Every week of my language degree, we were set a few paragraphs of a novel to translate into French. Someone in Graham Greene would be having a conversation about the sort of country one doesn’t bother learning the French word for; someone in Iris Murdoch crossed a bridge over a river that bubbled and fizzed untranslatably or, at a particularly low point, Bertrand Russell combed out the concept of liberty in a way that should slide comfortably into French but refused to for me. Perched on the edge of a sofa in a book-lined study, each of us would offer up a sentence to be dismantled by a tutor who had decided on the best version 25 years earlier.
Despite the bad memories, I will be dusting off my dictionary for a live translation event at the British Museum next month (it’s part of the London Review Bookshop’s World Literature Weekend). The translation, of a short story in French, is done in advance by two translators: the ‘live’ bit comes into play when each of them reveals their version sentence by sentence to the audience, the other translator and the novelist, for discussion and disagreement. The idea is that the sort of close reading you need to do to translate well will bring out aspects of the text that are rarely paid attention to.
The challenge has been set by Alain Mabanckou – born in the Republic of Congo, educated in Paris, now based in LA – who has offered up a very short story about someone getting conned into buying an ill-fitting suit. He’s not much known here, but in France Mabanckou’s style, which loosens corseted French sentences with jokes, puns, slang and references to Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur as well as Tati, the thrift shop in Barbès (‘les plus bas prix!’), has made him one of the most interesting, unpredictable and prize-laden contemporary French novelists. Sarah Ardizzone and Frank Wynne will be the ones perched on the sofa on 19 June, offering sentences that will be new to everyone apart from the chair, Daniel Hahn. The audience will have hand-outs of the French version and the two English versions as well as the panel to talk about ways of getting ‘Walaïïï, camarade!’ or the slightly baffling idiom ‘se mettre sur son trente-et-un’ into English. And there won’t be an exam at the end of it.