Anne-Sophie at UEA

An International Student of Literature in England.

(Un)Translating French novel ‘Dominique’

Genesis

For the Reading and Writing Translations module I took last semester, we were quite free regarding our essays and I had so much fun writing it! There were many different options, for students who know another language and those who do not: we could produce a short translation of an untranslated novel with a commentary, compare a book and its film adaptation or answer theoretical questions based on the Munday book we studied (Introducing Translation Studies). We did two practical translation workshops this semester but I miss actual translation classes so I decided to do the translation with commentary straight away. However, the freedom that we were given was quite problematic and it took me days and days to choose a book and an extract.

I knew I really wanted to work on Cookie Allez’s Dominique and that it’d be a very interesting one due to the gender ‘issue’ and different between French and English grammar but gave up this idea for some reason. I had this amazing idea of doing the experimental translation of a feminist text that deals with gender issues, invent new words, create confusion in the target language… But this project quickly proved to be too hard and finding a good text was tough. Desperate, I even considered Sade’s Justine (I thought it’d be funny) but gave up this idea after reading a disgusting excerpt. What was I expecting? So I went back to Dominique and called my mother, who’d already bought me the book for Christmas, to the rescue!

My Commentary

Dominique is inspired by gender theories and narrates the story of a child whose sex is hidden from themselves, their family and from the readers to free this child from social and gender norms. Are you still following? This untranslated novel raises cultural, political and ideological questions, which can be put into a dialogue responding to translation theories, such as Venuti’s theory of domestication and foreignization. This idea was the starting point of my commentary.

All rights to France 2 channel.

All rights to France 2 channel.

The novel plays a lot on the stereotype of English people through the character of the grandmother: she worships the queen, has a strong English accent and makes grammar mistakes in French. One of these mistakes is very significant: she gets easily confused about gendered nouns and adjectives in French. While it creates confusion in the original text and allows Allez to play with the theme and with the readers, it caused issues for my translation.

I had two options: I could either create new pronouns in English to stick to the French version, or I could domesticate the text and make it totally ‘English’. I decided to do a mix of the two to discuss the impossibility of translation in some cases, especially when adopting a domesticating strategy. One of my main concerns was therefore untranslatability and equivalence (on a grammatical and cultural level). I also decided to change names for them to sound more natural to an English audience and to convey the same connotations or puns in the target text!

Here’s a tiny extract from my essay about an interesting and frustrating issue I tried to solve. I don’t think it works very well but that’s the best I came up with, and that’s the point!

“Finally, I had to find ways to recreate the feminine neologisms ‘nourrissonne’ and ‘enfançonne’ at the end of the third excerpt, when the writer remarks that all the terms related to new-borns are masculine in French. I have borrowed Lotbinière-Harwood’s technique of using bold letters to ‘make the feminine visible in language’[1] and created the words ‘sheinfant’ and ‘toddlerette’ (based on the French feminine suffix ette). While these neologisms sound natural in the original, they are unfamiliar in the target text. Full equivalence could not be achieved even after relocating the story in the translation. ([1] Lotbinière-Harwood, quoted in Munday, p. 129)”

It might not make much sense to you if you’re not into translation but it’s really interesting! I have very proud of my translation and of my full plan for the commentary but I had to narrow it down due to limited word count. I’m worried my essay will feel incomplete due to it because there was so much more to say and I keep thinking of new ideas to add but we’ll see! I’ll be extremely disappointed if I don’t get a 2:1 on this essay to be honest.

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I really wish I could share the whole project on my blog for those who are interested but I’m not sure I’m allowed to do that. Instead, here is my English translation. I’d be very interested to read the official translation if someone ever tackles this novel! It might be me in a few years, who knows?

I have only read the first three chapters of Dominique while working on the essay but can’t wait to read it 🙂 . I’ve read mixed reviews but still recommend it… in French!

