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The Dance of the Seagull by A. Camilleri. Thoughts about the unusual French translation

The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.

Camilleri_mouetteI went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.

In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.

It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.

The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.

For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.

Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.

Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.

Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.

The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.

Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.

Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.

But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.

The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.

The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.

In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.

For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.

I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.



  1. May 1, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    How very interesting and what a creative choice. You certainly don’t get that feel in the English translations. What has been helpful was seeing the Italian TV series (with English subtitles, as that gave you a feel for the original, including the ‘Montalbano sono’). I suspect that would be quite easy to convey in Romanian, too, so am curious now how it has been translated into Romanian (and I am sure he has been).


    • May 2, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      It’s an interesting choice. A rather new movement in translating, from what I gathered. (I’m not an expert on this.)
      I suppose that Romanian being a Latin language too, it’d be easy to transfer this feeling into it. The plus in French is that we also have a Mediterranean culture in the South. So it speaks to us on another level.


  2. May 2, 2016 at 12:37 am

    Saltarelli has described, in interviews, how hard he had to fight to keep the “Sicilian” dialect that he does use (plus the endnotes), and he does not go nearly so far.

    The German translations, of the first few novels at least, included recipes!


    • May 2, 2016 at 9:44 pm

      I’m sure it must be difficult to translate.
      We have the chance to relate to the Mediterranean atmosphere through our Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. In a way Palermo reminded me of Bastia, in Corsica. It’s easier to relate to the language and to find words that echo the Sicilian.

      I wonder how a translator would translate Thomas Hardy if they tried to translate the accent and the dialect. With chtimi words? Words from Normandy?

      I’ve seen a restaurant with a Montalbano card. He sure loves to eat.


  3. May 2, 2016 at 2:44 am

    I’ve read some in the series and enjoyed them–not this one yet. I really like the main character and how he flows with corruption while still maintaining his integrity.


    • May 2, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      I remembered him from your blog, actually.

      I want to read some of his earlier works. This one sounds a little “tired” like the last Tony Hillerman I’ve read.


  4. May 2, 2016 at 4:57 am

    My French skills are not at the level that would help me understand the finer points as you have u fortunately. As for the book, all I really remember of it is the prodigious amount of food this guy eats. A three course lunch and then he still has room for something in the evening.


    • May 2, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      I know it requires to know French subtleties, sorry this post is so French-oriented.

      He does eat a lot. I’m sure we could find a book with the recipes of the dishes he inhales. (he seems to eat pretty fast too, don’t you think?) That said, the food was great. I always say that Italy is the one European country where the French never complain about the food.


      • May 3, 2016 at 10:27 pm

        No apology necessary Emma, I thought it was an interesting train of thought…. You know maybe you have just hit on an idea for a book. I haven’t seen one themed around the series yet….


        • May 6, 2016 at 2:39 pm

          I enjoy comparing English and French translations.
          Even more fascinating: to see how Romain Gary self-translated his books into English. (or into French when the first version was in English). It’s not always literal.


  5. May 2, 2016 at 5:10 am

    Montalbano has an enviable gullet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. May 2, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Like Guy, I’ve read half a dozen or so of these Montalbano mysteries (all in English) and enjoyed them. If you’re interested in trying another at some point, then I would recommend any of the first three: The Shape of Water, The Terracotta Dog and The Snack Thief. (I often read one as a wind-down read when I need a break from ‘heavier’ books.)

    Fascinating comments about the French translation – I would love to be able to read these in the original language.

    Montalbano’s love of food is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the books. A couple of years ago, one of the top Italian restaurants in London (Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca di Lupo) held a series of Montalbano-themed lunches with menus to match the dishes featured in the individual books in the series. They sounded wonderful!



    • May 2, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll probably start from the beginning with the next one.

      I found the translation fascinating. Reading and observing the translator’s choices was one of the pleasures of this book.

      Ah, the food. Yes, I’d love to taste some of these dishes he mentioned. I’ve seen a restaurant with a Montalbano menu in Syracuse.
      And some French tour operators propose a Montalbano visit in Agrigente. It must be fun to do if you’ve read several books in the series.


  7. May 3, 2016 at 1:25 am

    I can’t really comment on the translation differences other than to say doing dialect in translation must certainly be a challenge. I’ve very much enjoyed the Sartarelli translations, even if they may not use the same approach as the French translations.

    There is a book of Montalbano recipes, though it’s in Italian and not especially cheap:


    And while I did not go to Bocca di Luppo during their Montalbano-themed events, I did go there. Kenedy seems to have a thing for southern Italian/Sicilian dishes, and food-wise I think that’s the best Italian restaurant I’ve visited outside of Italy. Also, I think I’ve learned more about Italian cooking from the Bocca di Lupo cookbook than from any other single source.


