I couldn’t think of anything to say, because it’s all going slightly over my head, so I decided to think about translation and run with it. I remembered that I was half French and that I was brought up in translation. I lived in Devon with a French mother and spoke French before I learnt English. It was only went I went to playgroup at around 3 that I started learning English so my rabbiting could be understood - one kid’s lapin is another kid’s rabbit after all. These days, although I can understand everything my mum says to me, I find it hard to translate it when put on the spot, which is why translators for the UN amaze me. Language is not black and white, there are so many shades and it’s these shades and nuances that make it beautiful, complex, confusing and potentially politically charged.
Then, I started thinking about when I go to see French films with my mum and she’ll come out and complain about the subtitles missing the film’s essence. I am not sure if I’m listening in French or reading in English, but I never notice the bad translation – unless it is really, really terrible. And then I thought of all the French literature I’ve read in English, which is definitely a case of always reading the subtitles. With a bad translation you can tell it was originally French from the clunky overly flowery language; in the original what sounded natural, can in English be forced.
Then, I thought of books when it’s never even crossed my mind while reading them that they were a translation – like Madame Bovary. The translator plays a crucial part in the beauty and power of the novel. I know when I’ve translated simple pieces from French into English for work, I’ve felt excessively proud of my choice of words and felt a real sense of ownership for the new text. I can only imagine how you’d feel if you had translated a masterpiece and made a whole new country weep. And then there are people who can, hand on heart, say the latest translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the definitive one. I admire these people who scrutinise each word and tiny turn of phrase to make these proclamations because I can’t imagine having the patience to do it, but I love the fact someone does. Beyond translation, there are authors like Samuel Beckett who don’t even write in their mother tongue, so their own work must appear as a translation to their own eyes and ears. But then all written words are a translation from mind to page, so maybe we’re all lost in one big, boggling translation.