The first publication of French author George Simenon’s Maigret stories opens with police commissioner Jules Maigret sitting at a bar. Maigret is waiting for his sidekick Dufour, who, unfortunately, is running very late. Suddenly, Maigret jumps to his feet in the middle of the bar and shouts, “Sacré Dufour!” No further action ensues, and the scene ends.
For you francophones out there, the meaning of Maigret’s exclamation seems clear: He is disgusted. How on earth could his loyal sidekick be late?! But the translation of this phrase from French to English is not as clear-cut as it may initially seem. Sacré, while used to express hostility, can also be used to express admiration. Which usage, then, is Maigret employing here?
When translator and author David Bellos visited the Logan Center last Thursday to deliver the annual Claire and Emmett Dedmon Visiting Writers Program lecture entitled The Art of the Translator, he began by presenting this dilemma to the audience. How does a translator decipher meaning without context? For all we know, Maigret could be just as irritated by Dufour’s lateness as he is proud of Dufour’s superb detective work. It’s a classic predicament of translation, but it lacks a conventional solution.
“There is no constitution of the translatorship. There is no social discourse about what the translator should or should not do,” Bellos said.
Rather than attempt to explain what translation is, or what a translator should or should not do, Bellos expounded on what a translator can do. He elucidated the role of the translator by recounting pivotal and very personal experiences he has had with problematic translations. All the while, he stressed the guiding influence of a translator’s individual style.
For example, Bellos addressed the issues of slang terms for coinage systems in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—more than 300 types of coins are mentioned. Bellos also explained the complexities of translating languages embedded within a text. (What Latin means in French is not synonymous with what Latin means in English.) Bellos kept his concepts accessible, and the audience laughed the whole way.
Bellos was frank too: “No text contains all the information you need to translate it. It is always, to some degree, a creative act.”
Context, Bellos explained, can only provide so much information. Whether it’s pitch, volume, stress, background information, or situational status, context in speech is far more informative than written context. In written speech, furthermore, context is even more ambiguous, and a character’s gender, age, and nationality often provide clues as to their probable utterances. The audience chuckled as Bellos projected various contrasting expressions up on the screen. They exemplified the wide variety of the personalities of diction, ranging from “Oh dear! What a nuisance!” to “Damn your eyes!” and “Fuck you!”
When the translator lacks context, they have several options. First, the translator can simply leave the text in the original and avoid translation altogether (which, Bellos insinuated, is a clear cop-out). This technique he called an “opaque xenism.”
Second, the translator may bow to the conventions of a particular genre, or, third, the translator can face the predicament, choose, and take responsibility. “Every choice is a reflection of the person making that choice,” Bellos said.
As Bellos underscored the importance of a translator’s inventiveness, I was surprised by how much liberty he assumes in his translations—how much liberty any translator assumes, for that matter. Throughout the lecture, I received the impression that translation does not produce a substitute for the original but, rather, a truly new and markedly tailored version of the original.
Bellos confirmed these suggestions, stating, “Translated fiction is doubly fictional.” The translation itself is its own layer of fantasy, perhaps removed from the original reality of the text.
So why do these nitty-gritty details even matter? Even the smallest words can carry the greatest significance. If we go back to the Maigret example, we perceive a brand new character at the start of a short story that will later launch a series of 75 books. What Maigret says in this brief moment determines the reader’s initial viewing of his character and sets the precedent for his coming legacy. Will Maigret be an impatient police commissioner? Or will he be an approving friend?
Consider the coinage systems in Les Misérables. Without understanding the exact value and purpose of various coins, the reader cannot know whether certain characters are cheating on deals or paying in full. These instances determine a character’s integrity and instigate plotlines.
A translator colors all that the reader can distill from a text, playing games with words and, in Bellos’s terms, “being a bit of an archaeologist.” Reflecting on his job, Bellos joked, “Trivial? Yeah. Fun? Definitely. But also very meaningful.”
So what was Maigret really saying when he shouted “Sacré Dufour?” Bellos doesn’t even remember—he deliberated for so long that he can’t even recall his final decision.