Translating Across Worlds

Translation, Creativity, and Intercultural Politics in Contemporary Francophone Women’s Writing

What a great opportunity: an afternoon and evening of French, writing, translation and interesting questions in nearby Durham. It was certainly wide-ranging and explored many different ‘avenues’, and I really enjoyed attending.

The first part of the afternoon involved a creative writing workshop led by Amaleena Damlé, which asked ‘What potential does creative writing have in coming to terms with traumatic legacies and offering fresh perspectives on the world?’. Co-organiser Amaleena stepped in as the scheduled leader, author Ananda Devi, was ill. Luckily, we attendees were still able to use Ananda’s materials for the workshop: images to inspire our creative writing plus Ananda’s own response to one of these.

The three images were all paintings which feature subjects apparently undergoing inner turmoil, who avoid looking the viewer directly in the eye: The Scream by Edvard Munch, The Queen by Lucien Freud, and The Monomania of Envy by Théodore Géricault.

‘By Jericho?’ Translators of a certain vintage may appreciate the digression my group went off on at this point, dredging up memories of an example taken from Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s translation of Asterix. Sadly, our more creative responses to the writing workshop are harder to summarise here, so I’ll move on.

There followed a translation workshop led by author Colette Fellous and translator Sophie Lewis, based on This Tilting World (Pièces détachées). We heard a bit of background about the book, then each tackled one of three extracts from it.

We discussed which issues we’d considered when approaching our extracts. If you notice a feature of the text at first reading, is it necessarily a particular feature of the book as a whole, with wider significance? It was possible for us to decide on some of these cases in a relatively short space of time, but only because we had both the author and translator present! Tips which Sophie gave for handling such questions included developing a style sheet for a particular translation, and listing any key terms which you decide to retain or replicate in translation.

The extracts we examined contained multiple intertextual references; one was the film title ‘Tu trembles, carcasse’ (which itself is a quotation), a phrase which cinemagoers in Tunis learn from the film itself, and repeat. This introduces the idea of fear into the text, which is echoed later in the same sentence. Perhaps the English film title ‘Scared Stiff’ doesn’t carry the full resonance of the French, but it can be echoed by a reference to ‘fright’ in a similar way.

Sophie mentioned a difference of opinion about translating the pronoun ‘on’, and how this affected the degree of responsibility which the narrator is portrayed as taking. For example, our second extract contained the phrase ‘on va lui faire du mal’, where ‘on’ could have been translated as ‘we’ but ultimately became ‘he will be hurt’. Colette said that, when she used ‘on’, she hadn’t necessarily wanted to convey a sense of the narrator’s responsibility, but did want to allow for a sense of guilt.

After the workshops, we strolled through Durham for a change of venues. After a ‘vin d’honneur’, the evening event began: a panel discussion with Colette, Sophie, Jessie Spivey (from their publisher, independent press Les Fugitives) and chair Rebekah Vince. Sophie interpreted for Colette, so that non-French-speakers could benefit from the entire discussion.

Colette thought it fitting that she was in the UK to discuss This Tilting World which, although it is set between Tunisia, Paris and Normandy, opens the night after the 2015 terrorist killing of mainly British people in Sousse. Colette’s is a point of view which spans different locations and identities, and it was fascinating to hear her speak. She described a book as a translation of things the author is unable to say in real life. She also said the reader translates the content of a book for themselves (and by extension, I suppose a translator translates the content for a new set of readers, who in turn translate it as they read…).

If you’d like to hear more, there’s a video interview with Colette at the bottom of this page. And since I mentioned intertextual references, here’s a Spotify playlist for This Tilting World – as compiled by Sophie.

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