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: October, 2014

Translator: Timothy Nassau | Author: Léo Malet | Work: Il fait toujours nuit / La vie est dégueulasse | Original Language: French | Genre: Fiction

J’étais comme Marcel, en ce qui concernait cette môme. J’aurais aimé contempler sa photo, savoir qu’elle était belle. Elle devait être belle, il le fallait. Avec sa pauvre petite robe, sa pauvre petite robe de pauvre, décorée de jolies taches de sang, elle était étendue, les jambes écartées, sur un tas de charbon, des scories dans ses cheveux blonds, son ventre de vierge pénétré d’une semence de mort, chaude et coupante, lancée par des trouffions gorgés de gnôle. Elle avait dix ans. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse. Ça se confirmait chaque jour. J’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais j’aurais aimé avoir dix ans. Un immense désir d’avoir dix ans. La vie était dégueulasse, c’était un ignoble et affreux engrenage, et nous contribuions tous à en perpétuer la dégueulasserie.

I was with Marcel, when it came to the kid. I would’ve liked to have seen her picture, to have known that she was pretty. She needed to be pretty, she had to be. In her poor little dress, her poor little poor girl’s dress, adorned with lovely bloodstains, she lay stretched out, her legs spread apart, on a pile of coal, slag in her blond hair, the seed of death planted in her virgin belly, hot and stinging, by a group of yardbirds stiff on swill. She was ten. I would have loved to be ten. Life made me sick. Each day proved it anew. I would have loved to be ten. I don’t know why, but I would have loved to be ten. An overwhelming desire to be ten. Life made me sick, it was a loathsome dirty gristmill, and all of us made it sicker.

A sentence like “La vie était dégueulasse” is usually a translation softball: a noun is an adjective–pick up your dictionary, fill in the blanks, and move on. So, “Life was disgusting.” That could work in the passage above, as the conclusion of thoughts that make clear the kind of disgust the narrator Jean is feeling, that this is nihilism in the face of a child’s death at a miners’ strike. But the phrase needs to stand alone. In the present tense, “La vie est dégueulasse” is the byword of the novel. It was the title when the book was published in 1948, and though the 1980 edition went under the almost as dark “Il fait toujours nuit,” newer printings have returned to the original title that Malet chose “as a provocation.” This was his attempt to write a hard-boiled American-style noir in French, and it is très noir. Malet was at the end of a long engagement with the Surrealists, and the hero he created is a disillusioned anarchist, more interested in violence than ideology and plagued by deviant dreams. “Life is disgusting” is the right idea, but without quite enough sneer; “dégueulasse” is, after all, a somewhat offensive term (one suggested translation I found was “bloody disgusting”). I wanted something that sounded more colloquial, something you could find scratched on the wall of a bathroom stall. For a few months I would run the phrase by any French speaker I ran into. I went through a list of adjectives that could mean “dégueulasse”–rotten, revolting, filthy, vile, dirty, rank, shitty, and, further afield–disturbing, loathsome, abhorrent, offensive, hateful… They were too specific, or too forced, like something no one would reasonably say. And they further highlighted the specificity problem of “disgusting,” that it didn’t have the nuance of “dégueulasse” and risked being taken as “gross,” as in life is disgusting because we’re all a bunch of holes with flesh in between. I didn’t solve this problem myself; after having lunch with a friend and raising the issue, he texted me “life makes me sick.” Such was my attachment to the noun-is-adjective construction that it took me an hour to realize he wasn’t telling me he was in crisis mode. “Dégueulasse” comes from the verb “dégueuler” and the suffix “-asse,” which creates pejoratives (like “connasse” or “pétasse”). “Dégueuler” comes from “gueule,” slang for mouth or face, and “dé-” makes it negative, so that verb means to un-mouth or, as most people call it, to vomit. Neither my friend nor I knew that at the time, but his instinct created a basically literal translation, from an etymological viewpoint. Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless has a famous exchange near the end that starts with a hero similar to Malet’s saying, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.” Early subtitles had “It’s disgusting, really,” but the 2007 Criterion Collection edition changed that to “Makes me want to puke.” “Life makes me puke” might be a more faithful option in my case, too, but then it sounds a bit too much like the title of an existential Goosebumps book.

Timothy Nassau has a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University. He is currently a middle school English teacher in Japan.


Translator: Taylor Barrett Gaines | Author: Christine de Pizan | Work: Ballad XXXIX | Original Language: French | Genre: Poetry

On cognoist bien qui se faint;
Car qui grant griefté reçoipt,
Le visage en a destaint.
Se le cuer est fort destroit,
Et pour ce mes griefs anuis
Amenrissent ma vigour,
Car repos n’ay jour ne nuys ;
Il en pert a ma coulour.


