Four years ago, I was sitting alone in the teacher’s lounge of a school where I worked as an itinerant teacher for the TAG (Talented and Gifted) students. I had some time to kill until my next class. I had already planned my beginner French lessons for the students for the next month and wanted to think about something besides work. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet and I already wanted to go home.
“How about I translate a portion of that novel I just finished reading?” I thought to myself. “Just for fun. I’ve never tried to translate a book before. The book is from the 1800s so it’s probably on Project Gutenberg for me to look at.”
That fleeting moment of boredom turned into a two and a half year project: my first attempt at translating an entire novel.
What you have to understand about that undertaking is that until then, I had only translated short pop songs for my friends. Pop songs. Not many words.
But one paragraph turned into a chapter, which turned into a “I might as well just translate the whole thing, why not??”
80,000 words later, well, what an project that turned out to be.
Not only did my French improve, but also my ability to render French thoughts into readable and understandable English did as well. Translating is more than just looking at a sentence and plugging the words into their second language equivalents. There’s meaning, tone, sometimes historical context, and style of words to consider. Language is such a human invention that it’s no wonder things like Google Translate, while getting better in how they, well, translate what you copy and paste into the box, can only do so much in conveying what is really being said. Think of the Bible and the multitudinous translations that have been done of that one work. And each one is different in the tone and choice of words.
When I decided to translate this novel, I had to really think about HOW I would translate Eugène Fromentin’s work. Would I keep the very formal French or would I try for something more contemporary (but not including lols or something of the like!)? And most of all, could I actually translate this thing, given that I had no experience in translating something of that length before?
Well, I did.
Was it easy? Sometimes it was, other times, it was a pain in the neck. I’ve become so bilingual that whole paragraphs I understood well in French were hard to put into comprehensible English. I also had to be consistent with the style that I had chosen: formal 1920s instead of stiff 1800s. I wanted to keep the style as comprehensible to modern audiences as possible.
Then….. well, I’m not going to lie. The character of Dominique needed serious psychiatric help. And I was stuck with him for two hundred plus pages.
Nonetheless, despite its literary flaws (an unreliable narrator who could be infuriating at times, not really getting to know the main love interest Madeleine), I fell in love with the poetic language that Fromentin used throughout the book. It’s obvious that he was a painter from the way he described the landscapes where Dominique spent his childhood. I felt like I was right there with Dominique as he explored the countryside. Since I am a poet myself, I felt like I would do especially well with translating those passages. And as painful as those passages of self-deprecation were, they were so vivid that I could really feel Dominique’s pain of unrequited love.
Two hundred plus pages and two and a half years of working off and on, I finished it at last! And then I sat on it for a while because I knew it needed another read-through and edit, but I had already moved on to other projects. Thanks to edits from my husband and me, I at last uploaded the files and put them on Amazon for all to read.
And I could not be prouder of my work. What began as a momentary assignment to keep myself occupied turned into a huge project! And now, English readers will get to lose themselves in this beautifully written story, as I did when I read it in the original French. Sadly, Eugène Fromentin is quite an obscure author, even to native French speakers (the woman whose house I stayed in during my stay in France had never heard of him, neither had my French professors at my university in Tours). Now he can at least be known to English speakers.