Home > Opinion, Personal Posts, Translations > My recent bad luck with translations.

My recent bad luck with translations.

Cain_facteurI’ve come across a few book reviews about books in translation where the blogger mentioned that the translation was good. I always wondered how you could tell when you didn’t speak the original language and finally came to a conclusion. Good translations are the ones you don’t notice. They stay in the background, let the author reveal their literary voice and never speak for themselves. Bad ones come between you and the text and jump in your face. You may not think of the translator when they did a good job but you cannot not notice a bad translation.

Why am I discussing this now? Because I’ve had three bad experiences with translations lately. First, I started Le facteur sonne toujours deux fois, the 1936 French translation of The Postman Always Rings Twice and nearly went postal with the translation, so I preserved my sanity and downloaded the original text. Then I tried to read La reine des pommes, the 1958 French version of A Rage in Harlem (upcoming billet) and the poor translation enraged me. Bis repetita, I downloaded the original. And finally, I got to Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, the 1962 translation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and I’m not going to propose a French toast to the translator. This time, I got fed up with paying twice for the same book and endured the translation. I haven’t fully recovered.

Capote_Tiffany_françaisI know translators are underpaid, that they don’t always work in the best conditions and all that. Actually, I’m not mad at the translators of these three books, I’m mad at the publisher, Folio, that still publishes these outdated and flawed translations. Let me show you what I mean.

These translations have something in common: they use outdated French vocabulary when the English is neutral –at least to my ears, since, after all, I’m not a native English speaker. It starts with the titles. I don’t even know what La reine des pommes means, though I guessed the meaning after reading the book. Same thing with Fais pas ta rosière! by Raymond Chandler. The original title is The Little Sister. In La reine des pommes, I stumbled upon la petite est en pleine mouscaille for She might be in trouble. Where does la petite come from and what does mouscaille mean? And later the English sentence “And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves” becomes Ils n’admettaient le schproum que lorsqu’ils en étaient les instigateurs. Schproum ?! Is that even a word? Apparently it’s argot, antiquated argot. The English doesn’t sound dusted to me. In Un petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, I had the pleasure to discover the word truqueuse for phony.

Himes_reineThen you’ve got the literal translation of things. Milles for miles, which makes you think you’re on a boat. Le quartier des Est-Soixante-Dix for the East Seventies, la maison de pierre brune for brownstone. In La reine des pommes, jukeboxes are translated into les appareils à disque when we use juke box too. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, there’s a footnote to explain Coca-Cola!

And last, but not least, the things that don’t even sound French. Like [elle] allait patiner à roulettes dans Central Park, when you usually say elle allait faire du patin à roulettes dans Central Park –The original is [she] went roller-skating in Central Park. In Petit déjeuner chez Tiffany, sometimes I could hear the English under the French translation. That’s the worst. C’est une si sacrée menteuse is a sentence that is not French at all but sounds a lot like the literal translation of She’s such a goddamn liar. Later, I read: On va faire un pot de café pour célébrer l’événement for We’ll make a pot of coffee and celebrate. Nothing special in English but in French you say on va faire du café et célébrer l’événement. I’ve never heard of a pot de café but I guessed the original text.

And sometimes, the French text is simply an insult to the writer.

Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Des talons si hauts qu’ils faisaient vaciller ses chevilles accentuaient sa hauteur ; un corsage serré sur sa gorge plate suggérait qu’elle pût se baigner sur une plage en maillot d’homme ; des cheveux tirés en arrière accusaient la siccité, l’émaciation de son visage de modèle pour modes.

Poor, poor Truman Capote. You can picture her very well in English and in French, it’s, well, ugly.

These three translations are rather old and I thought they were bad because they were done in a rush at a time when translators didn’t have thorough working standards. Wrong again. Shortly after, I started Manhattan Transfer in French. The translation dates back to 1928 and it’s excellent. I don’t hear the English under the French and yet I still know it’s not been written in French. New York realities are in italic and when characters make grammar mistakes, it’s translated. The Flatiron Building didn’t become l’immeuble du fer à repasser and you’re in New York but reading in French. I sighed of contentment because frankly, I wasn’t going to read Dos Passos in the original. That’s when I realised that a good translation is the one you don’t notice. I paid attention because I’d been through three bad ones but otherwise, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. A good translation brings you in another country, maintains the impression of strangeness but flows well in your native language.

