of course, there is an immediate attraction between them over a shared joke, but also a kindred sense that they are both interlopers in the rich lives of their partners:

She burst out laughing, and as she did so, both Diane and Charles looked over at the two of them. Diane and Charles had been placed next to each other, at the far end of the table, looking directly towards their protégés —thirty-year old children who refused to act like grown-ups. Lucile cut her laugh short: after all, she was making nothing of her life, and there was no one that she loved. What a joke! If she hadn’t by nature been so full of joie de vivre, she would have killed herself.

That last line is vintage Sagan and, in many cases, her dark humor saves this novel from becoming too frivolous. From the onset, Lucile lives a life of privilege and is able to wake up every morning and do whatever she feels like. Reading about someone who has everything isn’t that intriguing. Luckily, we are introduced to the sacrifice that Lucile must make in order to have this lifestyle. She lives with the truth that her love for Charles is not a passionate love, but is more of a tender fondness for the man he is and what he gives her. He loves her unconditionally, which is how a parent loves a child. With Antoine, there is passion and consequences, there is a risk—it has conditions. As a reader, we need this conflict to keep us engaged. Otherwise, we are left with a sense of vapidity that Sagan exploits in the bourgeoisie. And once Lucile decides to leave Charles and live with Antoine, there is a looming sense of tension between the two:

Sometimes he would cast a furtive, questioning glance at her. Her laziness, her incredible ability to do nothing at all and never to think about her future, her remarkable capacity for finding happiness in a long series of empty, inactive, indistinguishable days—all this struck him at times as outrageous, even verging on the repulsive. He knew very well that she loved him and that, for that reason, she wasn’t going to grow tired of him any sooner than he would of her, but his intuition told him that what he was now seeing of her lifestyle was representative of her deeper essence, and he realized that it was only thanks to their mutual physical passion that he was able to put up with her perpetual stagnation. He often felt as if he had discovered a mysterious beast, an unheard-of plant, a mandrake. But whenever he felt this way, he would draw near to her on the bed, slide in between the sheets, never growing tired of their wild abandon, of their mingled sweat, of their torrid exhaustion, and in this way he would rediscover for himself, and in the clearest possible manner, that she was, after all, not a beast but a woman.

The novel gets really interesting when Lucile succumbs to Antoine’s pressure to get a job. Because of Sagan’s psychological musings through character, Lucile engages us as a three-dimensional character, not simply a base, materialistic woman. In the end, that may be what she decides to be, but not until she goes through some serious self-reflection. Also it is important to consider that this was written in the sixties which puts Lucile in a historical context when feminism was just a groundswell. A woman who was single, unemployed and childless did not have the same stigma that it does today. Lucile realizes during her lunch hour that even though she may be in love, it does not mean she is happy:

That day, she had had it, and when she arrived at her usual brasserie at one o’clock, she ordered a cocktail form the surprised waiter (she never ordered drinks), and then another. She had a dossier to study and she riffled through it for a couple of minutes before closing it with a yawn. She was quite aware that they had suggested that she should write a few lines on the topic and that if they liked what she wrote, it might well be published. All well and good, but today isn’t the day for it. Nor was today the day for obediently trotting back to that gray office right after lunch and returning to the cute little role she had been playing of Active Young Woman in front of other people who would be playing their grandiose little roles of Thinkers, or else Men of Action. They were all lousy roles, or at the very least it was a lousy play. Or then again, if Antoine was right and this play that she was acting in was a perfectly respectable and useful play, well then, her role in it was poorly written, or else it had been written for somebody else. Antoine was simply wrong—this was now crystal-clear to her in the glaring light of her two cocktails, for alcohol at times shines pitiless sharp spotlights on life, and right now it was revealing to her the thousands of little lies that she had been telling herself day after day in effort to convince herself that she was happy. But in fact she was unhappy, and life was unfair.

Funny how a job can make life seem unfair, but such is Lucile. She discovers her limits that we have seen all along. In the end, each character remains who they are—at least more certain of who they are. This novel is not as good as Sagan’s debut, but it does have its charm. Ultimately, it is a romantic novel that seems somewhat dated and trivial at times but it also imparts a sense of nostalgia that carries us through the superficiality.

And even though this novel may not be that remarkable on its own, Basic Books came up with the brilliant idea of pairing That Mad Ache with an essay about translation by the translator by Douglas Hofstadter. Translator, Trader is a hundred page account of Hofstadter’s journey through translating Sagan’s novel and frequently comparing his translation with the original that was done by Sagan’s husband, Robert Westhoff. Enamored by this idea as I am, Hofstadter’s essay is a disappointment. Translation is such a complex issue, and an engaging one, that it serves well to have an afterword of this type for those interested in the process of translation. However, those of us who are interested in reading more about the translator’s personal experience with a work from conception to finish won’t find Hofstadter’s oversimplified, folksy approach worthwhile.

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-sized ideas that are veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segué between topics would lend much more credibility to the author, as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.

Hofstadter relinquishes his degrees to a more appeasing temperature for readers, but it seems evident to me that Lucile would never use that phrase. I am even more confounded that he seems confused as to its American-ness. It’s not a question of him turning the heat down on his translation, but the fact that he thinks that is “hot.” Any novelist tries to avoid clichés, even in dialogue, and imagining that this is even in the realm of liberal translation is befuddling. Sagan didn’t use an equivalent French idiom, so why would Hofstadter? And therein lies the difference in schools of translation and begs the question “How faithful is the translator to the text?”

Then there is the matter of Hofstadter comparing his translation to the original by Robert Westhoff. Hofstadter states in the beginning of the essay that he didn’t want to read the translation until he was finished with his translation because he didn’t want it to “contaminate” his version. I admire this noble tenet of the profession of translation. But in the end, Hofstadter compares his translation to Westhoff’s and comes out with the self-approving conclusion that his is better than the original, or at least “hotter.” Although as a reader, I felt that the more restrained style of Westhoff was closer to Sagan’s style and also closer to the French sensibility in fiction. Even while I was reading the novel, there were phrases that I questioned as because they seemed inordinate in comparison to Sagan’s style. Phrases like “rolling in dough” or “you’re no Rocker-boy” felt jarring and unfaithful to the text.

Although the essay is thought-provoking and interesting to read, it is not completely satisfying and it leaves the reader questioning the translator’s efforts as opposed to regaling them. This is not to say that it not worthwhile either, but one hundred pages given to a translator is unheard of, and Hofstadter could have easily edited to fifty pages to tighten up the message. One last final note about the translation—there are several phrases he chooses to keep in French and this is indicated through italics. In one passage, he italicizes the word “brasserie” which is not only insulting, but also blatant. Although most readers may not speak French, I find it difficult to imagine them not ever encountering the word or at minimum being able to gather that from the context of the sentence.

This is a valiant effort by Sagan and Hofstadter, but ultimately it falls short of its own goal and readers expectations.

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