French literature has been and continues to be better served than any other in English translation. For over three centuries, publishers’ hacks and the idle rich of letters, as well as a few dedicated craftsmen, have cast or coaxed into somebody’s English almost all major works in French. They have also translated enough tripe to add considerably to our nightmare vision of the future as archive. In 1960, however, this accumulated mass of translation means less to all three literatures (since ‘English’ must stand for two) than the fact that within the past fifteen years the Song of Roland and the prose masterpieces of Rabelais, Montaigne, Pas cal, Diderot, and Flaubert have appeared in fresh and generally felicitous versions. This running revival of the classics will have a more lasting effect than any publishers’ race for the latest nouveau roman or the literary reviews’ endless sightings and soundings in order to locate a new Paris avant-garde. The only great prose author that needs refurbishing in English, like that lately given de Tocqueville, is Montesquieu. The sociology of government knows few more pithy texts than L’Esprit des lois, and Nugent’s standard translation needs replacement (as Franz Neumann points out in his preface to the 1949 edition). Les Lettres persanes might well be brought back again within our horizon.
I know but a single basic statistic about French-to-English translation of contemporary works and ask for no other to demonstrate its robust ness. Two twentieth century French authors have begun to appear in English translation in complete uniform editions: Colette and Valéry. I doubt if a more sensitive and economical choice could have been made by a discriminating critic of modern letters. A committee could never have done so. All France can be found in these two authors, from music hall to Academy, from Chanticleer’s farmyard to Mallarmé’s living room. The vagaries of publishing sometimes find the mark.
What lacks today in English after these centuries of valorous service is not impossible to discern. We still need performable and faithful translations of plays of all periods and, in almost the same sense, performable translations of poetry. Few translators seem to be able to work long in the theater or in verse without becoming stilted or excessively racy. Most, in fact, start one way or the other and hold their ground. There is also the wide field of memoirs, ripe for tilling after long neglect because of changes in taste. Outside these areas, a handful of important modern authors still await suitable presentation in English.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Shattuck on French translation, from 1959
In 1959, the Center for Translation at the University of Texas convened a symposium on translation. At the conference, the organizers invited prominent authorities in the field to look ahead and lay out an agenda for translators and publishers working in the language of their expertise. Their comments were published with the proceedings of the conference in 1961 as The Craft & Context of Translation, by the University of Texas Press. Here, Roger Shattuck on French: