Thursday, August 20, 2009

Merde!

Merde is the glue that holds Fred Vargas' three evangelists together:
"Ils cherchaient. Un autre fou dans la merde."
and
"Dans la merde" demanda-t-il?"

"Précisément. ... Ennui, désillusion, écriture en solitude."

"Mais alors il est dans la
merde ... Tu ne pouvais pas la dire tout de suite?"
and

"(L)es trois chercheurs de merde se retrouvèrent tassés autour d'un grand feu."
and
"Ils sont bien emmerdés les médiévistes avec ça."
Marc, Matthias and Lucien, the three "evangelists" of the novel's English title, come together because all are in merde. Too bad that merde, or rather its English equivalent, is frowned upon in American publications. But even then, shit is both far harsher in tone and far narrower in meaning than merde.

Siân Reynolds, who translated Vargas' Debout les morts into English as The Three Evangelists, told Detectives Beyond Borders last year that:
"Swearing is another potential pitfall. French colloquial speech uses a number of terms which if translated literally sound rather stronger in English (merde, je m’en fous, etc.) Given what we know about the characters, you have to save four-letter words for times when the context calls for them."

She renders merde variously as down on his luck or in a bad way, chercheurs de merde as seriously unemployed historians, and "Ils sont bien emmerdés les médiévistes avec ça" as "Not so easy either, for the poor medievalists."

The translation loses the unifying, amusing effect of the repeated merde, both meaning and sound, but what can a translator do except shrug, mutter a quiet merde!, and get on with her work?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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29 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I think the literary provenance of the word and its equivalent is much richer in French. In 1948 Norman Mailer still had to resort to "fuggin" and "crap" didnt he? Whereas I remember a massive dissertation in the middle of Les Miserables on the use of the word "merde" during the Battle of Waterloo.

Of course back in Chaucer's day it was different wasn't it?

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And didn't Anthony Burgess use "for koff" for "fuck off"?

I wonder how much good shit I missed by reading in English translation all these years.

August 20, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Ah, but the French cannot use merde to translate

"I tell you, that show was the shit"

or

"That's really some fucking crazy shit you have there, man. I dig it"

and la merde rarely frappe le ventilateur.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

and then there's Warren Zevon's final song:

My Shit's Fucked Up

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Dana King said...

Assuming you are correct, and Vargas used merde in such manner for effect as well as dialog, the translator is taken excessive liberty. Her job is not to re-interpret the book for another audience; it is to present it. Decisions on matters of interpretation must be made, but screwing with the author's vision is not acceptable. If she was in doubt, she should have checked with Vargas.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, I suppose the French could stir up a tempete de shit from time to time, though I have not heard about it. Nor do I know what are the sept mots qu'on ne jamais peut dire sur la television.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, idiom and slang are yet two more problems for translators. A translator of English into French had best have a sharp, contemporary ear for both languages if he or she is going to take on idioms like the ones you mentioned. Such a translator needs to have his or her shit together, you might say.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, Zevon got a bit Chaucerian there, didn't he? I had not heard of that song, but its title is most amiable, despite a less-than-cheerful subject, apparently.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, if only translation were that simple. For one thing, Vargas was always available to answer Reynolds' questions, and Vargas reads English well herself, according to Reynolds. Presumably this means that Vargas could have raised some shit about Reynolds' choices. Presumably she did not, because Reynolds has kept on translating Vargas' work, and the pair have kept on winning CWA International Dagger Awards.

If translation were as simple as finding each word's one and only counterpart in the target language, there would less work for translators. Machines could do most of the work, and translators could come round at the end and tidy up the word order a bit.

Another thing to remember is that Reynolds is British. An American might have tossed in the odd "in deep shit," but the problem is one of degree, not kind. A translation into English that was as full of shit as the French original was full of merde would not do justice to the book's tone.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I wonder if an English translator couldn't fairly often just use merde for merde. Even most eighth graders know what that word means, even if they don't know anything else in French. And I must assume that most of Fred Vargas' readers are a little more sophisticated than most eighth graders.

August 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you mean leaving merde untranslated? I wonder what effect that would have. Would it convey that the word is less harsh in French than its equivalent in English? Or would it seem gimmicky? It would preserve part of the unifying (and possibly humorous) effect of the repetition of sound.