So please, Folio, hire a new translator and give French readers who don’t speak English the opportunity to read decent translations of Himes, Capote and McCain.


  1. May 20, 2014 at 2:27 am

    I’m grateful to translators for the infrequency with which I’ve found something like “l’immeuble du fer à repasser.” Mistakes that egregious, though, belong in a book I’d love to see someone put together one day, something akin to the Musée d’erreurs. I’ve just re-read Boris Vian’s “L’écume des jours” after reading it last time in an English translation that gave me the same sense of frustration you note here. Foam of the Daze as the English title? Bah, non. Ca m’étonnerai. But it must be awfully tough to work with books that use a lot of vernacular.


    • May 20, 2014 at 6:19 am

      You’re right it doesn’t happen that often. You know that in France we read a lot of translated books and these three ones in a row got on my nerves.
      Translations of classic pulp or hardboiled are notoriously bad in France. Rivages Noir proposes new translation while Folio doesn’t bother and that makes me angry. It erases all the literary side of the book and that’s a shame. I don’t think it’s that long or that expensive to pay for a new translations of these thin books.

      The English title of L’écume des jours puzzled me the first time I saw it. I don’t really know what it means. It must be a difficult book to translate, though.
      Btw, Vian’s translation of Chandler is fantastic.


      • May 20, 2014 at 4:18 pm

        I did not know Vian had translated Chandler, but I can well imagine that if anyone could do a great translation of Chandler into French it would be Vian. I’m going to pick up a copy. Looks like he did both The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake (btw, I regret that I’ll be nowhere near Lyon on a very brief trip to France next week, but may be back next fall for a longer visit…).


        • May 20, 2014 at 10:13 pm

          I’ve read his translation of The Big Sleep. It’s great. I wonder how Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir could read Himes and McCain that way. Maybe they read them in the original.

          Too bad you won’t be in Lyon. Let me know if you come bay next fall, we can have a drink if you want. The city is worth visiting, it’s lovely.


  2. May 20, 2014 at 3:49 am

    I had a friend who taught Spanish Lit, and it was her belief that if you couldn’t read something in the original language, then you shouldn’t bother. Now that’s a depressing thought.
    Scott has a good point.
    Anyway, I have to think that there are good translations out there, and you make an interesting point that not all the old ones are bed.


    • May 20, 2014 at 6:25 am

      It’s sad to cut yourself from foreign lit just because you can’t read the books in the original.

      I wonder if 19thC translations are in a different category since it seems they were done by literate and rich people who had time do it properly. I haven’t researched this, I should have a look at Austen’s early translators, for example.

      Lots of translations are good, I just had bad luck with these ones. (Still noir fiction was poorly translated)


      • Maria
        May 21, 2014 at 1:56 am

        Baudelaire made almost all the money he ever did make by translating — he added it all up one day, and saw for himself that it was not much. 19th century translators were no better off than the other ink-stained wretches, and often worked at top speed. But there are talented hacks and incompetent ones.


        • May 21, 2014 at 10:05 pm

          You’re right, I didn’t think of Baudelaire. Thanks for the reminder.

          I’ve been looking for the first translator of Pride and Prejudice into French. It’s Isabelle de Montolieu. She was Swiss and a friend of JJ Rousseau (not good in my book). She apparently changed the ending. Now I’m curious to put my hands on this one.


  3. May 20, 2014 at 9:49 am

    This reminds me of a series on a French literary translation blog, which I’ll let you discover: http://blog.atlf.org/?cat=611.
    From following both English and French-language platforms I get the impression there is quite a difference between the two worlds. In the Anglo-Saxon world, there might not be many translations but there is a lot of soul-searching about that and about how to go about doing translation properly, as well as some degree of hero-worship for specific translators (and rightly so). In France, I may be wrong, but I get the impression it’s still taken a bit in a “so what?” kind of way. Maybe that’s why some French publishers are not so careful about republishing outdated or poor translations?
    Not to say you can’t have bad translations into English. I’ve just experienced one myself and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.


