Home > About reading, Bellos David, Non Fiction, Personal Posts, Translations > Is that a Frog in your ear? Let’s play with translations

Is that a Frog in your ear? Let’s play with translations

As mentioned in my previous billet, I’m reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. It’s a fascinating essay about translation. I’m only at the beginning of the book and at a moment, Bellos explains that without prior notice, we aren’t able to recognize a translation from an original text:

In practice, we look at the title page, jacket copy, or copyright page of a book or the byline at the bottom of an article to find out whether or not we are reading a translation. But in the absence of such giveaways, are readers in fact able to distinguish, by the taste on their linguistic and literary tongues, whether a text is “original” or “translated”? Absolutely not. Countless writers have packaged originals as translations and translations as originals and gotten away with it for weeks, months, years, even centuries.

Incidentally, this reminded me of a commercial for Danone that I’ve seen countless times on the French TV when I was a child. In this ad, they were doing a blind test to see if a person could recognise a real Danone among other yoghurts. That’s why I want to play a little game with you: I’m going to choose three quotes and amond those, one is a translation from a French original and the others are English texts. Will you find out which one is the French one? Ready?

Quote 1

“******, one of the loveliest of this race of goddesses, had the splendid type, the flowing lines, the exquisite texture of a woman born a queen. The fair hair that our mother Eve received from the hand of God, the form of an Empress, an air of grandeur, and an august line of profile, with her rural modesty, made every man pause in delight as she passed, like amateurs in front of a Raphael.”

Quote 2

“But what he allowed her, even with the addition of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without anxiety through the coming year.”

 Quote 3

“He had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.”

Now don’t cheat and search for the answer on the internet. So, which one was originally written in French and why? Leave a comment!

  1. January 3, 2013 at 12:29 am

    I’ve had this boo awhile now along with Gregory Rabassa’s one on the same subject


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:29 pm

      What was the name of the book?


  2. January 3, 2013 at 12:47 am

    I made my guess, and then I did cheat and search, and discovered that my guess was correct. There were three things about the translation that said, “This is French.” One: the longer sentences with multiple commas. Two: the extravagant language, the comparison to the oil painting. Three: “our mother Eve,” which tells me that the writer is probably Catholic.


    • January 3, 2013 at 1:10 am

      (Feel free to delete that comment if it’s going to wreck your surprise.)


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      OK, let’s talk about the clues that led you to the good solution:
      – the commas: yes, definitely French
      – extravagant language: unfortunately yes (I’m not a great fan of such sentences)
      – the comparison to the oil painting: why is that French?
      – our mother Eve: I don’t see why this is Catholic, Mother Mary, yes, but here I don’t see it.

      PS: Look at the number of commas I spontaneously used in my last sentence. 🙂 We can’t help it!


      • January 4, 2013 at 8:07 am

        The comparison to the oil painting was part of the extravagant language. I mean you’ve got goddesses, and exquisite textures, and a queen, and the form of an Empress — etc etc — and then as if that’s not enough, you’ve got the oil painting on top of it.

        That’s true, Mary would be typical, but French Catholic writers (and this might just be my perception; I don’t know French literature all that well) seem to mention Biblical women in general more often than English-language-non-Catholics do, and they mention them in a more sexualised way. Eve here is not just the mother of all humankind, she’s also attractive, with enviable hair. That combination of a mother-figure with a Bible-figure and a sex-figure (“men pause in delight”) is more of a French-language thing than an English-language thing.

        (I like those long comma-rich sentences. I wish that the people who decide what’s proper in English-language writing weren’t so preciously fussy about them.)


        • January 4, 2013 at 10:24 pm

          As much as I love Balzac’s knack at characters, I’m not overly fond of his extravagant descriptions. Some needed editing.
          That’s interesting about Eve. When I hear the word “Eve”, I don’t think of the mother of humankind, I think of temptation, of lust driving Adam out of Paradise not of motherhood. For me Eve is not a mother figure. Mary is a mother figure. So yes, you’re probably right about this being Catholic culture. Fascinating. I’d never thought about this before. Thanks.


          • January 5, 2013 at 9:30 pm

            I don’t think of her as a mother figure either (when I see the word “Eve” I usually think of a long naked serene woman with an apple in one hand, not motherly, not sexy, not tempting, just standing there under a tree with her fruit). Did Balzac say “our mother Eve” in the original, or is that the translator throwing in a spare word?