I am just five chapters into the novel. I will keep my eyes open for what further role merde might play, which could shed light on the question.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, that's what I meant. And maybe it's just because I've been reading too much Finnegan's Wake lately that making new 'English' words with 'merde' as a component doesn't seem all that far-fetched to me.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Fred, you say, "Merde is the glue that holds Fred Vargas' three evangelists together." Thanks to your colorful metaphoric flourish, I shall never again think of glue except that I think of something else. And as for licking the glue on envelopes, never again!

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, good luck in your continuing efforts at Finnegan's Wake. You are living proof that a support group can get one through even the most difficult tasks. It's no surprise that you would be unfazed by the possibility of unorthodox word combinations. It's an intriguing suggestion.

I wonder what my newspaper, which has a rigid policy of which level of editors must approve naughty words (there are three categories of such words: Category One, Category Two, and Category Three) would do about merde.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., would it comfort you to know that French plausible title for Raymond Chandler's Trouble Is My Business would be La merde c'est mon affaire?

August 21, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

This suggests a new, cross-cultural definition for "The Troubles" of Ireland.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I wonder what The Troubles were called in French. Anyone want to save me the, er, trouble of looking it up myself?

August 21, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

My recommendation for anyone tempted to tackle Finnegan's Wake is to read it aloud with at least a couple of other people. It's a collaborative kind of endeavor, and sometimes it takes hearing someone else speaking it to hear all the puns.

I do have to say that it is a really fun thing to do, even when you are feeling somewhat baffled.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Might be a fun thing to do at a reasonaably quiet pub.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, its usually not all that quiet. But it turns out it doesn't matter all that much, and it is appropriate since in some sense the whole book takes place during the course of a wake. We have more trouble reading by the fading evening light than we do with the sound, though that wouldn't have been my guess about it.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can well imagine a reading like that beginning when you are the only ones in the pub, then gathering momentum and volume as the post-dinner drinkers arrive.

August 21, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

A really fine post!

I enjoyed your comment as well: "I wonder how much good shit I missed by reading in English translation all these years."

You may also miss out on much shit and many swear words when reading Danish literature in translation, but I have never really checked it. I read a Swedish novel in English recently, however, and just finished an Icelandic one in Swedish so who knows what I´ll do in the future? My knowledge of Swedish has certainly improved significantly since I realized how cheep Swedish books are.

August 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tak!

My comment could pose a problem for a translator. How would a translator capture the tone of "I wonder how much good shit ... " And I'm sure every language poses comparable problems, if not for swear words, than for other gestures, words or phrases that may not translate exactly.

Every culture has certain subjects that one does not bring up on first meetings with a stranger, for example. In America, for instance, one of the first questions on meeting someone is likely to be "What do you do? (What's your job?)" I am told a similar question would be a breach of etiquette in Greece. I am also told that in the Arab world, it is perfectly acceptable to ask "How many children do you have?" That would be considered at least mildly intrusive in America.

So, what does a translator do if literally translating such a greeting might convey a message far different from the original version? Or, even better, what if a Chinese or Turkish or German author has indicated an American character's bad manners by having him ask another character "What do you do?" How does an American translator convey the character's rudeness?

August 22, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Hm, here you open several interesting questions. In Denmark ´shit´ does not pose a problem at least, though today I might choose not to translate, especially if I wrote to younger readers. I and my students would say ´shit´ more often than the Danish equivalent ´lort´.

August 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Dutch say "shit" all the time, but only as a mild exclamation, milder than in English. They use other words for its literal meaning.

It would be interesting to see how a Danish translator of Debout les morts would deal with this matter.

August 23, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I think this goes to my earlier comment about 'merde' being a common usage in English. I think 'rude' words just have a way of crossing language barriers faster than others. So translating them between some languages would not always be necessary.

August 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Dutch case is especially interesting. Dutch took an English word that has a range of meanings and appropriated just one of them. I would bet this is not an isolated case of such selective borrowing.

Untranslated merde just might work in Debout les morts. I wonder if a translator or publisher might fear that the word would be regarded as excessively learned, a bit of Gallic preciousness, even by English readers who understood its meaning.

August 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello to everyone. Just a question. I'm translating a commic book from French to Greek and I ran across the word koff which I can't absolutely find a translation for. Can anyone help?

Thank you

December 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What is the context of the word? The only use of koff that I can think of is as a jocular spelling of cough. It can often be a humorous indication of throat-clearing. If the author is likely to have been influenced by British or American writing, this might be a possibility.

Koff, I have just learned, is also a Finnish beer. Now, keuf, on the other hand, would have rich signigicance in a french crime story.

December 27, 2009  

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