Languages pretending to be other languages

I’ve been reading some fiction in translation lately and it’s got me thinking about how authors present and represent other languages in the language they’re writing in. I’m thinking in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and his Border trilogy, which I’ve always found contained exactly the right smattering of Spanish qua Spanish, in among the conversations that are understood to be taking place in Spanish but are being represented by English.

It’s something that’s come up for me occasionally in my editing work, too. In my experience there’s a certain amount of killing of darlings to do, to tamp down superfluous foreign flare on the way to finding the right balance of authentic and comprehensible, so that what you end up with are windows into an actual exchange in that language without leaving the reader behind or waylaying them with too many translation exercises.

What comes up more frequently in the fiction I edit is how to accurately but smoothly represent dialect, broken English, or accents. In terms of how much and how frequently to keep the flavour of characters’ speech patterns in the reader’s mind, my sense is that it’s often less than initial instincts might suggest. There are parallels here with narrative detail. Smoking and eating are ones that I see over and over again. Once you’ve established that a character is smoking or sipping a coffee, we only need to see them sip and inhale every so often. It’s more about setting the activity in motion.

One of the most challenging (but definitely interesting) language issues I’ve encountered in my work came in the midst of editing A.J.B. Johnston’s novel Crossings, the third in his Thomas Pichon series. In the first two novels Thomas was living his life in France, in French, represented by English for the purposes of these English-language books. But by the third book he was on his way to London and this meant learning English, represented by English, but distinct from his French which was also being represented by (better) English. John and I picked away at this over multiple rounds of edits trying to get his character’s progress happening at a believable pace. I think we got it right in the end, but it had the effect of making me hyper-aware, for a while at least, of how other authors were doing this and then how it was being taken through a second layer of language anytime I was reading a book translated into English from its original.

I was reminded of this while devouring two of Peter Stamm’s novels this week. With Switzerland still on the brain (it’s still summer; I’ve promised myself I’ll return to Earth/Canada by the time the leaves have turned), I searched again and finally found exactly the list of books I’d failed to find before my trip, ie. a mix of Swiss writers, travel writing and books set in Switzerland. One of the Swiss authors on the list was Stamm, whose name really should have been familiar to me already, from Tim Parks’s book Where I’m Reading From (one of the best book-books I’ve read this year), which includes, among several essays on translation, one on Stamm’s work. But like foraging for mushrooms, or whatever, an author’s name can be completely forgettable if I encounter them when I have nothing else in my brain to attach them to, only to appear everywhere once I’m actually looking for them.

I have more to say on Stamm, whose work I found mesmerizing – almost to the point of feeling cottony – and whose preoccupation with people walking away from their everyday lives is very appealing, but what caught my attention right away was how often the issue of translation comes up in his work. Which makes sense, of course, what with all those official national languages going on in every Swiss person’s midst. In the first book I read, On a Day Like This, the main character, Andreas, has a German language tape playing in his car:

The tape had kept on playing. When Andreas next heard it, a woman was speaking with strange emphasis.

I hurt myself. You hurt yourself. He hurts himself. We hurt ourselves. You hurt yourselves. They hurt themselves.

He took the tape out of the player. He got out of the car, and walked to the men’s room to wash his face. He dropped the cassette into a garbage bin that had thank you written on it in four languages.

But of course on a German tape all of that little exercise is in German, and I’m curious about the translator, Michael Hofmann’s, decision to translate it into English. I wonder if it gave him pause or if he has a particular philosophy on foreign language flare.

Incidentally, I was delighted to see the garbage bin with thank you in four languages make another appearance in my second Stamm, All Days Are Night. I don’t often binge-read a single author, or even read two of their books in a row, but when it turns up little things like this I wonder if I should do it more.

Alright, I’m halfway down too many rabbit holes at once now, but before I abandon them all, I’ll add this New Yorker essay by Lauren Collins, which was waiting in my mailbox when I came back to Victoria from Lillooet last week. It’s a very funny piece about trying to learn French after moving to Geneva and the experience of finally understanding her husband in his first language:

I don’t know whom he’s talking about, or why she’s incapacitated. He seems to be saying quoi a lot. Even as it dawns on me that I may have pledged lifelong fealty to a man who ends every sentence with the equivalent of “dude,” I’m taken by an eerie joy. Four years after having met Olivier, I’m hearing his voice for the first time.

(Ooh. And I’ve just realized she has a whole book coming out next month, When In French. Noted.)

After reading that and then having a very jumbled but very welcome Facetime call from my Swisses yesterday, I’ve resolved again (AGAIN) to tackle this French business. I will prevail. Welcoming any and all suggestions for French tutors in the area.

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