Talking of editors, readers may not always realize that translators are not the only people to have had a hand in the text. In a good publishing house, an editor (as distinct from the copy-editor, who comes later and regularizes spellings and other minor problems) will always read through the text, and ideally the editor will know the source language well. I have been very fortunate in my editors. For most of the Vargas books, my editor has been Geoff Mulligan. He has an eagle eye, knows French perfectly, and usually spots when I’ve left a word or even sentence out, queries mistranslations, and helps me avoid inadvertent sound repetitions etc. In any book-length translation all kinds of glitches are bound to occur, usually omissions. Of course, as we always agree, any mistakes or wrong calls that are left are my own.
The ‘maguffin’. In the case of detective novels there is an additional hazard. The maguffin -- shorthand for central plot element or clue - may be something difficult to translate. This has happened several times, and I have found ways round it, about which nobody has yet complained. It happens for example in The Three Evangelists, and is also a problem in the one I have just finished translating, L’Armee furieuse. Fred Vargas has a particular quirk, which is to pick up on apparently casual words or phrases and weave them in later, either as further red herrings or essential plot strands. Not wanting to issue spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but can do so in private!
Now to some particular points: in order, the titles of the police; the names of the police officers in Adamsberg’s squad; tutoiement; strength of expletives; and coffee bowls… I have kept the titles of the police (commissaire, commandant, lieutenant. etc,) simply because they don’t map exactly on to either UK or US police ranks, though they are easily comprehensible. Depending on the publisher’s house style, they may be italicized or not. As for their names, no, alas, I can’t change them to give them the resonance they would have for the French reader (Lamarre/ y’en a marre etc). I did allow myself a joke at the expense of Danglard (the Anglophile), by having him pronounce ‘Donglarde’ by the British policeman who speaks no French. I don’t know whether this works in the US, but ‘Dong’ is quite appropriate to Danglard in England, because of Edward Lear and the ‘Dong with the luminous nose’ who is a rather sad fellow in the poem (‘he goes, he goes’, in love with a Jumbly Girl who has sailed away).
Tutoiement is a perennial problem in French novels: the moment two characters start to tutoyer each other can mark familiarity, contempt, a love affair, etc. As a rule, I try to indicate by some inflection in the dialogue that greater familiarity has been reached. Sometimes just using first names will do it, but that depends entirely on how the novel has been written. In the case of Vargas, it is perhaps a reasonable assumption that many readers will have a little acquaintance with French practice (or other European languages) so that one can sometimes refer to it explicitly. But I put my hand up, in the Lucio example and others in the book, I could and should have done more.
Expletive deleted? As Nicole Dufresne notes, I’ve gone online about this before. Here’s my take on it in Vargas. Her novels, with a fantasy squad and plots based on medieval romance, are not realistic police procedurals, of the hard-boiled variety, where these days - and increasingly – the characters use language which would have been regarded as rather strong even twenty years ago. Yes, her cops say ‘Merde’ and ‘qu’est-ce qu’il fout maintenant’. But they don’t for example (to take a word recently in the news in LA) say ‘putain’, or ‘bordel de merde’ etc. every couple of minutes. They don’t on the whole blaspheme much either. So sometimes, if it seems that the degree of annoyance is quite mild – the sort of thing children hear their parents say every day in France, I don’t always use the literal English word, saving it for more serious trouble on the whole. It’s not that I’m particularly prudish, and I’ve recently translated a novel by someone else, where I’ve had to up the expletive count exponentially, in terms of quality and quantity. Still I think I could probably have been less wimpish in the example she quotes!
Finally, coffee bowls. and under-translations: I wasn’t quite sure why Nicole Dufresne didn’t like these. In the novel, there’s quite a lot about Adamsberg drinking coffee in his kitchen: he is an old-fashioned guy who uses filters, not a cafetière, let alone a Gaggia machine, and he drinks his coffee from a bowl, as my own family and friends in France do, and exactly as Professor Dufresne describes it. My son-in-law would never drink his breakfast coffee from anything else: a small bowl, the size of a large cup, into which you can dip your bread. But I can’t possibly translate this kind of ‘bol’ as ‘cup’ or ‘mug’, because they have handles. Googling ‘coffee bowl’ or bol de café brought up many images of the same, and the term ‘bowl’ used in France doesn’t seem to bother anyone. But I missed out on haut de gamme [top-of-the-range or top-drawer didn’t seem to do it for cops - so I went with top brass, which is a very English expression]; and I completely missed out on moisi. Sorry! But thank you very much, Nicole, if I can do the equivalent of tutoiement in signing off, for a generous but constructive critique.
Siân Reynolds, Edinburgh, March 2012