    • May 20, 2014 at 10:34 pm

      Fascinating series, I didn’t know that blog, thanks for the link.

      I agree with you about the French not paying attention to translations. Books are translated and nobody is questioning whether they should read in translation or not. The obvious and generally admitted answer is yes. There’s a “so what?” feeling about it yes, just like nobody really wonders about the actors’ real voices when you watch a dubbed film.

      I don’t read foreign books in English, so I can’t tell about their translations.


  4. May 20, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Those translations made me laugh hard; at least they deserve points for good entertainment. You make a very good point though, because I rarely paid attention to translation and did not consider that it can put a stop to an otherwise pleasant read; that said, I now remember the French translation of some of the Icelandic crime books that were in fashion a couple of years ago, and they left much to be desired. I think it was Les Points. I wonder if that publisher invests in good translators for crime books


    • May 20, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      They’re funny put like this in a post but really annoying when you try to read good literature. They could go in a bêtisier. (what’s the English for that, I wonder)
      From what I’ve gathered, Rivages Noir have good translations and when they publish a classic noir, it’s been re-translated. Clearly, I made the decision not to buy crime fiction published by Folio without checking the date of the translation. If it’s not been refreshed since it was published in the Série Noire directed by Marcel Duhamel, it’s not worth. I’d rather read it in English. It’s a good thing for my brick-and-mortar bookstore since that kind of information isn’t available online.


  5. May 20, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Wonderful post, Emma! I loved what you said about how a reader can say whether a translation is good, when they can’t speak / read the original language. I think most readers who read translations look at whether the translation reads smoothly and reads almost like the novel written in the translated language. If that is the case, I have discovered that readers say that the translation is good. The problem with that point of view is that the translation may not be faithful to the original in terms of style, but is beautiful as a standalone book. I remember when Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translations of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ came out a few years back, many traditional readers lashed out at the translation saying that it didn’t read well and it was not as good as the Constance Garnett translation or the Aylmer and Louise Maude or the Rosemary Edmonds translations. Pevear’s reply to that was that Tolstoy’s style was not smooth as readers in English thought and he was trying to be faithful to Tolstoy’s original by leaving the rough edges from the original book as they are. I don’t know which point of view is stronger but I realize that many readers would agree with Pevear’s critics. What do you think about this?

    The sentences you have picked out with not-so-good translations made me smile 🙂 ‘Elle allait patiner à roulettes’ and ‘On va faire un pot de café pour célébrer l’événement’, look like they have been translated by someone who is not a native French speaker, especially the second sentence. These look like the kind of translations that Google translator will come up with 🙂


    • May 20, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Fascinating. I think I’d like to hear Tolstoy’s edge. I’d love to read a comment by a Russian translator on that topic. In France, I’ve read that Louis Viardot who translated Gogol and Pushkin with the help of Turgeniev didn’t even know how to speak Russian. Did he only proofread what Turgeniev was translating?

      You’re right, these sentences sound like they’ve not been translated by a native French speaker, but they have. (they have very French names). Actually, the real French way to say We’ll make a pot of coffee and celebrate would be, on va fêter ça, va chercher le champagne, because really, since when coffee is a festive drink to celebrate anything? Now, I guess the accurate translation could be On va faire du café et on va fêter ça.

      That said, sometimes you just slip up. I recently caught myself saying arrête de sauter sur les conclusions which is the literal translation of stop jumping to conclusions and that expression does not exist in French. I still wonder what came over me. 🙂


  6. Brian Joseph
    May 20, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Translated books always worry me for all the reasons that you mention. Even when translations seem good to me I ask myself if they really are good for the reasons that you mention.

    When I read The Brothers Karamazov I put a fair amount of research into choosing the right translation. I settled on the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. I thought that it was fantastic. But why, since I had nothing to compare it to? Perhaps it was not so. I must admit that I may have been influenced by the translators’ essay in which they spell out how they handled all of the painstaking subtleties and ambiguities of the text. That SEEMED impressive. For what it worth their translations are controversial, some authoritative folks hail them while others dislike them. Translations are complex things!