            • January 5, 2013 at 10:29 pm

              The French quote is :

              Adeline Fischer, une des plus belles de cette tribu divine, possédait les caractères sublimes, les lignes serpentines, le tissu vénéneux de ces femmes nées reines. La chevelure blonde que notre mère Eve a tenue de la main de Dieu, une taille d’impératrice, un air de grandeur, des contours augustes dans le profil, une modestie villageoise, arrêtaient sur son passage tous les hommes, charmés comme le sont les amateurs devant un Raphaël.

              Balzac in full force of his descriptive flow.


  3. January 3, 2013 at 1:53 am

    I have always been troubled when reading translations. Of course I read them without hesitation.

    I have not cheated, (or read the comment above which I a momentary glance at seems to indicate that it gives away the answer). I say that number three is the translation. It is hard to pin down the exact reason but it seems to flow awkwardly.


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      Well, wrong answer Brian! See the answer in my comment.


  4. January 3, 2013 at 2:47 am

    I guessed quote 1 because of the number of commas, if I’ve learned anything from reading French literature in translation it’s that the French love long sentences with multiple commas. It’s often seen as clumsy in English lit, though I don’t think there’s any necessary truth to that.

    Of course, English writers influenced by the French, like Anthony Powell, can also be prone to extremely long sentences, punctuated by frequent use of commas, so one shouldn’t rule that possibility out.


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      The commas give the French away but it wouldn’t have been so easy if the other quotes were from What Maisie Knew by James or from The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.


      • January 4, 2013 at 3:38 pm

        Absolutely, it’s a clue, but nothing more than that.


  5. January 3, 2013 at 3:44 am

    I guess No1 because the no English Empress looked much like a goddess LOL.
    You’d be interested to see a review I’ve got coming up on my blog because the reviewer (not me, a guest reviewer) read the book in both Russian and English and compares the two. Not many can (or would be bothered to) do that, I reckon.


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Good point about the Empress. 🙂
      I’ll read the review. I’ve never read a book in English and in French at the same time. But I often check passages, for the billets I write but also because sometimes I just wonder how the translator dealt with a given paragraph. It’s very interesting to do.


  6. January 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I would have gone for one, more because of some of the vocabulary choices. Two sounded more like natural English. Three just sounded bad – then I googled it and saw what it was!


    • January 3, 2013 at 8:56 pm

      I agree, the pompous language is typically French.
      The third one sounds a bit French to me, like a French trying to speak English! It’s because of “sitting”, “reading” which remind me of the French “participe présent”. You know we use a lot of those. (“en regardant la télé, j’ai…”)


  7. January 3, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Yeah. #3 – “it seems to flow awkwardly” – no kidding! Ha ha ha ha! For a poet, that guy had such a bad ear.

    The argument against the “long sentence” evidence is that English translators commonly break up the long sentences. #2 and #3 both have sentences that start with “But…” which in a translation of a French novel would be evidence that the two sentences were once joined together and were split up to seem more naturally English.

    So these were good choices for the experiment. That is what I am trying to say! Any of the three could be translations of Balzac.


    • January 3, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      I wasn’t so sure they were good choices. You’re right about splitting up long sentences. In my limited and clumsy experience of translating French quotes into English, I feel helpless when I have to translate a long sentence. Colette was hell to translate and when I read Autumn by Philippe Delerm, Caroline translated the quotes for me, I couldn’t do it.


  8. January 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I can’t really search from this tablet but I’d guess quote 3 is the one to go for. I gave this book a very good review myself and rate it highly. By the way, I’ve just reviewed the Fante book. I regret to say that I didn’t like it very much!


    • January 3, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      The quote 3 sounds a bit French to me too but no, it was written in English in the first place.
      I’ll read your review, I’m really sorry you didn’t like the book. I’m relieved that at least, it was rather short.


      • January 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm

        No problem at all – I am very pleased to have read it.


  9. January 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    I guessed no 1 – but I did recognise no 2 so it was a little easier. 😉


    • January 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm

      Good job, especially for recognising the second quote!


  10. January 3, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    So, what’s the answer?

    Quote 1 is from Cousin Betty by Balzac. That’s the French one.
    Quote 2 is from The Custom of the Country by Wharton.
    Quote 3 is from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Hardy.

    As mentioned in previous comments, multiple commas are really a sign that the original language is French. We use a lot of them.

    I chose something from The Custom of the Country because when I read it in English, I felt some French underneath. I didn’t hear it when I read The Age of Innocence. I don’t know where the feeling came from.

    The third one seemed a bit awkward and felt a bit French too.

    It’s not that easy, isn’t it? It would have been even more difficult if I had used Proust/James/Hollinghurst or Djian/Fante/Harrison.


