On French Translations of Anglophone Literature

Garçon et crâne by Paul Cézanne. 1896-98.

Welcome to our alternative universe. It is quite similar to the one you happen to inhabit, but there are slight differences. For example, in this alternative world, I and you, my dear readers, are French monoglots. Yes, we can speak and read only French, and, as a matter of fact, this text is also written in French or, at least, you have to pretend it is. “Why French?” you might ask. “Why not German, Italian or Korean?” Well, because French was the first thing that came to my mind, and now you have to deal with it. In this world, all of you are French speakers. That’s a given, don’t argue with me.

We love reading French literature, of course. But even more so, we enjoy reading foreign literature translated into French, especially anglophone literature, you know: the US, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, all those countries. More than fair share of that literature finds its way into French: most of Stephen King’s, JK Rowling’s, Dan Brown’s, and E L James’ books are available in quality French translations. However, there are some writers, some really good writers, as we have heard, whose works are woefully under-represented in French translation, and we feel really bitter about it. There is this Irish writer James Joyce whose short-story collection Dubliners finally made it into French thanks to a small independent press. We really like his stories, but there are also some novels he has written that nobody wants to translate and publish: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Especially the latter looks interesting — it has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but, as some of the few English-speaking French critics say, it is much shorter and at the same time much denser. It plays a lot with different literary styles and there is a long monologue at the end without any punctuation. His last book is the experimental novel Finnegans Wake, but even the English-language readers say it has to be translated into English for them to be understood, so I’m not holding my breath for this one.

Then there is this American fellow called William Faulkner. If my memory serves me right, only his debut novel Soldier’s Pay is available in French. We keep hearing good things about his novels The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! but since the publisher of his only novel in translation has gone bankrupt, it is very unlikely anyone will risk investing in the translation and publication of these novels. Some even say it would be more realistic to spend  two or three years learning to read English, a very challenging language as we all know, than to wait for the miracle of seeing these books appear in French.

We also keep hearing about Thomas Pynchon, another American writer. As you all know, his short novel The Crying of Lot 49 enjoyed a short-lived success in France before going out of print. All the American critics, however, keep praising his other novel: Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m particularly curious about that one, as some Americans say it is a bit like big novels by Maurice Dantec (as you know, in contrast to the situation here, most of French-language literature gets translated into English), but I have to resign myself to the idea of never getting to read it. Even if there was someone capable of translating this novel into French, no publisher would agree to deal with such a difficult and commercially unviable doorstopper or, as we say, un pavé.

Alas, our only consolation seems to be the quirky blog Le non traduit, which features the reviews of these and other challenging novels unavailable in French. The person running the blog has a good command of English, a rare asset these days, and mostly focuses on innovative anglophone literature. Besides his critical appraisal of the above-mentioned authors, I recommend reading his posts about Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot (that Wasteland poem sounds phenomenal!), William Gaddis, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gass, Cormac McCarthy, Angela Carter, and William T. Vollmann. Although I have to confess that sometimes I feel like punching him for teasing us with all those great books that we’re unlikely to read.

P.S. In a Borgesian fashion (you might remember several of Borges’ stories appearing in French translation in Mots sans frontières), I came into possession of this list of translated titles, which cannot possibly belong to this world, and therefore is the sure sign of the existence of parallel universes. I believe you might find it of interest.

Portrait de l’artiste en jeune homme de James Joyce, traduit de l’anglais par Jacques Aubert et Ludmila Savitzky.

Ulysse de James Joyce, traduction sous la direction de Jacques Aubert.

Finnegans Wake de James Joyce. édition intégrale, traduit de l’anglais et présenté par Philippe Lavergne.

Le bruit et la fureur  de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.

Absalon, Absalon ! de William Faulkner, traduit de l’anglais par René-Noël Raimbault.

L’Arc-en-ciel de la gravité  de Thomas Pynchontraduit de l’anglais par Michel Doury.

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5 Responses to On French Translations of Anglophone Literature

  1. What a terrifying alternate universe!

  2. Yeah, tell me about it! Unfortunately, most of contemporary fiction in any foreign language doesn’t get the deserved attention. Unless we’re talking about international bestsellers, of course.

  3. languagehat says:

    Greetings from a pocket of that universe in which contemporary Russian fiction doesn’t get the attention from translation it deserves!

    Actually, I’m constantly surprised by how much contemporary Russian fiction is available in translation — quite a few new titles appear every year. Talk to an aficionado of Arabic fiction if you want to hear some serious and reality-based complaints on that score.

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