Comme ci, Comme ça: it’s ‘Leg Warmers,’ Mon Amour
This winter, I spotted a news item linked on the American Translators Association’s Facebook page: “Enjoyed watching The Breakfast Club? Sixteen Candles? You probably didn’t know that Molly Ringwald is not only an actress, but also a translator!”
It intrigued me that a much-beloved, multi-talented and cerebral celeb had turned to translation, because it messed with the accepted narrative. Actors really want to direct, start a skincare line, or write cookbooks, right? If they have literary inclinations, they write memoirs, a novel, or a story collection. Ringwald has already done the latter, and published good essays besides. And she sings. Actor-as-literary-translator is not exactly going to catch on, as celebrity trends go. Et pourtant, the world now has Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, in a Ringwald translation.
When I ran across news of this surprising event, I was just back from a literary translation seminar in Florence with Tim Parks, noted translator, translation polemicist, and author. I’d spent a week in a classroom with Parks and a dozen other people who translate for a living. We spent hours agonizing over things like tone and style, wrestling with challenging texts, and learning to jeer those translators into English who went for Latin cognates every single time instead of looking for Anglo-Saxon ones. We’d have drinks together after class, then go home and break our brains over that night’s homework, and reconvene the next day to rake that work over the coals. The fact that I consider this an absolutely splendid week says just about all you need to know about my interest in literary translation (and my idea of fun).
The original book, Arrête avec tes mensonges, is a very French little book: heavy on digression and rumination; a bit sexy; very, very light on dialogue. It is a novel and/or memoir. About half of it is mid-Eighties gay Bildungsroman and meditations on AIDS, but it’s also about leaving the small town where you grew up. A poignant story of love lost and then found-but-in-a-fucked-up-way kicks in hard about 79 percent of the way through, building to a letter at the end that is positively déchirant. Were John Hughes still around, maybe he’d direct, but he’d need to lighten up the ending.
If You Translate…
The pairing of novel and translator seems inspired. Who better to translate a coming-of-age novel set in that time period than one of the Brat Pack with whom many of us came of age? This is literary translation we’re talking about, though–generally the most poorly-paid and underrated kind. I kept wondering what Ringwald got paid for the translation. Is she even aware of the No Peanuts! movement? Literary translators think about a work’s “lexical field” and want the tone of their translation to be consistent with the author’s intent, because they become the voice of that author in a new language. Ringwald, of all people, might know a bit about that.
As I read the last sentence of a short and very intense opening scene, which sets up an encounter that we return to later in the story, my first alarm went off. Ringwald translates it as, “I put my hand on his shoulder and he turns around.” In French the sentence ends very abruptly: il se retourne et. (“… he turns around and.”) The sentence ends with the word “and.” That’s not standard usage in either French or English. It is a clear signal to the translator to follow suit, and she doesn’t.
The first half of the book takes place in and around a high school, a place you’d think Ringwald might feel in her element. But in a surprising lapse, an actor who is the face of mid-Eighties culture fails, in a paragraph describing teen fashion of the period, to accurately translate jambières as “leg warmers.” She uses “leggings,” which is the suggested Google Translate option, and which only gets worse when the leggings the girls are wearing “pool around their ankles.” Molly, I was at the Eighties. It’s leg warmers.
Last time I checked, American high schools don’t typically have a “playground,” nor do French ones. That’s what Ringwald did with cour de récréation, which recurs numerous times in the book. I, too, am aware of Google Translate, but “First thought, best thought” is not a philosophy that goes hand-in-hand with translation. Failing to consider other, less distracting options– schoolyard, quad, courtyard–means Ringwald dooms the reader to encounter “playground” multiple times, forcing us to wince each time or maybe just wonder why French high schools have jungle gyms. She also neglects to provide cultural context for the statement “I’m a student in terminal C at the Lycée Elie Vinet…” Terminal C corresponds to “senior year” in France, but Ringwald apparently wants to leave English readers wandering around an airport-sized high school.
Ringwald stumbles badly over the idiom “tête à claques,” using “head slaps,” when it actually means someone who’s a pain in the ass. I suspect Google takes the blame here as well. Dis donc, Molly, où est ton dictionnaire??
When a translator reviews someone else’s work, what’s the endgame? Am I just playing gotcha when I spot an infelicitous word choice? That’s fun, but my ultimate goal is to shed light on the underlying problem with a poor translation: The reader thinks, this is what it’s like to read in translation. They’re too aware of the translation, and eventually they may decide they’ve had enough with inverted syntax and endless cognates, instead of anything approximating the book as the author intended it. Because of copyright laws, most books will be hostage to a poor translation for generations. Only books deemed significant enough to ever see a new translation will get one. For a literary translator, loving a book in the original language isn’t enough. You have to love it enough to do the work to make it a viable book in English.
Ménage à zero
Now, this is a love story, and there’s some sex. The very first scene is exciting in French, rendered in a detached, almost clinical style that heightens the tension in the scene and makes it delightfully strange. In Ringwald’s English, she falls victim to the pitfall of remaining too faithful to the source text. In French, Besson repeats “C’est” at the beginning of each paragraph in the scene. Literally, “C’est” means “it is.” But translating a series of paragraphs beginning with “It’s” makes things more and more awkward: “It’s the coarseness of his hair…” “It’s torsos that join together…” “It’s skin that is frantically caressed…” “It’s jeans that we unbutton.” Sexy in French, but not in English. To double check, I read the scene aloud to my husband while we were lying in bed. It didn’t arouse us.
Is this book a bad translation? Not across the board, no. Ringwald does some passages well, by which I mean, there were passages where I could put my pen down and forget I was reading a translation. These typically don’t feature complex syntax, idioms, or cultural references in need of contextualization. But it doesn’t make up for the missteps, which include not only mistranslations and awkward results, but also sentences missing altogether. A passage I marked in French where the author expresses his fear of abandonment is simply omitted in English.
Unfortunately, these well-translated passages don’t appear until the book is well underway. By that point, a reader may have wandered off in search of the next celebrity translation. Wait, what’s that? There aren’t any others?
Sometimes, when a celebrity loves a book very, very much, she may be moved to translate it herself. But, good news! There are people who already know how to do that.