    • May 20, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      It’s a complex thing, that’s for sure.
      My opinion -which is just that, an opinion – is that for non-academic readers like me, the most important is that the translation reflects the text, lets me hear the writer’s voice and makes me forget it wasn’t written in my language. Most translations convey this feeling. After that, I’m not so interested in discussing the choice of a specific word here and there. However, I’d like to know that the translator has had enough time to translate it properly, or to know how they interacted with the writer if they’re still alive or how the text touched them. In English editions, you may have a foreword by the translator. It rarely happens in French books.


  7. May 21, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    You have my every sympathy Emma. What a run of bad luck!

    I think your rule on the translation fading into the background is a good one, though there are a few texts (Andrey Platonov springs to mind, Clarice Lispector) where the original is intentionally jarring and has been failed by translators smoothing it – making it easier to read than the original where the oddities of language were intentional.

    Passage’s comment about how French translators may sometimes be just trying to capture the gist without capturing the essence (I’m paraphrasing obviously) is an interesting one. If so you’re being let down by your publishers when they bring books into French. Preserving the plot isn’t enough.

    Poor Chester Himes.


    • May 21, 2014 at 9:39 pm

      Poor Chester Himes, sure, but poor, poor Capote, believe me. This one was the worst, and it didn’t even have the excuse to be crime fiction and be considered as a lower genre and not worth the money paid to the translator. What a shame for Folio. It’s as if Penguin published a poor translation of something.

      I don’t think translators should smooth things down or spice things up (done in the McCain translation). I mostly meant that their style shoudn’t override the author’s style.

      I’m not sure I understand Passage’s comment as you do. She means –and I’ve said it before too– that for French readers, literature in translation is an obvious thing. Translated books are everywhere and nobody really thinks about translations. French readers read in translation because it’s accessible and for most of us, it’s the only way to get to English and American literature. Reading only French lit because you shouldn’t read in translation never occurs to anyone here. Translations are common good and readers don’t really pay attention to the way they’re done. You can read articles sometimes when a huge new translation goes out (like the new one for Berlin Alexanderplatz) and sometimes reviews mention that the translation is good. The translator is named but not really remembered. I know more names of English translators than French ones. So, since readers tend to forget the book was translated and that they’re not reading the original, publishers may be tempted to keep old translations. Until someone stirs the market, like Rivages Noir does with classic crime by offering new translations.


  8. May 26, 2014 at 9:41 am

    I can only agree with you! A good translation should find the right balance between bringing the author towards the reader and the reader towards the author. It is a fine line that should always be reminder. The problem of outdated translation is a good point as well, and i am quite surprise that breakfast at tiffany’s has not been retranslated.


    • May 27, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      I totally agree with you and I’m also surprised it hasn’t been retranslated. As far as noir and classic crime fiction is concerned, there’s a lot of retranslating to do as well. The genre didn’t deserve literary translators at the time, so an older translation is bound to be bad.

      I’ve asked older people around me, they’ve never heard of mouscaille and schproum either. I really wonder where the translator found those two.


  9. June 11, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Je viens de tomber sur cet article de l’Express qui date de 2012. Il t’intéressera sans doute !


    • June 12, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      Merci pour l’article. Je l’avais vu quand il était sorti. C’est pour cela que je me méfie maintenant des traductions “anciennes” des classiques du polar.

      C’est incroyable, non? A la relecture, on peut dire que j’apporte mon témoignage à l’édifice. Cet argot ampulé et artificiel!

      Quelle monstruosité de prendre de telles libertés avec le texte d’un autre. Comme je le dis souvent, personne ne se permettrait d’amputer une partition de Mozart de quelques mesures en faisant croire que c’est l’original ou d’enlever un morceau d’un tableau parce qu’il est trop grand pour le mur sur lequel on veut l’accrocher. On se permet des choses avec l’art littéraire qu’on ne se permet pas avec les autres arts.


  1. May 24, 2014 at 9:50 pm
  2. March 8, 2016 at 10:42 pm

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