When Albert Russo is asked about the translations he sometimes makes of his own works, he replies that he does not feel comfortable with the verb ‘translate’ and much prefers to use ‘render’. Reading Zapinette, Russo’s own adaptation of his novel originally published in French under the same title, one comes to understand how important the difference between the two notions is, and also that we are lucky that the author’s bilingualism has enabled him to undertake and complete the task of adapting a novel of his into another language. The result is outstanding: not only does Mr Russoʼs fiction read as fluently in English as in the original French, but the ‘renderer’ has succeeded in adapting the situation and the characters to the context of another society, another culture, another way of looking at reality. The English Zapinette has an atmosphere of its own, which is the ineluctable consequence of the narrator’s awareness that she is writing for a different public.
My experience of cross-cultural reading is so scarce that I would not dare make a theory of it. Many years ago, I was living in England and I attended a course on twentieth century literature. One of the set texts was Malraux’s Days of Hope (L’Espoir). I had fallen in love with Malraux’s war novels a few years before and I knew the French original rather well, so well that I found the English translation absolutely unreadable. So did the other members of the class, who hadn’t read the original text. In fact, the translator had tried to recapture the unique rhythm of Malraux’s prose, a mixture of curt impressionistic phrases and long-winded paragraphs echoing the meandering thinking process of the characters, and he had failed in his attempts, turning the short phrases into unconnected chunks of meaning, forcing the natural conciseness of the English language into a parody of the prolixity of Malraux’s billowing French.
The second type of experience I would like to evoke came from the translations I had to write when I was at university. For example, I remember vividly struggling for a very important exam on a few dozen lines from Henry James’s Golden Bowl, and then rushing to the largest bookshop in town to check on what I naively believed was the ‘official’ translation of the passage. The text had just been ironed out by the translator. James’s extremely precise choice of words had been ignored, his many repetitions, his purposeful use of classical rhythms (ironically partly influenced by his reading of French literature) had been washed away into a whimsical flattening out of what makes his prose truly unique.
Of course Malraux and James are master craftsmen of their respective languages. Kunderaʼs Czech novels translate very well both in French and in English, Beckett’s own translations are very close to the original text, but these writers’ talent lies in their use of an idiom which is suggestive precisely because it has been emptied of most of the effects and imagery of written speech. In this case, the translating process is made much easier.
The narrator of Zapinette is a young girl in love with words, who constantly plays at experimenting with them, at stretching them to where they don’t want to go, at forcing them into all kinds of shapes and conjunctions that suit her mood and fancy. One cannot imagine easily what a translation of the novel would have come to if it had been attempted by anyone else but the writer himself, but it would have been very difficult to avoid either of the pitfalls I have evoked above, the misplaced lyricism or the ironing out. Albert Russo’s bilingualism and his constant and militant research into the different ways of bridging the gaps between the two idioms he writes in have enabled him to transpose his original novel into English in such a way that the reader has absolutely no doubt that the two Zapinettes are one and the same book, although the two narrators have different voices and even different personalities.
Let us take the example of the writing point of view. The French Zapinette is precisely that, French, her real name is Jeannette Villiers, she lives in Paris with her mother who is a hairdresser and she writes about her relationship with her gay uncle in a touchingly naive way. We laugh at Zapinette and at her distortions of the French language. In the English version, the girl is called Esmeralda McInnerny, her mother owns a beauty salon, her uncle is still gay but Zapinette herself has become slightly more manipulative, she is more obviously in charge, and her malapropisms often seem to the readers intentional. We laugh with Zapinette and no longer at her. Esmeralda McInnerny is partly American and writes for an American public, and she is fully aware of the fact.
Homosexuality, culture, even the way to refer to shops, are different on the two sides of the Atlantic, and the connotations the words bear are also different. The simple, hearty, naive Jeannette Villiers with her banal name has become the sophisticated binational child who has grown too fast and has not had time to fully understand what adults mean when they speak, although she seems to have grasped a little more about life than Jeannette.
Obviously, the civilizations are different, but Russo has had the perceptiveness to realize that in many cases, the words used to denominate a notion shaped the speaker’s perception of that notion. Regardless of civilizational differences, the way we use language is cultural in the sense that, even if ʻabrigo’, ‘cappotto’, ‘coat’ and ‘manteau’ more or less refer to the same garment, what those different words connote varies according to the extensiveness of the denotation, to the sound of the word and to the use of it in set phrases, famous pieces of literature or songs. The best example is possibly Zapinette’s transformation of ‘homosexual’ into ‘mot sessuel’ (sessual word) and of ‘homosexual’ into ‘homey setchual’. The French pun enables Albert Russo to intellectualize his heroine’s speech and to remark frequently on the very nature of ‘ les mots’ (words), and perfectly justifies Zapinetteʼs unconscious malapropisms. The same ambiguity was impossible in English, and the main theme of the novel had to be slightly altered as a result: Esmeralda is less of a writer and more of a social critic than Jeannette.
Consequently, Albert Russoʼs rendition is successful because the writer himself has decided on what to sacrifice, what to alter and what to highlight to reach his own purpose by different means. If we compare two passages taken at random :
“Un soir, sans me demander mon avis, tonton mʼa emmenée au théatre. J’ai commencé par bouder, parce que moi, les pièces, je trouve ça terriblement enquiquinant, avec leurs voix de gueulards et leurs gestes exagérés, en plus, ils portent presque toujours des habits démodés et se font des courbettes toutes les deux minutes, comme les Japonais.” and “One evening – you can call that a surprise! – Unky Berky took me to the
theater. Of course, I started to sulk, coz I believe plays are the most boring entertainment ever invented, especially with them actors who think they have to scream their heads off to be heard and flail their hands like baboons in search of a banana, and who furthermore almost always wear dusty old-fashioned clothes, bowing a hundred times at the end like they were geishas.”, we can notice several differences. The French version contains more familiar words, phrases or constructions than the English one (seven versus four), which is characterized by the number of words which would not be expected in the colloquial prose of a high school pupil. Thus, it seems that the semantic theme, so much present in the original in the pun on ‘mot / homo’, impossible in English, is compensated by Zapinette’s use of a more elaborate language. It is for example significant that the word ‘geisha’, which also exists in French, has only been introduced in the English version, when the French ʻJaponaisʼ was more generic and matter-of-fact. The writer has added to his text in two cases, “like baboons in search of a banana” and “dusty”, the former in order to create a comic effect, the latter to evoke Zapinette’s sharp sense of observation. Esmeralda is obviously in search of an effect far more than her French counterpart, and her ‘you can call that a surprise!’ and ‘of course’ demonstrate her desire to create a closer rapport to the reader than the more factual ‘sans me demander mon avis’ in the French version.
In fact, translators have to make choices and if they were able to make them properly, they would write books instead of working on other people’s. Common wisdom has it that only writers can translate other writers’ works properly, but common wisdom in not absolutely correct here. Baudelaire’s much quoted translations from Thomas De Quincey or Edgar Allan Poe are not such a good job after all and I have sat through many bad performances of Shakespeare’s plays badly translated by different French writers. Because Mr Russo is bilingual and writes in both English and French, he has felt and known what an efficient translation of his fiction would be. And the result is here a felicitous compromise between fidelity and adaptation to a different context.