Home > 19th Century, British Literature, Hardy Thomas, Translations > The Mayor of Casterbridge: Lost in translation

The Mayor of Casterbridge: Lost in translation

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 Though the translation isn’t outdated in the vocabulary, it belongs to those old translations where first names are translated (Michael Henchard thus became Michel, Susan became Suzanne) and names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.

  1. June 13, 2011 at 8:35 pm

    I wonder if there are generally accepted rules for translators about – No, there are not, no matter what you might want to put after “about.”

    This was a most interesting post.


    • June 13, 2011 at 8:43 pm

      I wish there were some rules at least of first names. It’s disturbing to be in fictional Wessex and read about a Michel.
      I’m glad you enjoyed that post.


  2. June 14, 2011 at 7:31 am

    Interesting, indeed. That’s why I don’t like to read translations and if I have to I choose a language that is very close… It is also a reason why so many classics are re-translated. Translation has undergone some changes, I suppose. There is alsways the choice to make between the image the words should convey and the words. Translating names, of people and places, is a no-go. Typically French.


    • June 14, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Most of us don’t have any other choice than reading in translation, unfortunately.
      I think that translating Mixen by Fumier was a good idea, or at least it deserved a footnote. You lose something of the original if you don’t understand the name. When you read the book, you’ll understand why.


  3. leroyhunter
    June 14, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Not just French, Caroline: I read a review of a new translation of one of Perec’s books (which I have at home, but haven’t read yet) and apparently names have been pointlessly anglicised. In this case I believe other obviously “French” details have been left as-is, so it makes even less sense.


    • June 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      That’s interesting to know. Like Caroline, I thought it was typically French.
      In Perec’s case, maybe the translator aimed at translating play-on-words. It’s a possibility, given the writer. Btw, Richard – Caravana de Recuerdos- reviewed La Disparition, translated into English. That’s a challenge for a translator!!


  4. June 14, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for that comment Leroy. It’s something I have always noticed being done by many French people and assumed it was very French. Germans or Swiss people would never do it. Not recently that is…


  5. June 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why some classic novels are translated and others neglected. I understand that since Pevear and Volokhonsky started translating Russian novels, there’s been an increase in that market. Years ago, Oxford Uni Press turned down their translation of the Brothers Karamazov and they had to go elsewhere.

    I think it’s amazing that some of the Rougon Macquart haven’t been translated since Vizetelly had a go. I wonder quite how translation
    “works”? Do translators generally approach publishers (as obviously Pevear and Volokhonksy tried to do with Oxford University Press) and say : ‘hey we have a brand new translation for you. Are you interested?’ Or do publishers approach translators, and say ‘we want you to translate X’?

    I have a feeling that Hardy is difficult to translate. Perhaps even notoriously difficult.


    • June 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      I wonder how it works too.
      I don’t think Hardy is more difficult to translate than other classic writers. For example, Martin Amis is more difficult to translate into French because he plays with the language. Hardy doesn’t. He uses images but doesn’t twist the grammar or plays with words. OK, you still have the difficulty of patois and accents but it’s manageable.


  6. June 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Guy – both. Generally “smaller” books are translator-driven, sold to publishers, while “bigger” ones are the idea of publishers, who commission a translation, usually from a well-known translator.

    For example, Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote and Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary were both the ideas of publishers. The translators were guns for hire. I mean, in no way did the English language need a new DQ or MB, not compared to a project like replacing those old Zola translations.


    • June 14, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      Interesting. Do you think there’s a financial interest behind this? Older translations are in the public domain: publishers sell less books. With a new translation, they sell the books again.


  7. June 16, 2011 at 3:18 am

    Amateur Reader: Good to know. If the smaller books are translator driven, that’s a hell of a lot of work if no publishers take the bite.

    I’ve always pictured P&V going to the publisher and saying something along the lines of ‘well, we’d like to switch to X for a change of pace.’


    • June 16, 2011 at 4:19 am

      A translator can do a part of a book, though, a couple of chapters, and use that to sell the whole thing. No need to have the entire book done. And the publishers in this case are likely to be the little ones, too. University presses, Dalkey Archive, etc.

      Maybe the easiest kind of translation to think about is poetry. Almost no one buys poetry in translation (almost no one buys poetry), but poets, often ones with university positions, keep translating them and tiny little presses keep publishing them.


  8. June 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    I find translated names horribly jarring. An untranslated given name might not be the most meaningful way of conveying cultural difference, but it adds flavour. Neither am I in favour of translated place names, but, admittedly, there is a potential trade off here between aesthetics and information. There is always the option of endnotes. Or footnotes. It’s a minefield.

    Fascinating post. As ever I am left envying your facility with language. The contrast between elephantine and majestic is astonishing.


    • June 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      What I don’t get is the inconsistence of that translator: Michael becomes Michel but Elizabeth-Jane doesn’t become Elisabeth-Jeanne. Strange. Footnotes are good but too many of them breaks the flow.

      You’d be as good in French as I am in English if French were mandatory for you to find a job and if you were constantly hearing/seeing French everywhere. (movies, TV shows, mall announcements, underground warnings, any inscription on TShirts or sweaters, songs, names of shops…) That’s our life in a world where English is the king language. In the end, you can’t avoid learning something.


  9. November 8, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I’ve noticed that this idea of changing names is more prevalent in older translations; while there are no rules as such for translators, I suspect that as more and more have come through university courses and the like, certain conventions have gradually developed (such as don’t mess with names!).

    As for accents/dialects in translations… as a big fan of J-Lit, I am constantly disheartened by dialogue in English-language versions as they tend to be very American 😦


    • November 8, 2011 at 3:07 pm

      That’s what I thought too about the changing of names. It was customary at the time. After all, in the Anatole France I’ve read, he talks about Guillaume Shakespeare.
      But Amalia is named Amélie in my French translation of Herta Müller. And Katharina isn’t changed into Catherine. I don’t understand. Either you translate names or you don’t but that middle ground is incomprehensible to me. I’m too cartesian.

      Yes, I know, sometimes they “westernize” dialogues or translate references such as supermarket names.
      As for dialect, I know it’s hard to translate but what isn’t difficult to do is to alter the grammar or the vocabulary to show the reader that the character doesn’t speak Oxford English.
      What’s your native language? German or English?


  10. November 9, 2011 at 9:42 am

    The problem with this is that it can sometimes feel artificial (e.g. when a character suddenly sounds like the chimney sweeps from ‘Mary Poppins’…).


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