During my annual trip to Edinburgh this year I was pleased that for once the dates of my visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and even more pleased that I was able to attend a French Translation Duel there – my first.
The Duel was part of the Festival’s Art of Translation series of events which this year included a Spanish Translation Duel, a look at translations of War and Peace, and a presentation of Adam Thirlwell’s Multiples – an experimental book consisting of stories (by the likes of Kierkegaard and Kafka) translated by leading authors into another language, then re-translated into English, then re-translated again and again. Unfortunately my personal schedule meant I was only free to attend the French Duel.
The Duel explored what happens to a story’s essence when it is translated from one language to another. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, translators Adriana Hunter and Ros Schwartz each presented their own interpretations of a short – previously untranslated – text by Haitian-Canadian author Dany Laferrière, who was also present (for once however, the author was not the “star of the show”!).
Each audience member was given a handout containing the original French text, L’air sentait l’ilang-ilang, Ros and Adriana’s translations, and then a line-by-line comparison of the two translations. Neither translator had seen the other’s work until the start of the duel, and interestingly no two sentences were alike – even the title was different (‘The air was fragrant with ylang-ylang’ [Ros] and ‘The Air Smelled of Ylang-ylang’ [Adriana]).
Time constraints – the event lasted an hour – meant that it wasn’t possible to study the whole text in detail, but it was interesting to hear Ros and Adriana explain why, for example, in a given sentence, they chose to translate mère as ‘mother’ [Ros] and ‘mum’ [Adriana], or affreusement timide as ‘hopelessly shy’ and ‘horribly shy’ respectively. Sometimes a translation which I didn’t initially agree with sounded the best solution in the end after hearing the translators’ explanations (for example ‘dick’ [Ros] or ‘groin’ [Adriana] as translations for le sexe).
No blood was shed at this duel (!), and it was a fascinating public insight into the private work, research and thought processes of fellow translators – albeit literary ones. And without a doubt it proves – if proof is needed – that each translation is a creative work in its own right.
Have you ever attended a translation duel? Let me know in the comments below.
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The Translator’s Dilemma – post about a play performed at Edinburgh Festival 2012