    • May 6, 2016 at 2:26 pm

      I agree with you: dialect in translation must be a challenge and it’s probably better to leave it behind than to find an odd solution. I only regret that they don’t say it in French editions of books. For example, if I look at my copy of Le maire de Casterbridge, it comes with nothing. No foreword, to afterwords, no footnotes. It would have been nice to write that the author uses the local language. But what can you expect from a school of translation that translates names? (Michael becomes Michel)

      Thanks for the link to the cookbook. Bocca di Luppo seems to be a great restaurant.


  8. May 3, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    Bonjour Emma. Interesting post. I’d love to go to Sicily… I read only one book from Camilleri; “La voix du violon”. I read it several years ago so my memory of it has faded a bit. Strangely, when I read your post, I did not remember at all about the way it translated into french. However, I remember the plot was quite simple but I felt it was the atmosphere and the character that made the book interesting. I still am with a strong impression of something very particular so I think this language device (together with habits and other tics) works well at giving Montalbano a strong personality which you remember.and expect to find again in the next story you’d read. It also reinforce the local/context feel of the book. Because of those devices the Montalbano stories are really unique. I am not surprised the English translation has not taken the same path. Not that it could not be done, but as I often noted, in some instances, translations differ greatly from one target language to another and they do not come out the same from one translator to an other. A matter of editorial choice?


    • May 6, 2016 at 2:38 pm


      La voix du violon is the 4th volume of the series. According to the foreword by the translator included in La danse de la mouette, he wasn’t as inventive for the first translations. He and the publisher think that the public is mature enough now to read different translations. This may be why the translation you read didn’t strike you as unusual.
      You’re right. Camilleri’s language highly contributes to the interest of his novels. You feel like you’re in Sicily with Montalbano. And you get attached to Montalbano because of all his habits and oddities. (It feels the same with Adamsberg, the character created by Fred Vargas)

      My English is not good enough to imagine how you could translate this in a non-Latin language. I really think that having a Mediterranean region in the country helps with imagining the place and culture.

      I attended a conference about translation a few weeks ago and the translators mentioned several times that sometimes they censor themselves because they know that the publisher won’t accept something too daring. And change what bothers them without consulting the translator. So… yes…I suppose it’s a matter of editorial choice.

      French translations aren’t always as faithful to the text as this one: Black or peasant accent disappear, normal spoken language is changed into stupid argot (that’s for classic noir)
      That’s why I think this new kind of translation is commendable and worth writing about.


  9. May 6, 2016 at 12:02 am

    Before I was able to read these novels in Camilleri’s version of Sicilian, I tried the French. Ha!! Quadrupanni’s French liberties with French were as difficult for me as Camilleri’s Sicilian . . .so I switched to the German translations which were very straightforward. Thank heavens! Obviously, when I began reading him nothing was available in English. Now after years of practice the Sicilian is pretty easy so I stick with Camilleri in his Sicilian


    • May 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      May I ask you what your native language is? You seem to navigate easily between French, English, German and Italian.
      You’re lucky to be able to read Camilleri in the original. Do Italian books have footnotes to explain Sicilian words? Or is it like reading Quebec French for me: I just guess the words I don’t know.


  10. May 6, 2016 at 12:15 am

    In case anyone is interested, this links to A Camilleri Linguaggio that was very helpful to me.



    • May 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Thanks for the link.


  11. May 7, 2016 at 9:20 am

    I recently bought the first in this series. In a German translation. Maybe I should have ordered the French or the Italian but I was so sure I would go home and read it right away. Of course, I didn’t. Anyway, maybe it wasn’t a bad choice. I’m not sure I’d get all the Sicilian, although, when I was in Sicily I understood them well but it’s different when you read a dialect. I’ll let you know how they handle the translation in German.


    • May 7, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      I wish you had this one in Italian too. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the atmosphere in the German translation vs the original.


      • May 7, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        It’s very high on my piles, so there’s a chance I’ll get to it soon.


  12. May 7, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    I was fascinated to read your thoughts on the translation. It is a tricky issue. The edition I have of Berlin Alexanderplatz uses a lot of then contemporary US slang to capture the Berlin street slang, which now reads very oddly (but I suspect probably was a sensible choice at the time). It’s good the publisher gave the translator that leeway.

    Re the series, Montalbano is one I plan to watch rather than read, though having said that I have kindle versions of a bunch of them so it’s possible I may read them at some future date.


    • May 8, 2016 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks Max. I was very interested by this translation as well. I’d love to have a chat with the translator. It is a tricky decision to make and I’m glad that both publisher and translator thought the public would like it.

      I don’t have time to watch series, otherwise I’d like to watch this one. There must be gorgeous landscapes.


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