We know well the ones who languish
Those who have felt great grief
The face pales at it.
The heart is utterly destroyed
And for that my griefs lurk behind me
And wait to starve my strength
No respite in day nor in night
It drains me of the color in my cheeks.

We all know grieving people lie
in bed, and think no one can see.
And yet the cheeks, the mouth, the eye,
show the shattered heart’s debris.
Grief taunts my strength with his single aim:
to murder with a highwayman’s grace.
I keep my eyes open the day and the night;
it drains the color from my face.

This is a verse from a ballad by medieval poet Christine de Pizan. She wrote in Middle French, and in traditional ballad form, ababcdcD, with the capital D indicating a refrain. At first glance, I expected comprehension of the Middle French to be my biggest challenge in effective translation, but sounding out the Middle French phonetically yields comprehensible modern French. Where I faced the biggest challenge, not just in the completion of this translation, but to my larger ideas about translation (both the best and the scariest kind of challenge), was putting it into rhyme. Above you’ll see the original verse, followed by my literal, prose translation. Here I was able to hew closely to the original images, which are haunting in how personal and poignant they are (something I never expected from medieval poetry). But how to maintain these gorgeous images in the rhyme scheme? I was especially concerned with keeping the idea of “anuis”, which I understood to be the past participle of “anuiter”, an old, now little-used verb meaning to surprise someone on the road in the night (though in later French it would be “anuité”). What a cool, specific, luscious verb…unlike anything we have in English. “Lurk” worked well enough for my more literal prose translation, but I wanted that image to really sing in my final ballad: grief, personified, draining the strength from our narrator as one assaulted in the night. I eventually settled on the image of a graceful, murderous highwayman, which calls up images of being caught in the night, without even the chance to defend oneself, with the threat of one’s throat being slit so as to drain one’s lifeblood away, the degree of torment that drains the color from the narrator’s face. I initially felt like I was being extremely disloyal to the text, calling up images that had never appeared in the original. But, I wondered, disloyal in the service of what? I was trying to communicate the text as loyally, truthfully, as possible, and realizing that the text is not just the words, but equally the associations, the impressions, the desired, realized, and lasting effects. I am a young translator, just beginning to understand that a translation cannot be a twin, but must be contented with being a sibling, having arrived in the world in different ways, but sharing the same genes and the same potential.

Taylor Barrett Gaines received a BA in Drama and French from the University of Virginia, and is currently working towards an MA in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris.

Translator: Madeleine LaRue | Author: Peter Bichsel | Work: Der Busant | Original language: German | Genre: Fiction

Der Busant is the name of the title story in a 1985 collection by the German-speaking Swiss author Peter Bichsel. It takes its name from a medieval French romance, a sort of epic poem about two lovers who elope, become separated, and spend the rest of their lives searching for each other. The catalyst of this story, the reason for the lovers’ separation, is a hawk or buzzard — in Old French, a busart, and in medieval German, a Busant — that steals a ring off the throat of the beautiful young princess Magelone. In Bichsel’s story, the princess has been recast as a drunken waitress in the sleepy Swiss town of Solothurn; her lover is no longer a dashing prince but a homeless vagabond. Though we sense that happiness might indeed be possible for these two creatures, circumstances continually conspire to keep them apart. One such circumstance is the nostalgic aristocrat named Herr Busant, who “beautifies the town and makes it unlivable”; another is the author himself, Peter Bichsel, who, although he may wish to bring the story to completion, finds himself easily distracted and confounded by the weight of history, the expectations of narrative, and even the stubbornness of his own characters. It is this circumstance, this inescapable one, that sets the story in motion at the same time that it makes its resolution impossible. And that is the theme, more or less, of the entire collection of stories, and so its title simply had to be something like Der Busant. But The Hawk somehow sounded stupid, and had no historical resonances; The Buzzard reminded me of a cowboy murder mystery, and I couldn’t bring myself to call any character Mr. Buzzard — Herr Busant sounds elegant and wealthy, Mr. Buzzard decidedly neither. The Old English equivalent of Busant is Busard, which would mean nothing to a contemporary English reader, and the oldest form of hawk hafoc — was alarmingly, if perhaps appropriately, close to “havoc.” A solution finally presented itself — by accident, as they so often do — and I ended up translating both the story and the collection as The Goshawk. A goshawk is, scientifically, similar to a buzzard, being a member of the Accipitridae family and enjoying wide distribution across northern Eurasia. The most common variety of goshawk (the Northern Goshawk) is even conveniently called Accipiter gentilis, or the gentle or noble hawk: an aristocratic enough name for Herr Busant. The Goshawk, moreover, is already a literary bird: Chaucer mentions it in The Canterbury Tales, which, though not necessarily analogous to the Alsatian tale of Der Busant, is at least roughly contemporary with it, and suggests some of the appropriate literary and historical references to anglophone readers.

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.