The FSG blog Work in Progress has an insightful interview with Richard Howard, responsible for some of the most beautiful translations from French that I’ve ever read.
On the blog he’s talking about his most recent translation, Barthes’ Mourning Diary, which seems that it must have been a very difficult translation to do.
Here he’s talking about one particular translation choice:
I’d like to talk about the last stretch of the sentence. I find the English word continuance beautiful. Do you would recall the strategy, the process that led you to this transposition? In French we have ça continue in italics. We have continuance in italics, too, in English.
Howard: The two versions, the French and the English, are italicized for different reasons. In French, they are italicized because that is a kind of manner of speaking, which is really not quite proper. It’s from a realm of discourse which is more intimate, and more informal. Ça continue.
I was not comfortable with translating it that way. It would have had, the world deafens me with. And then it would be, it keeps going on, or something like that. That’s very much what the French is. I just felt that it was not a moment where I could lapse into the colloquial, that I wanted some kind of conclusion to the sentence and the observation. So I said, No sooner had she departed; then, the world deafens me with; and then, its; and then all those things which in French mean ça continue, “it keeps going on” or “it continues.” So I just came up with the noun continuance, which is not a frequently used word in English, though available to anybody: one understands what it means.
And here’s a little bit from Howard’s remarks on his professional relationship with Barthes:
I would call him up in France, when I was translating, and say, “What is this? I don’t understand it. Can you help me?”
“Of course,” he’d reply. Wonderful to have a living author who is there, who can do that for you, as a translator. I frequently, in translating works by dead authors, am simply stuck, and have to cast my net far and wide to find out exactly what it is, and often—sometimes—do not find out, and have to make up something else, or cover it over in some way. In the case of Roland, I don’t think I performed with that kind of inadequacy because he was there, and I could call him. And I feel, ever since his death, I feel—not that I’m inadequate for the work but that it’s a resource that I lack now; and it’s a terrible thing for me, to suddenly feel, “Oh, I’ll just call Roland; ask him what to do.” And I can’t. That’s a terrible thing.
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