Thursday, 20 November 2014

What makes a translation from French "standard"

I bought a new copy of The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, in what was called “a new translation” by Richard Pevear. The edition is copyright 2006 so I assume the translation dates from that year.

The Wikipedia entry for Dumas mentions this translation approvingly (but without any justification):

The most recent and now standard English translation is by Richard Pevear, who in his introduction notes that most of the modern translations available today are "textbook examples of bad translation practices" which "give their readers an extremely distorted notion of Dumas' writing.

Well, if Wikipedia says this is now the standard translation, it must be, surely? Unfortunately, the bad translation practices look to me to appear in his own translation. There are repeated examples of elementary school errors, the sort of thing you are taught to avoid in the first years of learning French.

Schoolboy errors:

“Quinze jours” translated as 15 days, rather than a fortnight, and “huit jours” translated as eight days, instead of a week.

p499 “Two times you have nearly fallen victim” [deux fois] – how about “twice”?

p533 "a few leagues from the border. Once the siege is raised, we can go for a turn out there." [faire un tour] - what about "take a trip there"?

Over-literal translations

M de Treville smiled at this fanfaronade [the French is fanfaronnade]

p410 “A superb Andalusian horse, black as jade” [un superbe cheval andalou, noir comme du jais]  -the translation is jet, not jade  - the Gutenberg translation gets this right.

“An old procureuse of the Chatelet” – as the translator’s note reminds us, “procureuse” is the female form of “procureur”, prosecutor. That is, the woman is the prosecutor’s wife; but how many readers will simply assume it means “procuress”?

Expressions that are not used in English
Dumas is fond of using reprendre to denote “reply”. For some strange reason this version consistently translates this verb as “pick up”:
“This time”, Athos picked up …

Musketeers who call each other “my dear” – you might well say “mon cher” in French, but you don’t say “my dear” in English, when addressing another man. Except in this book:
p497 Ah, my dear, said d’Artagnan [to Athos], you are unbearable!

p526 "Buckingham ... might be revenging hiimself for that little betrayal." Should that not be avenging himself?

p514 "Well invested [investir] as La Rochelle was" - yes, there is an English word "invest", meaning to besiege, it is uncommon in English. 

Peculiar mixes of register:
“Yes, it’s I”, said d’Artagnan, “whom God has sent to keep watch on you.”

“My imprisonment?”
“I learned of it the same day. “

Translating into the wrong century
Often the translator uses a term that would be fine for a book written in 2000, or even 1950, but which seems hopelessly anachronistic for an adventure set in the early seventeenth century:

 p198 Bonacieux went back to his place [Bonacieux rentra chez lui].

If these are the errors I have noticed, what about the rest of the book? I have not yet compared this translation with the rival World's Classics edition by David Coward, but my experience with his other translations suggest he is a very reliable and sensitive translator from French.
Mr Pevear is no less than "Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature" at the American University of Paris, and the book blurb states he has translated not just from French, but from Russian, Italian and Greek.