Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lost In Translation

So I'm taking French.

Over the past ten years or so, there have been an endless series of self-betterment ideas that have bubbled up out of my brain, popped out my mouth...and evaporated. How shall I put this? Discipline, to put it mildly, is not my strong suit. I'm great at spouting off about all the things I should do to make myself a more well-rounded person, but not so great at following through. Given the choice to shit or get off the pot, I'll ask you kindly to refrain from such low language. See, to make that cuss word palatable, you need only drop one letter. Thank you: now let me sit in peace.

I'm not getting any younger, though, (he said, in full recognition that the cliché seems to imply that somewhere in the world, there are people who are getting younger...) The realization of my advancing age has stirred up something of a gastrointestinal festival, and I'm thinking I might be putting this here pot to its intended purpose.

Why French? Pourquoi pas? It was one of the school subjects I most enjoyed; I graduated high school quasi-fluent, certainly proficient enough to hold a conversation. Then, of course, I lost almost all of it.

I'm halfway through the first course, a non-credit course in conversational French just to get my feet wet before I sink into it jusqu'au cou,  and I have to say my first exposure to a classroom in twenty years has been a delight. Though I must confess my high school attitude--to wit, school is not a place to learn, school is a place to show what you've learned--has followed me into my forties. Each week, we start off class with a tongue-twister. The first week's was cloaked in an interesting (to me, at least) history lesson, and it goes

Le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant. 
(The wall walling Paris keeps Paris murmuring.)

I've been collecting tongue twisters and otherwise having fun with words forever, so I felt the need to contribute the best tongue twister I know in any language, which goes like this:

La chasseur, sachant chasser, chasse san son chien.
(The hunter, knowing how to hunt, hunts without his dog)--it even makes a kind of sense!

I was interrupted halfway through reciting this and politely shushed: turns out it was on his list to be used seven weeks later.  At the break, I asked if he'd heard  the one about the six saws, and wrote it out for him:

Si ces six scies-ci scient si bien ce cyprès-ci, ces six scies-ci scieront ces six cents cyprès-ci.
(If these six saws saw this here cypress so well, these six saws here will saw these six hundred cypresses.)

I suspect it'll turn up soon...

To make learning French more fun, I bought Stephen King's The Shining en français. The English novel is one I have read so often I've practically memorized it, and so it was an ideal choice to pick up the language quickly. That said, the are some oddities.

The book, en français, is simply called "SHINING", and the mass market paperback I have shows the iconic image of Jack Nicholson being all nutso through half a door. Aside:

In case you're wondering, while I was undeniably creeped out by Kubrick's film, I share Stephen King's disdain for it. Jack Nicholson is horribly miscast, since the horror of King's novel lies in watching a loving, flawed husband and father slowly sink into madness, and Nicholson is insane from the first shot. Oh, and Shelley Duvall is so whiny you almost find yourself cheering for the forces of evil halfway through the bloody movie.

SHINING, so far as I know, is not a word in French. Within the text, Danny Torrance's 'gift' is called just that,  le Don. I was more interested to see how the translator would handle REDRUM.

There's a lovely scene in chapter 17. Danny's been checked out by a psychologist and found sane, if rather imaginative. The doctor draws Jack and Wendy aside and they discuss the child's weird ability to know things he couldn't, as well as his recent nightmares, in which the word REDRUM figures prominently. It seems, says the doctor, to be a reference to Jack's alcoholism, what Danny refers to as doing the Bad Thing. Red rum: it all fits. Nobody thinks to reverse the word, and why would they?

But REDRUM is a null word in French, reversed or otherwise. Behold: TROMAL. Jack hears it as trop mal, "too sick", and so does Dr. Edmonds. Danny is emphatic that it's one word only, and so the doctor decides it must really be trauma. Reversed,  of course, it's LA MORT -- death. Not bad. I wonder how long it took the translator to come up with that.

That said, there are some very strange things about this translation of The Shining. People referred to as Mr. and Mrs. in English are still referred to that way in translation--shouldn't it be M. and Mme.? Odder: Danny tells us some of the signs he can read: STOP, EMERGENCY, PIZZA. The third is the same in French and the second is translated properly, but STOP is still, weirdly, STOP.

Then there's the matter of Mrs. Brant.

Hallorann has just told Danny about his "shine", and the boy asks the chef about Mrs. Brant, whose thought Danny had picked up across the Overlook's lobby. She was thinking about how much she'd like to get into the bellboy's pants. Danny, being five, can't figure this out: she's got pants of her own, after all. Hallorann guffaws and tells Danny he'll know "everything there is to know about the human condition before you make ten".

That episode is completely cut out of my translation. Not a word of it in there. Is it that French doesn't have an idiom like I want to get into your pants? This is not the sort of thing I can ask my French teacher, you understand, but it's bugging me.

The first sentence of the book, in English:
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

In French:
Petit con prétentieux, pensa Jack Torrance.

Run that though Google Translate and the 'prick' turns into a 'jerk'. The sentiment's right, but it's missing a ne sais quoi. It reminds me of the time I saw GHOSTBUSTERS in Venezuela. February 1986, that would have been. The movie was in English with Spanish subtitles. I'd already seen it a couple of times without those subtitles, so again...pretty handy for picking up the language. But I couldn't help noticing the hash they made of this scene:

The subtitles read

¿Es esto cierto? -- Sí, este hombre es un idiota.

Come on, try a little. Maybe Spanish doesn't have an insult like ' coin one!

Anyway, the French progresses apace. The tenses are taking the longest to come back to me. It's hard for me to distinguish my future simple from my subjunctive from my pluperfect. The gender of nouns is another thing. Does it end in an e? No? Then it's mascuiline! ...wrong! It's bizarre. Milk, the one liquid you would naturally assume is feminine because how many guys give milk? of course masculine. French is just sexist that have a group of girls, you use elles, but as soon as one guy sneaks into that group, it's ils, even if there are still a hundred girls. Chavinism: it's a French word...

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