Brouillon – the French word for draft – is a place for translators of all languages to explore and examine those endlessly fascinating and infinitely frustrating words, phrases, and motifs that seem impossible to translate. Brouillon is a collection of these moments. Comments and discussion are encouraged.

Month: September, 2014

Translator: Olivia Baes | Author: Marguerite Duras | Work: L’homme atlantique | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

Vous penserez que le miracle n’est pas dans l’apparente similitude entre chaque particule de ces milliards du déferlement continu, mais dans la difference irréductible qui les sépare, qui sépare les hommes des chiens, les chiens du cinéma, le sable de la mer, Dieu de ce chien ou de cette mouette tenace face au vent, du cristal liquide de vos yeux de celui blessant des sables, de la touffeur irrespirable du hall de cet hôtel passé de l’éblouissante clarté égale de la plage, de chaque mot de chaque phrase, de chaque ligne de chaque livre, de chaque jour et de chaque siècle et de chaque éternité passée ou à venir et de vous et de moi.

You will think that the miracle is not in the apparent similarity of every one of the billions of particles of this continuously breaking wave, but in the irreducible difference which separates them, which separates men and dogs, dogs and film, the sand and the sea, God and this dog or this seagull clinging to the wind, and the liquid crystal of your eyes from the painful crystal of the sands, from the unbearable stuffiness in the lobby of this passé hotel from the even dazzling clarity of the beach, from each word in each sentence, from each line in each book, from each day and from each century and from each eternity past or to come and from you and from me.

Duras’ prose is mystery. When you read it as a writer, you want to believe that there is a formula. That if you had this formula, your writing would be as good as hers. You must translate her to realize the formula is not there. The author did not revise her prose; rather, she allowed it to blaze forth without respite. This lack of rest and revision is one that is difficult to retrace while translating her. In any case, with Duras, retracing of any kind would be a mistake. One of the phrases that caused me the most trouble while translating L’homme atlantique was: “cette mouette tenace face au vent”, which I eventually translated as “this seagull clinging to the wind”. L’homme atlantique is the transcribed voiceover to Duras’ eponymous film, and it reads as a series of instructions given by Duras, director, to Yann Andrea, her then-partner and actor. In this passage, the reader is confronted with life’s differences in the form of a list of the many components that make up the movie and book. The recurring seagull (la mouette) may be representative of Duras in that it struggles against the wind, but does not ever give in to it, and, in fact, acquires its grace from the struggle. In my first draft, I stumbled over this seemingly simple phrase, but one which, in French, is subtly beautiful for both its internal rhyme and the overall ease with which it rolls off the tongue. Perhaps more than any of her other texts, L’homme atlantique begs to be read aloud. My initial translation of “this tenacious seagull facing the wind” did not work. Something about ‘tenacious’ in English lacks the oral softness of ‘tenace’ in French. No other adjectives seemed to work either: persistent, stubborn, tireless. All of them felt forced, and none of them played off of any other word in the phrase like “te-nace” and “face” in the original. Yes, “tenace face au vent” glides gracefully like the seagull, and yet, when reading it aloud, I encounter the wind’s resistance in the staccato of the short syllables. I have to use a verb rather than an adjective to keep the seagull closer to the wind, so to speak. When I come up with “this seagull clinging to the wind” I have to read it aloud to be sure. It turns out that my voice as translator can weave together mystery too. It takes one read for me to understand that ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ work together in quite the same way that ‘tenace’ and ‘face’ do. The gliding of ‘clinging’ and ‘wind’ is met with the resistance of ‘to the’, two short syllables that serve to remind the reader that the wind is a force to be reckoned with, and also the very force that engenders the grace of the seagull’s flight. Perhaps the key to Durassian prose lies in this mystery of the seagull’s flight, smooth against the choppy Atlantic winds.

Olivia Baes holds a BA in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris. For her masters thesis, she is exploring the role of creative writing in translation as she translates Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ particular form of French in his novel Jean-Luc persécuté.


Translator: Emma Ramadan | Author: Anne F. Garréta | Work: Sphinx | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. Dans la confusion nous nous endormîmes.

Crotches crossed and sexes mixed, I no longer knew how to distinguish anything. In this confusion we slept.

While translating Anne F. Garréta’s novel Sphinx, a genderless love story about je and A*** that uses Oulipian constraint to raise questions about societal perceptions and constructions of gender, I spent weeks agonizing over how to translate the phrase Sexes mêlés, je ne sus plus rien distinguer. This phrase comes after je and A*** have sex for the first time, after a very long courtship process. The phrase is the most explicit sentence we are given in the entire novel. I had to find a way to keep the explicit within the ambiguous, the clarity in the confusion. Also important is that in French the word sexes can mean both genitalia and genders (see what she did there?). The problem is that in English we don’t have many pleasant, discreet words for reproductive organs; they’re all a bit crude or sound like a magic spell. My initial brainstorming yielded: ‘Genitalia/privities/private parts/reproductive organs mingled, I wasn’t able to distinguish anything anymore.’ What about pudenda? That sounds rather elegant. Pudenda: a person’s external genitals, especially for a woman—that won’t work. What about thighs intertwined? Not explicit enough. Thighs, sticky, intertwined? Yuck. What about loins? Not specific enough. What about crotches? Not elegant enough. Crotches conjoined? Crotches crossed? Still not quite right. Genitalia jumbled? Too much alliteration. Genitalia interlaced? What does that even mean? Genitalia indistinguishable? That makes it sound like it’s just too dark in the room. And none of these solve the problem of keeping the double meaning of the word in French. What about using the word that’s been staring me in the face this entire time, the English word sexes? Getting closer. Sexes intertwined? Sexes mixed up? Sexes mixed? Combine it with “crotches crossed” to make it less abstract and bingo! I finally settled on this translation after sending an enormous list of options (quite possibly the smuttiest e-mail to ever travel through cyberspace) to my friend and occasional co-translator Olivia Baes, and after receiving some suggestions about sound from my college professor Cole Swensen. Translating this phrase, and translating Sphinx as a whole, really forced me to find ways to privilege the power of the writing within, and often despite, the linguistic constraint.

Emma Ramadan has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University and a Masters in Cultural Translation from the American University of Paris. Her translation of Anne Garréta’s novel Sphinx was published by Deep Vellum and her translation of Anne Parian’s book of prose poetry Monospace is forthcoming from La Presse.