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On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

May 29, 2010 7 comments

That famous bible of the beat generation was written in 1957 and I read it in French, in a translation by Jacques Houbart, that dates back to 1960. I’m surprised it has been translated in French so soon after it was first published.

I had already read that book when I was a teenager. I didn’t remember anything about it, not even the names of the characters, which is a bad sign. I decided to read it again thinking I may appreciate it more now that I’m older and hoping to read about California. To no avail.

I’m disappointed because I would have loved to read descriptions of cities like San Francisco. I like the style ;  there’s poetry in the way he transcribes into words the images he sees but I got tired of binge drinking and driving experiences. I see how this book was something new when it was published and I understand why it has become a reference book for young people. There’s so much freedom in it. Though I don’t know exactly why, it makes me think of Rimbaud & Baudelaire, and Gérard de Nerval. All French poets of the 19th Century. My mind analyzes it as a good book, from the style, the story but it doesn’t “speak” to me.

Actually, observing the translation was more entertaining than reading the book, as it has not been updated since 1960. In that time, the USA were an exotic country for Frenchmen, seen as a dream country of rich and well fed people. A way of life that the whole generation of the 1960’s will envy and try to imitate. Very few families had a TV and American culture was not as widespread as it is now. It came through soldiers and music. France was backward compared to the USA as WWII had cost a lost to the economy and the country was underdeveloped. The 1950s in France were the years of the colonial wars and accelerated economic development. It was the end of the 4th Republic, a time when a married woman could not work or open a bank account without her husband’s approval.

Jacques Houbart, fulfilling a pedagogical purpose, added foot notes to explain some words or realities unknown to the French reader of 1960. Some of them are still useful : I didn’t know what an “Okie” was and I was grateful to have the foot note to enlighten me. But some of them are funny or puzzling for a 2010 reader like a two lines explanation to describe what a “motel” is or a sentence to point out that “grass” meant marijuana, just in case you would think there were actually smoking lawn or something. It tells a lot about the French society at that time, before mass media and globalization. It sounds so obvious now.

Some words are not translated as they had no equivalent in the French dictionary. For example, the words “supermarket” and “cafeteria” are in English. Whereas supermarkets were created in the USA in the 1930s, the first one opened in France in 1958 near Paris. In 1960, the average Frenchman did not shop in a supermarket. Now, we have powerful retail companies in France and the whole food seems to be sold in supermarkets. We have the word “supermarché” which is commonly used. As long as “cafeteria” is concerned, it is now a French word too.

There is more. The vocabulary is sometimes outdated. The verb “corner” for “hoot” is very old fashioned. I would never have thought to use that word to say “honk”, and I understood what it meant only thanks to the context of the sentence.

The word “motorway” is translated by “autostrade”, which I never heard in French as we use “autoroute”. Indeed, the first major motorway was opened in 1970, linking Lille to Marseille via Paris and Lyon. Again, the French reader of 1960 had no experience of what a motorway could be nor Jacques Houbart, by the way.

I wonder why that translation sounds so outdated. It’s not the first time I read books which were translated a long time ago. Is is because society changed so much or because it makes me realize how the American way of life imposed itself in my country ? It seems to have been written at the end of an era, before our way of life really changed and just before the freedom the 1960s brought.

It reminds me how much freedom I owe to the fights for women rights and to students uprisings of the 1960s and how mass media and globalization affected our everyday lives. Now Western countries are not so different from one another. In North America, everything is bigger than in France (cars, buildings, malls, servings in restaurants…) but you still are in an environment easy to understand. So On the Road had me thinking about that, which has nothing to do with the story of the book! …

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