Annie Ernaux’s Happening (Lost in Translation)

Reading Annie Ernaux’s Happening. I am suspicious of its translation into English.

Ernaux writes: “En regardent la silhouette frêle, en imperméable, du petit employé, ses humiliations, devant la désolation sans espoir du film, je savais que mes règles ne reviendraient pas.” This is translated as: “As I watched the frail figure of the boy in his cheap raincoat, the humiliations he suffered during his pathetic existence, somehow I knew the bleeding would not come back.” I consulted the original because “pathetic existence” didn’t ring true, seeming like poor writing. But it isn’t apparently what Ernaux intended, I assume, more a statement on the mood, “hopeless desolation” perhaps, of the film.

Earlier, Ernaux writes: “Comme la dernière fois, des hommes attendaient, groupés au pied métro aérien.” Again I looked up the original because it is translated as: “Like last time, men were idly waiting, clustered at the foot of the Métro overhead.” That “idly” jarred as another piece of sloppy writing. How do you wait “un-idly”? But the adverb isn’t present in the original.

Further on, Ernaux uses the phrase: “pensant sans arrêt que je n’avais pas mes règles,” which is translated as: “obsessed with the fact that I no longer had my period”. There is a gulf of difference between obsession and perhaps, “thinking all the time”. The psychoanalytic jargon is used a few pages on when, “Je résistais sans pouvoir m’empêcher d’y penser à net événement. M’y abandonner me semblait effrayant” is translated as “Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea. Obeying this impulse seemed a terrifying prospect.” Both “obsessed” and “terrifying” seem to escalate and change the tone of Ernaux’s prose considerably.

Although this translation reads fluidly enough, it seems to distort the original more than necessary. Translator friends with French: am I nitpicking? For now I’m going back to Alison L. Strayer’s translation of The Years, which seems to my amateur eye a more reliable rendition that is a considerable literary achievement in its own right.

6 thoughts on “Annie Ernaux’s Happening (Lost in Translation)

  1. French is the language I potentially have the most issues with as it’s the only other language I have any knowledge of (albeit limited to what I learned in my school days). It’s caused me problems recently when reading translations of the French poets in bilingual editions, when I’ve found myself querying the choices made, and in fact I’ve ended up going in the direction of prose translations rather than ones attempting to maintain the poetic form. In the cases you quote above I agree entirely – the emphasis seems very changed in the English version and I would be inclined to distrust a translation after coming across those myself. Very problematic.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. From what I can tell, Ernaux’s prose seems to avoid overly dramatic language. It seems very measured. I suspect this translation is written primarily for the American market, which might explain the choices of tone and moral stance.

  2. I’m French but I’m not biligual in English. I’ll try bring my modest contribution, excerpt by excerpt.

    Excerpt 1
    “En regardent la silhouette frêle, en imperméable, du petit employé, ses humiliations, devant la désolation sans espoir du film, je savais que mes règles ne reviendraient pas.” This is translated as: “As I watched the frail figure of the boy in his cheap raincoat, the humiliations he suffered during his pathetic existence, somehow I knew the bleeding would not come back.”

    I don’t know the context. I suppose she’s commenting on a film while thinking about her late period.
    I see several things that are problematic in this translation:
    1) I don’t see where the “cheap raincoat” comes from. In the original, his man doesn’t have a cheap raincoat, he just wears a raincoat.

    2) “petit employé” is translated by “boy”. The notion of “petit employé” is not given back in English. It means “level entry employee”, it doesn’t mean a boy.

    3) You’re absolutely right, there is no mention of a “pathetic existence” in French. I agree with you, “the hopeless desolation of the film” is more accurate.

    That said, the sentence is very French and hard to translate into English grammar. I’d suggest:

    “As I watched the frail figure of the lowly employee in his raincoat, the hopeless desolation of the film, somehow I knew the bleeding would not come back”

    Excerpt 2
    I agree with you, there’s no “idly” in the original

    Excerpt 3
    “pensant sans arrêt que je n’avais pas mes règles,” which is translated as: “obsessed with the fact that I no longer had my period”.
    I agree with the translator on this one. “Penser sans arrêt” is quite strong in French. It really has the idea that you have something on a loop in your head and can’t escape it. I would have used “obsessed” in English too but I don’t always grasp the full implication of words in English.

    “Je résistais sans pouvoir m’empêcher d’y penser à cet événement. M’y abandonner me semblait effrayant” is translated as “Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea. Obeying this impulse seemed a terrifying prospect”

    I agree with you, “terrifying” seems strong. I wonder if “dreadful” reflects better the narrator’s turmoil.

    “Despite my efforts to fight it, I became obsessed with the idea” is not the literal translation of “Je résistais sans pouvoir m’empêcher d’y penser à cet événement” but I don’t see any elegant way to translate this literally into English.

    The issue between French and English is that the two languages don’t have rigidity and freedom at the same places.
    In English, you have more freedom with words but less with grammar. (cf the rules about commas and semicolons)

    In French, words are rigid but the grammar of the sentence is loser. And that makes French difficult to translate into English because some juxtaposition of propositions without verbs (like here “devant la desolation sans espoir du film”) need a verb in English. (I have the feeling an English native would say “as the hopeless desolation of the film seeped through me” or something like this)

    • Thank you so much, Emma, for your thoughts.

      I missed the raincoat/cheap raincoat. I think the translator perhaps missed the image that Ernaux was trying to convey in her description.

      It is interesting that you would also have used “obsessed” in that context. My difficulty with the concept of “obsession” is not that it is often used as a linguistic shortcut for the idea of a “recurring, distressing thought”, but its use can also suggest a psychiatric disorder, and risks pathologising the narrator where other translations are readily available.

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