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The Mayor of Casterbridge: Lost in translation

June 13, 2011 18 comments

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886.

I didn’t plan to write a whole post about the French translation of The Mayor of Casterbridge but there were so many things to say that it couldn’t be included in the review. I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge partly in French and partly in English. I was settled to read it in French but I soon had doubt about the translation. So I downloaded the English original and discovered it wasn’t that difficult to read. Then I switched from one language to the other depending on how lazy or tired I was.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been translated into French in 1922 by Philippe Neel. There is no recent translation and the book is out-of-print in paperback. It’s strange; usually it’s easy to get English classics in French. Though the translation isn’t outdated in the vocabulary, it belongs to those old translations where first names are translated (Michael Henchard thus became Michel, Susan became Suzanne) and names of places too. (Mixen Lane became La rue du Fumier, Peter’s Finger, le Doigt-de-Pierre and The Three Sailors, Les Trois Matelots). I really don’t like when the translator changes first names but for places, it’s convenient sometimes.

Other things were mysterious in this translation: the months and days of the week had capital letters, like in English but unlike the usual French. Il viendrait Dimanche ou Lundi : is that correct in French? When there were French words in the text, it wasn’t mentioned in the translation, like here:

Sérieusement mon ami, je ne suis pas si folle que ces lignes pourraient vous le faire croire. Seriously, mon ami, I am not so light-hearted as I may seem to be from this.

 Or here,

Ma conscience m’a fait impérieusement sentir la nécessité de vous prier de tenir votre promesse et de dissiper ainsi la brume que mon étourderie a amassée autour de mon nom. I ought to endeavour to disperse the shade which my etourderie flung over my name, by asking you to carry out your promise to me.

I regretted that Philippe Neel didn’t manage to translate the description of Henchard’s face: “The rich rouge-et-noir of his countenance underwent a slight change.” is translated into “Le visage coloré d’Henchard pâlit légèrement”. So many things are lost in this translation: the French words, the reference to Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal (The Red and the Black), and the real colour of his face. The reference to The Red and the Black is important. Hardy uses the image twice (Here his red and black visage kindled with satisfaction) and I don’t think it is a coincidence. There is a likeness between Henchard and Julien Sorel: they are driven by passion and pride. Their relationships with women are crucial in their fate and yet, in spite of them, as they are no womanizers. It would be really interesting to search for the parallels in their destinies but it’s not the point here. However, I liked Henchard better than the deceitful Julien Sorel.

But the major flaw is that the translation fails to give back the accents and some of Hardy’s images. The accents and the patois are why I chose to read Hardy in French, fearing it would be hard to understand for a non-native English speaker. Here is Farfrae talking to Henchard:  

« Oui, mais il n’y a rien à faire » constata l’autre sur un ton de philosophie résignée.. « Il faut écrire à Jersey, et dire nettement et explicitement à cette jeune personne que vous ne pouvez plus l’épouser, puisque votre première femme est de retour ; et que vous ne pouvez plus la revoir… et que vous lui souhaitez d’être heureuse » “Ah, well, it cannet be helped!” said the other, with philosophic woefulness. “You mun write to the young lady, and in your letter you must put it plain and honest that it turns out she cannet be your wife, the first having come back; that ye cannet see her more; and that—ye wish her weel.”

In French, the accent is gone. Farfrae speaks perfect French. Of course, it’s impossible to translate literally the English accent but a “Y faut” instead of “Il faut” or “qu’vous” instead of “que vous” would have let the French reader taste Farfrae’s language. In the original, I noticed two different types of accents/patois, the one coming from geography and the ones coming from social classes. In the English, it is clear that Farfrae (Scottish) and Henchard (English) don’t speak the same way. It’s inaudible in the translation. The difference of accents according to social classes is more commonly used in English literature than in French. Inaudible in French too.

Sometimes the translation betrays the original image. When Hardy writes “She started the pen in an elephantine march across the sheet”, it isn’t flattering for Elizabeth-Jane’s handwriting. When the translator writes La plume parcourait le papier en une marche majestueuse, which literally means The pen ran on the paper like in a majestic march, I think he betrays Hardy’s idea. Elephantine is negative whereas majestic isn’t. Traduttore, traditore.

As always I wonder if there are generally accepted rules for translators about translating names or not, about indicating the foreign words in the text… As always this kind of experience only reinforces my will to improve my English and read the original texts. I also wonder why this wonderful novel doesn’t have a more recent translation. I think it deserves one. I’ve seen that a new edition of The Woodlanders has been released in 2009. Hopefully it’s a new translation.

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