The Original Text

Extract 1: Domestication/Foreignisation and cultural references (p.12-8 ‘Blanc, c’est blanc’)

Knitty n’était pas une vieille dame : elle n’avait que soixante-trois ans. […] Tout le monde s’accordait à lui reconnaître un charme fou auquel son accent oxfordien d’avant-guerre et un maniement des plus fantaisistes de la grammaire française ajoutaient une note acidulée de bonbon anglais. Progresser dans une langue qu’elle jugeait barbare ne l’intéressait pas ; elle s’en tirait par des bravades ou de délicieuses acrobaties phonétiques, syntaxiques, sémantiques qui, parfois, laissaient pantois. Pour se reposer de ce tempérament un peu hétéroclite, elle tricotait. […]

Dès sa petite enfance, Lily avait pressenti que le fameux rire en cascade pouvait cacher une étrange férocité. Elle en fut tout à fait convaincue lorsque sous l’effet du souffle libérateur de Mai 68 éclata enfin – tel un orage nécessaire – le divorce de ses parents, Bertrand et Rose-May. […] Sa femme et sa fille devraient désormais se passer de lui, mais seraient à l’abri du besoin et continueraient à habiter l’appartement du boulevard de Picpus dans lequel il était né, et où sa famille avait vécu pendant près d’un siècle. C’est dire si ce quadragénaire sans tare visible avait envie de fuir : sans le savoir, il se faisait l’incarnation parfaite du loup dans la fable de La Fontaine et laissait à Rose-May le rôle du chien domestique attaché à sa niche. […]

À dix-sept ans, Lily quittait déjà Picpus pour entamer son parcours universitaire. L’année d’après, en toute innocence, elle rejoignait le bataillon des conquêtes féminines d’un de ses professeurs à l’École des chartes. Comme il eût fallu que cet homme se constituât un harem pour entretenir toutes ses passades assorties de fruits illégitimes, et comme on était seulement à la veille de la légalisation de l’IVG, la jeune femme offrit à Rose-May une petite-fille qu’elle appela France. Un prénom complètement ringard, même à l’époque, que Lily choisit en guise de pied de nez à cette mère pour qui tout ce qui n’était pas britannique et agréé by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen n’avait pas la moindre valeur. Lily, qui n’entendait pas troquer ses codex du iiie siècle contre une panoplie de biberons du xxe, avait confié le bébé à Rose-May. Autant dire qu’elle avait remis la France à la Grande-Bretagne.

Extract 2: Translating names, connotations and grammar (‘Un prénom arc-en-ciel’ p. 45-56)

Ce n’est que lorsque Gabriel se rendit le lendemain matin dans la chambre verte qu’il fut question des choses sérieuses : il fallait déclarer ce bébé. Et, par conséquent, lui attribuer un prénom. […] Ils ne voulaient pas non plus afficher de façon trop marquée la virilité ou la féminité de leur enfant, ce qui excluait d’office tous les Franck et Roseline, autant que les Adam et Ève. […] Il ne restait que trois prénoms  épicènes à examiner : Camille, Claude et Dominique. Or Camille rime avec fille et Claude, phonétiquement du moins, a quelque chose de saccadé et de suspendu. Tandis que Dominique accepte, selon l’humeur, de changer l’allure. […] Un mot arc-en-ciel. […] Mais pour le plaisir d’ancrer leur enfant dans une réalité sociale, ils avaient rédigé un faire-part d’une grande sobriété :

Gabriel et France Martin

Sont heureux d’annoncer la naissance de

DOMINIQUE

Le 20 mars 2002 à Paris. […]

-Knitty, vous allez réveiller Dominique ! gronda gentiment le père – un peu énervé tout de même. Cette nuit, je dormais et je ne vous ai pas entendue… J’étais épuisé ! Regardez plutôt Dominique, vous ne trouvez pas que c’est un bébé superbe ? Et tellement calme…

-Ah ! C’est un garçon !? Mais moi, je ne sais pas si je sais m’occuper d’un garçon ! C’est vrai, moi je connais pas les garçons petits…

Il y avait une pointe de désarroi dans la voix de Knitty.

