Mistranslations and Miscorrections…

As a hobbyist translator and someone with a general interest in languages, I always enjoy a good mistranslation roundup. Not just nitpicking on what idiom best conveys some tricky expression in another language, but plain outright mistranslations (French faux amis, for example).

Translators working on closely related language pairs such as French and English (as opposed to more distant ones, like Japanese and English) have a tendency to be writers first, translators second. Their actual mastery of the source language is sometimes surprisingly low, but (for good or bad reasons) editors seem to think that the quality of their written production in the target language can make up for their weakness. This is an especially common occurrence in English to French translations, where French speakers barely English-fluent have been known to translate major English literary works (not a new practice either: Baudelaire‘s famous translation of Edgar Allan Poe, while delightfully written, is so incredibly riddled with errors that it could be a new work in its own right).

The smug pleasure of pointing out errors in the work of so-called professional translators can only be beat by one thing: the even smugger pleasure of pointing out errors in said corrections…

In a recent Guardian article, Germaine Greer plays on a rather trite cultural tropism: “Why do people gush over Proust? I’d rather visit a demented relative“.

Yes, we get it: Proust’s writing is long, convoluted and not exactly packed with action. I am far from his greatest fan and would not even put him in my personal top ten of French authors, but criticising his style on length and paragraph count is about as subtle as calling Picasso’s paintings a bunch of kid scribbles by a guy who couldn’t draw a normal face.

The translation comment, however, is what grabbed my attention. Ms Greer chose to illustrate the poor quality of Proust’s English translations with a sentence drawn from the fifth volume (La Prisonnière, aka The Captive):

Tirant d’un flûtiau, d’une cornemuse, des airs de son pays méridional, dont la lumière s’accordait bien avec les beaux jours, un homme en blouse, tenant à la main un nerf de boeuf, et coiffé d’un béret basque, s’arrêtait devant les maisons.

Then goes to quote the two main translations in turn:

This Scott Moncrieff hilariously renders as: “Drawing from a penny whistle, from a bagpipe, airs of his own southern country whose sunlight harmonised well with these fine days, a man in a blouse, wielding a bull’s pizzle in his hand and wearing a Basque beret on his head, stopped before each house in turn.”

In Carol Clark’s version for Penguin we read: “Drawing from a penny-whistle or bagpipes melodies from his southern homeland, whose light the fine morning recalled, a man in a smock with a bludgeon in his hand, and wearing a beret, stopped in front of the houses.”

Upon reading these, I was confused as to what either translator may have done to deserve Ms. Greer’s hilarity: both translations seem to convey, in a reasonably faithful tone and language, the admittedly obscure meaning of the original.

Her ire stems from one “mistranslated” word in particular:

The translators’ manifest difficulties stem at first from Proust’s own imprecision, and are then compounded by their ignorance. The Pyrenean goatherd carried neither a dried bull’s penis nor a bludgeon – what would he be doing with either? He is going to milk his goats and he needs something with which to restrain them: a hobble made of dried bull sinew.

There are just two small problems with this interesting — and indeed creative — approach to the original meaning:

1. A “nerf-de-boeuf” (literally “bull sinew”) is not actually made of dried bull sinew. It is merely one of these delightful euphemistic idiom people have come to use, in order to avoid having to say “bull penis” in proper company. As such, translating “nerf-de-boeuf” by “bull’s pizzle” is not only correct, but perfectly renders the euphemistic idiom (the old English word “pizzle” is used both for “non-human penis” and a whip made from such).

2. I have very limited first-hand experience as a mountain goat-herder, but I can very easily imagine how a sort of whip or flogging instrument (say… a pizzle) could come handy to herd a pack of goats. While “bludgeon” might stray a bit far from the original (and fail to reflect the actual material used), it still sounds considerably less far-fetched than a hobble. There too, I cannot claim much experience, but a cursory web search showed absolutely no trace of a “nerf-de-boeuf” ever being used as a hobble (which would seem to be made of much softer, more flexible materials).

In the end, it is pretty obvious that, of all three translations, Ms. Greer’s is the least accurate, bordering on a mistranslation, while the professional translators had, for once, done an adequate job.

I could probably go on the importance of double-checking before going about correcting others, but then I am not sure what this would imply on the present entry… So let’s just agree to say that Proust’s work, while certainly daunting from the outlook, is worth a read; and the people taking on the thankless task of translating his humongous body of work should at least get credit and benefit of the doubt for trying.