Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Moose and Caribous: Translating Meg Rosoff's Moose Baby - Clémentine Beauvais

I'm currently translating Meg Rosoff's uncategorisable little gem Moose Baby into French.

Image result for moose baby rosoff

For those of you who haven't read this delightful tiny novel, it's the story of a teenage couple who give birth to a baby moose. Lucas Imogen Rudolph, or Moosie as he is affectionately known, is a charming little fur ball but also relatively maladjusted to the world around; at the age of eight months he already weighs one hundred kilos and not much of the furniture survives his toddlerish antics. It is not just funny but also clever, with biting satire of middle-class parenting, deft commentary on special education and on the world's perception of teenage parents, and also extremely moving at times. A perfect little novel, really, somewhere between Kafka and Louise Rennison (I know, not names you often see together in the same sentence). 

Anyway, this novel is tricky to translate in part because you laugh so much the whole time, but also because of a central difficulty at its core. This is a moose:

Image result for moose

In French, it's called un élan, or un orignal.

Moose is a funny word in English, which is lucky because the animal is also, well, fairly ridiculous-looking (sorry, moose fans). Unfortunately, in French, élan and orignal are not funny words. They are perfectly bland and boring. Worse, élan also means an impulse or build-up and it's most often used in that sense, so there's some potentially problematic semantic confusion there.

For Moose Baby to work in French, I had to turn Moosie into another animal:

Image result for caribou

Those of you who know their cervidae will have spotted straightaway that this is a reindeer, like Rudolph (and Olive, the other reindeer), and not a moose, which is bigger. 

Reindeer, alas, look less ridiculous than moose (sorry again, moose fans). However, what comical potential it loses in appearance it makes for in denomination, because switching species meant I could use the word Caribou, which is astronomically funnier than élan or orignal. The word Caribou is so weird that it somehow conjures up a more grotesque creature than the word élan, which sounds loftier and more serious. Caribou is clearly clunky and clownish, while élan ambles gracefully, towering above the steppes.

Of course, this wouldn't happen if this was about, say, a film adaptation. Visually, a moose would be more impressive and funnier. But in a novel, you need to pay close attention to the shape and sound of words - sometimes even more so than to what they refer to in the world. 

So in the French novel, Moosie the Moose becomes Boubou le Caribou. It will require some adjustments regarding size and weight indications, but it will, I think, be faithful to the comical power of the source text.

When we're translating, of course, we're constantly confronted to those strategies of compensation. Sometimes a pun just won't translate, so you delete it there and add another one, that didn't exist in the source text, somewhere else. 

But sometimes, like here, it's a more radical move than just microscopic compensations. It's happened to me several times to have to make such a move. Stylistically, for instance: I wrote elsewhere about translating Sarah Crossan's One, which required thinking strategically about where to locate 'the poetic' in that verse novel, which led me to opt for a much more rhyme-heavy French version. 
Image result for inséparables sarah crossan

I've also written about my own self-translation of Les petites reines into Piglettes, which required entirely changing the central pun ('boudin', black pudding, a funny word for 'ugly girl', didn't work in English) and therefore adjusting a lot of the story. 

Image result for piglettes

Moose Baby is therefore just another one of those choices, but it still makes you bite your nails in anguish. What if the baby actually needs to be, fundamentally, a moose ? What if, as a caribou, it just loses all power? 

In my case, I could just message Meg Rosoff to ask if it's OK (and in fact I have done so), but the problem is that, notwithstanding the fact that she is, of course, a pretty exceptional person, she's not better placed than anyone else to judge, just like I'm not a good person to judge whether 'black pudding' should become, in the translation of my Petites reines, sausages (as in the German version) or paté (as in the Polish version). Even after 11 years of living in Britain I had trouble figuring out how to translate it into English myself. Probing authorial intention in the case of translation is a dangerous game.

Translation choices are endlessly puzzling to writers, but I think it's important to trust that the other country does in fact, most of the time, know best. I was a bit taken aback when it was suggested that my Songe a la douceur (an untranslatable par excellence, since it's a line of poetry by Baudelaire) be translated into English as In Paris With You

To a French person, even one strongly Britannicised like me, there's nothing particularly romantic about being 'in Paris with you'; I'm often 'in Paris with' random people, and it generally doesn't mean I spend my time eating croissants with them, gazing into their eyes and listening to an accordion piece while the Eiffel Tower sparkles in the background. But when I started hearing the enthusiastic reactions of my British acquaintances to this title, I understood that I had, in fact, clearly no legitimacy whatsoever to assess the power of that title. 

I had a similar conversation with Sarah Crossan regarding the title of her Weight of Water, which I also translated into French. After many weeks of painful brainstorming, my editor came up with the perfect title for our French version: Swimming Pool. Now, I can't quite explain to you why it's the perfect title, but it just is. Swimming Pool. It's mysterious, it's attractive, it's sexy, it's melancholy, it's blue-green and it's perfect. End of story. 

Sarah, however, was a little underwhelmed, because of course 'Swimming Pool' in English is a banal word that evokes not much more than rubbery swimming caps, eyes red from goggles, and the smell of chlorine. But see, that is what French people think, too, when they hear the word Piscine, while Swimming Pool is endlessly mystical. 

I'll never tire of exploring that 'can't quite explain why, but trust me, it is the best option' area of translation. It's important to talk about it, too, because every time you're reading in translation you're doing a kind of leap of faith and you need to understand that it's OK. Better than OK: wonderful. You have to trust the translator and their editor because they're the one in charge and chances are, they know better than - well, than you, for a start, and also than the author, doubtlessly - how to carry that story across to you. 

So it's caribous and swimming-pools, not élans and poids de l'eau. 

Just because. 

Trust me.

Clémentine Beauvais is a children's and young adult author in French and English, as well as a literary translator. Her latest YA novel, Piglettes, is out with Pushkin Press. Her next novel, In Paris with You, will be out with Faber in June.


Susan Price said...

Another fascinating blog, Clementine. I don't know whether to envy or pity the way you stand between two languages. I envy the insight it must bring but am also quit glad I only have one complex, nuanced language with endless registers to do my 'ed in!

Catherine Butler said...

I'm definitely on the "envy" side (though trying my damnedest to make that deficit good). Even reading this, though, is a really helpful exercise in estrangement. "Swimming pool" can indeed be mysterious, looked at from a certain angle.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Cathy, you speak a language in which this must happen in every sentence!

hehe thanks Susan - I think it's lovely to be able to look at one's language from the distance of another but it does get confusing. And I'm not a 'true' bilingual - I learnt English at school - it must be weirder for the ones who grew up with 2 languages the whole time...

Catherine Butler said...

"What should they know of English who only English know?", as Kipling almost wrote. And the same applies to French, of course.

Penny Dolan said...

I love these translation posts, Clementine. Thank you.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is such a fascinating post, Clementine. I had to slow down while reading it because I was enjoying it so much I didn't want it to end! There are so many things to say, but I'm tired today and lost for words - in any language. Will now go back, read it again, make a shopping list of books to buy, and find your other translation posts.

JuliaH said...

"every time you're reading in translation you're doing a kind of leap of faith and you need to understand that it's OK. Better than OK: wonderful." That's so true, and so well said ! I find your choice for Caribou very clever, even if I love the word Orignal in French, so "original" in a way. I enjoyed this post, truly, and am looking forward to reading "Piscine" ^^ (Encore qu'en français, "La Piscine", ça m'évoque une Romy méga sexy !)