-Knit’ ! Pourquoi un garçon ? Dominique, cela peut très bien être une fille, non ?! Comme prénom, tu trouves vraiment que ça fait plus masculin, toi ? intervint France.

-Mais Gabriel a dit un bébé superbe, alors j’ai pensé que… Puisque en France il y a pas comme en Angleterre, le pronom spécial pour les bébés.[1] Alors ? Alors ! C’est donc a little girl ! Et vous ne le dites pas tout de suite ? Pourtant j’adore les filles, tu le sais bien, mon tourterelle…

[1] En anglais, le pronom neutre it est employé pour remplacer les noms des choses, des animaux et… des bébés.

Extract 3: Translating neologisms and gender (‘Lapin Bleu Rosé’ p. 63-4)

Lily n’avait pas pu revenir voir sa fille durant son très bref séjour à l’hôpital ; elle l’avait appelée pour prendre des nouvelles. Quand France lui annonça le prénom choisi, elle ne posa pas de question : pour elle, Dominique était un garçon, cela ne faisait aucun doute. Elle était parvenue à cette conclusion puisque sa fille en parlait au masculin : il dort bien, il est facile, il est éveillé, il ressemble à un ange… En somme, elle racontait à sa mère tout ce que l’on peut, en ces circonstances, raconter d’important et d’insignifiant à propos d’un bébé. En français, ce mot n’a pas de féminin. Et, curieusement, il en va de même pour tous ceux qui désignent un nouveau-né. Par chance, quelque bon génie de la langue a épargné aux oreilles délicates l’affreuse sonorité de nourrisonne ou enfançonne !

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My Translation

Pelotte was not an old woman: she was only sixty-three. […] Everybody agreed and recognised in her an incredible charm, to which her pre-war Parisian accent and her whimsical use of English grammar added the sour touch of French sweets. Getting better at a language she judged barbaric was of no interest to her. She managed it with bravado or delightful phonetic, syntactic and semantic acrobatic feats that, sometimes, left people stunned. To take a break from this incongruous temperament, she would knit. […]

From her early years, Lily felt that this notorious laugh of hers could hide a strange ferocity. She was entirely convinced about it when, thanks to the liberating breeze of May 68[1], her parents Bertrand and Rose-Marie burst like a necessary storm, and finally got divorced. […] His wife and daughter thus had to do without him but would be free from want and would continue to live in the flat in which he was born and where his family had lived for almost a century, in Southwark. And indeed, this seemingly normal middle-aged man wanted to escape. Without knowing it, he was the perfect embodiment of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and left to Rose-Marie the role of the domesticated dog tied to its kennel. […]

At only seventeen, Lily left Southwark for university. The following year, she joined one of her professor’s army of feminine conquests. Since this man would have to build his own harem in order to provide for all his adventures and the illegitimate fruit was came with them, and since it was before the legalisation of abortion[2], the young woman offered Rose-Marie a grand-daughter called Britany. An old fashioned name, even at the time, chosen by Lily to oppose her mother for whom anything that wasn’t French and autorisé by the mighty Président de la République Française, croissants and berets was totally worthless. Lily, who did not plan to trade her third century manuscripts against a set of feeding bottles, left the baby in Rose-Marie’s care. She had given Britany back to France.

It is only the following morning, when Gabriel went to the green room that serious issues were brought up: baby’s birth had to be registered. Therefore, they had to give it a name. […] They did not want to display the virility or the femininity of their child in an obvious way, which excluded Frank or Rosaline as well as Adam and Eve. […] This left three names to examine: Ashley, Adrian and Max. Ashely rhymes with girly, and Adrian with man. Max accepts, depending on its mood, the change its behaviour. […] A rainbow name. […] To anchor their child in a social reality, they’d written a birth announcement card of a striking simplicity:

Gabriel and Britany Smith

are happy to announce the birth of

MAX

on March 20th 2002, in London. […]

‘Pelotte, you’re going to wake Max up!’ scolding the father in a friendly manner although he was getting angry. ‘I was asleep last night and didn’t hear you… I was exhausted! Look at Max instead, don’t you think he’s a superb baby?[3] And so quiet…’

‘Oh! Is it a boy then!? But I’m not sure I know how to look after a garçon! I’m not used to small boys after all…’

There was a touch of disappointment in Pelotte’s voice.

