Translating Côté: “Tomatoes”

September 28, 2010 Comments Off on Translating Côté: “Tomatoes”

I have just finished translating the first of two short stories for my independent study project. It went splendidly. It’s a lot of fun, as if someone just handed you some interesting ideas and said, Write these beautifully but you don’t have to take credit for them if they’re terrible. It’s kind of writing lite, for people who don’t have the balls to own their own material. I really like it.

I keep having to remind myself that I picked a story that didn’t have puns or prominent double meanings, specifically so I wouldn’t find out that I sucked as a translator. But I’m encouraged by this first semi-success. Simon read the beginning of it and said it didn’t sound like a translation, which is pretty high praise. The story is called “The Tomatoes Will Grow on their Own,” and it’s about a girl who is a member of a generic cult sitting in the greenhouse and writing a letter to a childhood friend, in between spates of memories and thoughts. She is completely naive and serious, and she adores her tomato plants and nature in general, which makes her a very endearing character, even if she is horribly misguided and a little silly.

It was interesting what I had to change. At the very beginning, the girl, Dominique, is eating a tomato. The description is very sensuous, and includes the phrase (literally) “[she] walked her lips on the soft warm skin.” I could translate it like that, but then I would belong to the school of thought embodied in the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition of Crime and Punishment, which is extremely literal in every respect, even down to nonsensical sentences such as, “We have such an emblem going, you can forget about your algebra!” Chances are, your response to that is, What? Exactly. (I think it means he’s getting along really well with the woman he’s talking about.) Everyone assumes they’re already missing at least a little by reading in translation, so I think it’s okay to sacrifice the original literal meaning (no matter how poetic) if it makes for more natural reading. After all, translating into English is completely different from stringing together literal word-by-word translations; any fool with a dictionary could do that. The whole point of writing a translation is to capture the author’s tone, to present your best guess at what the story would be like if it had been written in English. Sometimes that means switching stuff around so that it actually sounds like English. I ended up translating the quote above as “she explored the soft warm skin with her lips,” because it matches the tone and the action, if not the actual words.

Another sentence read (literally) “The light of the setting sun touches the forehead of Dominique, exhausted, rolled into a ball…” Because that’s how you form the possessive in French, you’re allowed to tack on all these complicated modifiers. But an English speaker would never say “…touches exhausted, rolled-into-a-ball Dominique’s forehead.” The best way to get around it was to chop the sentence after “Dominique” and leave the modifying phrases for the next sentence. It was really a very interesting puzzle. I have one more story left, and I’m going to end this post now to go work on it.

UPDATE: See the finished product here.

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