Stray thoughts on the aging of translation

  1. I read recently in Le Monde des Livres, the literary supplement to Le Monde, an article on re-translating books, and more specifically Poe and Fenilore Cooper. A part struck me: they talked of the recent wave of re-translations for American noir novels, the Raymond Chandlers & Co., that had to be “dépigallisé” (from Paris are Pigalle), ie cleaned up of the obsolete slang, to “go back to the modernity of their language and the complexity of their characters”. This is the same monstruously heavy slang that one will find in movies with Lino Ventura or Jean Gabin, which, added to the old-timey pronunciation, can make classic films appear multi-layeredly (sorry) remote.
  2. A few years ago my cousin was reading some Hemingway (in French). My mother, who used to be a French teacher, and hence pretty well read, commented on the fact that she was reading such an old-fashioned novel. While in the English speaking world old Ernest has remained esteemed as a modern classic, his style still pointed to as an example, in France it feels like he’s one of these old guys we don’t really think about. (Sub-thought: a student of mine – I teach English – was recently reading The Old Man and the Sea in bilingual format, with opposite pages in English and French. Hemingway’s pared-down sentences were turned into rich, convoluted ones.)
  3. I had the opportunity recently to see Hitchcock’s  North by Northwest (1959) in the cinema. When Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in the restaurant car of the train he’s fleeing on, he tells her within a minute of sitting down at her table that it’ s hard not to tell a beautiful woman “that I wanted to make love to her” (or something along those lines). The French sub-titles read “that I want to court her”. Pure gent, like.


Yes, he is.



La mouche qui pique!

The Stinging Fly is currently looking for work for its translation-only issue. In their own words :

“if you are a translator and you know of a new writer or new writing that you think we should know about, whatever the source language may be, please get in touch.

We are particularly interested in finding/translating short stories, though excerpts from novels and novellas will also be considered.

We hope to include work by new and emerging writers and translators, alongside the work of more established practitioners.

Translators should contact us as soon as possible – and certainly before September 30th 2012 – with suggestions as to work we might consider including in the issue.”

Ces gens-la (These people) by Jacques Brel


Here is a very modest translation, of one of Brel’s great songs, and a video of him perfoming (that’s the word) it in the Olympia in ’66.

First, first, there’s the eldest

The one who’s like a melon

The one who has a big nose

The one who doesn’t know his name anymore

Sir, that’s how much he drinks

How much he drank

Who doesn’t do anything of his ten fingers

But he can’t take anymore

He’s completely baked

And he thinks he’s the king

He gets wasted every night

With cheap wine

And we find him in the morning

In the church, sleeping

Stiff as a beam

White as an Easter candle

And he slurs

And his eyes wander

You have to remember, Sir,

That these people,

They don’t think, Sir,

They don’t think, they pray


And then, there’s the other

With carrots in his hair

Who never saw a comb

Who’s mean as a louse

Who would give his shirt

To poor happy people

Who married good old Denise

A girl from town

Well, from another town

He does his own little business

With his little hat

With his little coat

With his little car

He would like to look like…

But he doesn’t look like at all

You shouldn’t act rich

When you’re without a penny

You have to remember, Sir,

That these people,

They don’t live, Sir,

They don’t live, they cheat


And then, there’re the others

The mother who says nothing

Or sometimes complete nonsense

And from dusk to dawn

Under his pretty apostle’s face

And in its wooden frame,

There’s the father’s moustache

Who died of a slide

And who watches his flock

Feeding on the cold soup

And they all make loud slurps

And they all make loud slurps

And there’s the really old one

Who can’t stop trembling

And they’re waiting for her to die

Since she has the cash

And they don’t even listen to

What her poor hands are telling

You have to remember, Sir,

That these people

They don’t speak, Sir,

They don’t speak, they count


And then and then

And then there’s Frida

Who’s pretty as a sun

And who loves me as much

As I love Frida

We even say, often,

That we’ll have a house

With loads of windows

With almost no walls

And we’ll live in there

And it will feel good being there

And even if it’s not sure

It’s at least maybe

Because the others don’t agree

Because the others don’t agree

The others say

That she’s too pretty for me

That I’m just about good enough

To cut the cats’ throats

I never killed a cat

Or then it was a long time ago

Or maybe I forgot

Or they smelled bad

Anyway they don’t want

Sometimes when we meet

pretending it’s random

With her wet eyes

She tells me she will leave

She tells me she’ll follow me

Then for a moment

For a moment only

Then I believe her, Sir,

For a moment

For a moment only

Because these people

Sir, they don’t go away

They don’t go away, Sir,

They don’t go away

But it’s late already Sir,

I should really go home.