  11. January 3, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    I guessed No 1. I knew that i’d read number three and was surprised to see what it was – I read it 26 years ago. I was trying to think of something I’d read much more recently. No 1 just seemed stilted to me, and I guess that was all the commas as noted by others. Words like type & texture also seemed a little vague to me.


    • January 3, 2013 at 11:19 pm

      Well done. Seems like Balzac sounds French to almost everyone!


  12. January 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Talking about translation. I discovered that a blogger from Lettony wrote about Guy & I Humbook Gift Event.

    I clicked on “traduire cette page” to have it in French. I swear that the whole gang of Surrealists couldn’t have written such a text even after hours of automatic writing.

    Feel free to see how it turns out in English: http://lasitajaspiezimes.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/davanas/


  13. January 4, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    To me the first quote looks like it is translated from French and the second and third look English. The reason I feel this way is that a natural flow doesn’t seem to be there in the first quote. I didn’t cheat 🙂 Which quote is the translated one? Can’t wait to know the answer!


    • January 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      You guessed right! Well done 🙂


      • January 5, 2013 at 12:34 pm

        So happy to know that 🙂 I read the discussions in the comments after I submitted my comment. It is so interesting to know that French writers write long sentences with lots of commas. I thought only Marcel Proust did that. I am sure it adds a lot of beauty to the language and will be an absolute pleasure when read in French.


        • January 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm

          Think about it when you read Colette.


  14. January 4, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    I cannot guess anymore as I’ve seen your anser in the comments.
    I don’t agree with him, we can often say that something is a translation. We are used to have it indicated on the covers but if that wasn’t the case and it was never indicated…
    I wrote about this in 2011 aI think but have still not finished it… One day


    • January 4, 2013 at 10:46 pm

      I think he’s right. If a writer wants to pass an original as a translation from a work written by someone else, everybody will buy it. And vice versa.
      We just see what we expect to see.


  15. January 5, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Number one, but I’ve been reading too much Balzac or something.


    • January 5, 2013 at 9:58 pm

      I knew you’d find out. You read too much French literature not to find out.


  16. January 8, 2013 at 3:04 am

    Late Happy New Year to you, Emma! I would have guessed #3 as the translation because “his quality was such” and especially “beyond the nerve of his enmity” sound stilted/nonsensical beyond belief. “To accomplish the deed by oral poison” also sounds wacky, but that could just be an old-fashioned rhetorical style. “The splendid type” in #1 also sounds translated (or at least very antiquated), but nothing else sounds as artificial as “beyond the nerve of his enmity” to me. I’ll see how right or wrong I was after I submit this, but thanks for the guessing game!


    • January 8, 2013 at 3:16 am

      Ha, Balzac in translation “writes” smoother in English than Thomas Hardy did! In retrospect, #1’s “style” and references to “our mother Eve” and an “Empress” did sound “French” enough that maybe I should have paid it closer attention; however, #3 is so clumsy language-wise that it fooled me. Oh, well, at least I recognized the American English wasn’t the fake one!


    • January 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Hi Richard, Happy New Year to you too. I have to check out your Russian lit event, I have had Dead Souls in mind for a while. But as I want to read Charge d’âme shortly after it, I have to choose the right time.
      Apparently the third quote really sounds weird to several of you. I still think the pompous side in Balzac is typically French. English writers seems sober or at least the ones I read were. The French word I’d use is “emphase” which is different from “pompeux” but I don’t know if there is the same difference between “pomposity” and “bombast”.


  17. January 9, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Emma, it’d be nice if you’re able to join the event for Dead Souls but no worries either way. I realize that everybody’s pressed for time these days. Back to your translation piece, though, I have to say that the first quote sounds more and more “French” to me as I think about it (rhetorically, stylistically); however, the third quote still sounds like a non-native English speaker trying to write (or translate) in an elevated English style. It doesn’t feel right to me as an American reader but may sound less awkward to a British reader. Who knows? In any event, I loved the challenge and am amused at how, out of context, Thomas Hardy sounds so “foreign” to another native English speaker in such a relatively short span of time from when he wrote it. How fast things change! P.S. I usually think of pompous as featuring an arrogant (intentionally or otherwise) or an overly-elevated steak involving the putting on of airs whereas bombastic is more over the top in a general, not necessarily snobby way (i.e. it’s high-voltage and extreme but not necessarily arrogant). Pomposity would be achieved by a snob; bombast would be achieved by anyone wanting to make a strong point in an exaggeratedly declamatory way but free from snobbery. I’ll have to look up emphase to understand the French shading better. Merci!


    • January 9, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for the explanation. So Balzac is bombastic in this quote. The difference is the same as in French between pompeux et emphatique.


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