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December 5, 2012

Anne Trager: Voice in Translation (guest post)

I set out to write this guest post about literary translation, and the first thing that came to mind was voice. There’s a lot of talk about a writer’s voice. So what happens to that voice when a work is translated into another language?

I recently gave a talk about my whole experience founding Le French Book, a digital-first publishing venture that translates great reads from France into English. We have a bit of experience translating. I took excerpts from three of our titles all translated by the same person (me, myself and I) and read them to the audience. I wanted to know if they heard the different voices. The funny thing is, even though I had translated all three, I actually didn’t recognize any of them, and well, they all were very different. The translation somehow conveyed each author’s voice.

World acclaimed translator Julie Rose, who did an outstanding modern version of the French classic Les Miserables says, “Translation is an art of listening, which means getting into ‘character’ and staying there, convincingly, from start to finish. The ‘successful’ translation is the one where I, the translator, am completely invisible.”

I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that all translators are schizophrenic with abnormally absent egos. There is a lot more to literary translation than just reproducing a writer’s voice in another language. You have to find equivalencies, to ponder what certain cultural references really convey, and whether the readers in another language will actually get it.

With each book, I’ll spend some time pondering what of the Frenchness to lose in translation. Some of it I don’t have a choice about. Take our recent release, a whodunit set in wine country Treachery in Bordeaux. It is a classic whodunit set in wine country, and I learned the full diversity of wine-related vocabulary in French. It is somewhat more limited in English. So there I had barrique, tonneau, fût and futaille all used very
regularly (sometimes in the same paragraph), all referring to what in English we commonly call barrel. That is a detail that ultimately doesn’t impact the final story, but is a fun translator’s challenge. There were a lot of them in that book: some local rhyming songs and ditties, a very colorful character with very colorful vocabulary, and lots of information about winemaking.

In two of our other releases—the legal procedural The Paris Lawyer and the police procedural The 7th Woman—there were challenges related to the stories revolving around different judicial and police systems. How can you get a reader to understand what is going on in a courtroom with three judges instead of one without losing them?

Our goal with Le French Book is to publish entertaining books, and so the translator’s goal is to make sure the read in English gives the same shivers of expectation, longing to read more and pangs of emotions. You have to make sure nothing takes the reader out of the story or undermines suspension of disbelief.

Of course, readers will not necessarily know how close the final result is to the source, so I would add that ultimately, for readers, what counts is that the end result is a good read. Isn’t that the whole point, no matter what language the story is told in originally?

Anne Trager founded Le French Book to bring France's best crime fiction, thrillers, novels, short stories, and non-fiction to new readers across the English-speaking world. The company’s motto is: “If we love it, we’ll translate it.”

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