Thursday, May 17, 2012

When translating Camus, obsess Freud-like with Meursault's maman

Translating the first line of Camus' "L'Etranger" makes for an interesting article in this week's New Yorker. The various variants run generally close to "Mom died today" and the magazine's focus on the familiarity and untranslatability of the French "maman" distracts from the other, to Me more-important, aspect of the French choice of auxiliary verbs.

The use of the etre (to be) auxiliary with choice past participles lends itself to interesting choices of syntax for translators. At least until the not-so-distant past, these choices would appear natural enough. Consider the line from a certain Hindu text, made famous by Oppenheimer: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The use of "am" instead of the now-more-familiar "have" with "become" makes the object more immediate. Also interesting is the use of "now" at the start of the sentence. An alternative would read: "I have become death now," which not only misses the strength of the actual also has one questioning Vishnu's command over the English language ("Surely you mean you are dying?" said Arjuna) and his presumed immortality (, adding that he had thought deities deathproof.).

Nor is the weird choice of auxiliary and the time information in the translated work at all unique or confined to formal, pompous-sounding works. L'Etranger, after all, is a work very out of love with complex prose, saving its complexities for the development instead of Camus' brand of existentialism.

Another famous translation of a first line is that of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." Of the many perfect things happening in this translation, there is a similarish imparting of time information parenthetically around the subject-verb pair and delaying the object to the very end.

The contrapuntal tension thus created and relieved is natural in German (among other languages) and sticking to it served the translation well. My preferred -- and avowedly liberal -- translation of "Aujourd'hui, Maman est morte" is "Mama, today, is dead," with the commas strictly optional. The others' died, has died etc. are all past; they are not aujourd'hui; they are not what I need today consider.

The first part of Bolano's 2666 contains hidden among other things the idea of contempt for translation and those that undertake it. The irony of his work, among others', coming to Me thanks to a translator is not lost on anyone, but that still doesn't make Me any less grateful (or any less of a hipster snob) to have had the pleasure of reading L'Etranger in the original, and not as some translator's cleverness parsing the author's own.

The one thing New Yorker is right about is that a schoolboy with elementary French may attempt translating Camus' work, for that is what I am today become.

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