‘Pelotte! Why a boy? Max can also be used for girls, can’t it?! Do you think this name sounds more masculine?’ intervened Britany.

‘But Gabriel said “he’s a superb baby” so I thought that… since it’s not the same in English and French, the special pronoun for babies…[4]So? It’s une petite fille then! And you didn’t even tell me? I love girls, you know that ma tourterelle’ Pelotte said in her strong French accent.

Lily had not been able to come back to visit her daughter during her very brief stay at the hospital. She’d rung her to her fresh news. When Britany told her the chosen name, she did not ask any questions. She was convinced that Max was a boy. She had come to this conclusion because her daughter used masculine pronouns: he sleeps well, he’s easy-going, he’s alert, he looks like an angel…[5] She told her mother all the important and less important things one could say in such circumstances about a toddler. In French, this word does not have a feminine version. And, strangely, it is the same for all the words describing new-borns. Luckily, some genius linguist spared delicate ears the unpleasant sonority of ‘sheinfant’ or ‘toddlerette’!

[1] The period of May 1968 in France was characterised by civil unrest and a series of protests and general strikes.

[2] The Abortion Act of 1967 legalised abortion in the United Kingdom. It was only legalised in 1975 in France with the ‘loi Veil’.

[3] In French, pronouns, adjectives and names are all grammatically gendered – there is marker for a neutral gender. When the gender of the subject is unknown or needs to be secret, the masculine form is generally used. The word bébé (baby) is masculine.

[4] Footnote in the source text: ‘in English, the neutral pronoun it is used to replace the names of inanimate objects, animals… and babies’ (my translation).

[5] See footnote number 3.

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5 comments on “(Un)Translating French novel ‘Dominique’

  1. Soumya Choudhury
    13 May, 2016

    Hello Anne-Sophie.
    As you said, the process of translation, by keeping faithful to the source text as far as possible, might be a constrain. What method have you applied here: word-for-word or, sense-for-sense? You have noted that you have to use the strategy of domestication to make it somewhat familiar to the English readers; here, how far is it possible to assimilate the ‘native’ language essence in the target language? Or is it better to consider the source and the native language as two different– and somewhat closed– system?
    P.S: Your neologisms-(she)infant and toddler(ette)-are standout keeping the gender issue in mind.
    I am interested in translation from the postcolonial vantage point. Will discuss in details if you are interested. Keep up the good work.
    Soumya.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anne-Sophie
      14 May, 2016

      Hi! Thank you very much for your comment! I am a great believer of “sense-for-sense” translation — I think word-for-word translations can be useful but only in few cases such as the translation of scriptures. When you talk about the ” ‘native’ language essence of the target text”, do you mean how easy it was to sound English as a translator? If so, it wasn’t too hard because the language of the source text is also fairly simple. I was “lucky” in a way with this translation because a lot of it relied on stereotypes and they were quite easy to reverse here. In my opinion, it’s probably better to consider the source and target languages as different in order for the translation to read fluently. However, as I explain in this article and further examine in the full commentary, it can become extremely hard due to neologisms and very different grammatical systems (for instance, French is an extremely “gendered” language, which creates a lot of playfulness and ambiguity in the source text. As my translation demonstrates, such a novel cannot be translated properly).
      I’d be interested to hear more about postcolonial translation! I have heard and read briefly about it but don’t know much!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Studying English Literature at UEA and Module Choice | Anne-Sophie at UEA

  3. student nurse adventures
    2 January, 2016

    Good luck with your module!! ^^

    Like

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