If you go to the website of the restaurant L’Huîtrière (3, rue des Chats Bossus, Lille) and click on ‘translate’, the zealous automaton you have stirred up will instantly render everything into English, including the address. And it comes out as ‘3 street cats humped’. Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines. But what sort of human should it be given to?
Imagine that you are about to read a great French novel for the first time, and can only do so in your native English. The book itself is more than 150 years old. What would/ should/do you want? The impossible, of course. But what sort of impossible? For a start, you would probably want it not to read like ‘a translation’. You want it to read as if it had originally been written in English – even if, necessarily, by an author deeply knowledgable about France. You would want it not to clank and whirr as it dutifully renders every single nuance, turning the text into the exposition of a novel rather than a novel itself. You would want it to provoke in you most of the same reactions as it would provoke in a French reader (though you would also want some sense of distance, and the pleasure of exploring a different world). But what sort of French reader? One from the late 1850s, or the early 2010s? Would you want the novel to have its original effect, or an effect coloured by the later history of French fiction, including the consequences of this very novel’s existence? Ideally, you would want to understand every period reference – for instance, to Trafalgar pudding, Ignorantine friars or Mathieu Laensberg – without needing to flick downwards or onwards to footnotes. Finally, if you want the book in ‘English’, what sort of English do you choose? Put simply, on the novel’s first page, do you want the schoolboy Charles Bovary’s trousers to be held up by braces, or do you want his pants to be held up by suspenders? The decisions, and the colouration, are irrevocable.
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