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Last weekend was a busy one here at CC Translations. Not only was it my son’s 28th birthday on Sunday (where did that time go?!), but it was also the ITI French Network’s annual post-Christmas get-together, the Fête des Rois. I’ve been a member of the Network for 8 or 9 years now, but am ashamed to say this is the first time I’ve ever attended the event – probably because it always clashes with a certain birthday! It meant two trips up to London on two consecutive days: up to the University of Westminster, just past Oxford Circus, for the FrenchNet do by train, then a drive over to Balham (via East Grinstead to pick up my parents) for my son’s birthday. Needless to say the train journey was much more relaxing than the car (but then I’m fortunate not to be at the mercy of Southern Rail….).


The traditional Fête des Rois was combined this year with a workshop given by eminent French literary translator Ros Schwartz, so all the more reason to attend. While I’m most definitely not a literary translator, it’s always interesting to attend workshops looking at style and the differing styles used in French and English. This was certainly no exception. After the workshop we went into networking/chat mode with a light lunch and a glass of wine, finishing with the traditional frangipane-filled galettes, each with their hidden “fève”. The finders of the “fève” (a little figurine rather than the traditional bean) then wore the gold crown for the rest of the party. Lovely to catch up with friends and colleagues old and new, as ever.

But on to the main event: Ros started the ball rolling, after the introductory coffee and chit-chat of course, by dividing us into groups. We’d already been issued with different-coloured name stickers as we entered, so we had to regroup ourselves with 2 or 3 similar-coloured sticker-wearers, all working in the same language direction. She then handed out two sets of texts, taken from a literary opus, one English and one French, to the relevant language groups. We were given 20 minutes or so to translate the texts in our groups: easier said than done, especially as it involved the laborious art of handwriting, something many of us haven’t done (legibly, at any rate) in a long while! Working in a team also posed a challenge to translators usually used to working alone, with the result that my group initially spent far too long discussing the tiniest of words and possible context – which of course we didn’t have. When the 20 minutes were up, our scribbled team text output was passed on to a group working in the opposite direction and we were then required to back-translate it to the original language – fascinating!

Second time round we all had a better idea of how to optimise teamwork: working on our own initially, then comparing notes rather than trying to do a group version from the off. Not sure the handwriting improved though… On receiving the opposite version back, we had the brainwave of taking a picture of the handwritten text on our phones so we each had a copy, rather than four of us trying to decipher French handwriting, crossed and altered as it inevitably was, at once.


At the end, we were asked to share our respective group versions of the texts by reading them out loud: intriguing to hear the differences in the various versions, fascinating to see how often the original formulation did reappear, and equally fascinating to hear alternative, but equally good translations of the same words (maybe even better than the source in some cases, although of course it’s all subjective). All of which goes to show, of course, that there is never one definitive “right” translation. And of course, that context is all – we definitely felt hampered by not having all the background information you would usually have at your fingertips, or at least at the end of some fruitful research.

A couple of points came out loud and clear in Ros’ summing-up: reading your translation aloud is always a great idea. It immediately tells you whether or not a text sounds right. Those of us who dictate will have discovered this long ago, although I suspect I would still make far more tweaks to a literary text I’d dictated than a technical text, where you can often get the style right straightaway.

When translating from English, it’s often more natural to use words with Anglo-Saxon origins – they immediately root the text in an English world, rather than the more ephemeral world of the French source, even if the logical translation might be an equivalent Latin-based word. Playing with punctuation is another important consideration – unless you’re translating a patent or a contract, it frequently makes sense to change dashes, add semi-colons, run sentences together – French and English use punctuation in very different ways and it makes such a difference if you play around!

Above all, these kinds of literary or stylistic texts need to be considered at a holistic level: don’t just limit yourself to words, sentences or even paragraphs. If you stand back and take the bigger picture, you often get a much better end result. Just what is the author trying to say? I’m sure most of us do this anyway, but it was an extremely useful exercise to prove a point.

The final part of the workshop involved a table with 7 sets of parallel texts. Our job was to identify which was the original source and which the translation: much harder than you’d think! In fact, so hard that I don’t think anyone got all seven correct. I personally only got three out of the seven, but that says much about the quality of the translations, of course. And that’s exactly as it should be! Surely our ultimate aim should be to produce a text that reads like a fluent English (or French) text in its own right? I’ll finish with an example of one of these text pairs – and leave it to you to decide. Which is the original and which the translation? Bonne chance!

Je suis pas une mauvaise personne, du tout. Je suis même plutôt super. J’ai vu une quantité phénoménale de films, je torche tout le monde à Guitar Hero, je travaille vraiment bien et j’aime beaucoup mon travail, je suis pleine d’esprit, j’écris un blogue, j’ai voyagé, je prends pour le Canadien et je peux parler de philo (ça s’annule pas), et je suis aussi une formidable partenaire de brosse, de magasinage, de colocation, de gala, je peux toute faire, je lis, je cuisine, je connais plein de choses… Je suis vraiment pratique, là, je peux allumer un barbecue ou traire une vache, je fais des mojitos parfaits, je suis presque végétarienne, j’ai une culture populaire imbattable et j’ai une conscience sociale (j’ai les deux), je recycle, j’achète équitable et bio quand je peux, usagé le reste du temps, j’ai pas d’auto, j’aime la vie. J’aime la vie, là. Je suis une super vivante. Je suis une championne. Je suis drôle et vraiment smatte. Sauf que là, je suis tannée.

l’m not a bad person, l’m really not. l’m even pretty chilled. l’ve seen an insane number of films, l’m ace at Guitar Hero, I work my arse off and I really love my job. l’ve got a wicked sense of humour, I blog, l’ve travelled, I support Arsenal, I read the paper and l’m educated, so I can talk the talk. l’m up for a night out dancing, mooching round the shops, flat-sharing, partying … I can do anything – I read, I cook, I know loads of stuff … l’m super practical, I can light a barbecue or milk a cow, I make perfect mojitos, l’m almost veggie. When it comes to pop culture l’m a mine of information and I have a social conscience (they’re not incompatible). I recycle, I buy Fairtrade and organic when I can, second-hand the rest of the time, I haven’t got a car, I love life. Yeah, I love life. l’m super alive. l’m a winner. l’m funny and very smart. Except that l’m really pissed off.

Over to you…

P.S. Huge thanks to Ros Schwartz for allowing me to reproduce some of her material.