Finding that “je ne sais quoi”: The French Literary Translation Workshop

By Olivia E. Sears

As part of an ongoing series of literary translation workshops, NCTA and the Center for the Art of Translation jointly sponsored on June 4th a French Literary Translation workshop moderated by noted local translator Zack Rogow. In this half-day workshop, Zack led an intimate group of translators through the ins and outs of literary translation, touching on both poetry and prose translation, as well as rights acquisitions and book proposals. Zack himself has worked in both commercial and literary translation, and has won several awards for his translations of great French writers (including André Breton, George Sand, and Colette). He is the new editor and artistic director of the Center’s journal of translation, TWO LINES.

The workshop began with a general introduction to the translation of poetry. Zack focused on several translations of a French sonnet, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Ma Bohème (Fantaisie).” By comparing three different English translations of the poem, Zack delved into the difficulties of translating the Petrarchan sonnet form into English: is it worth trying to achieve the same meter, or replicate the rhyme? This discussion led to an overview of the literary translator’s priorities. Zack suggested that the translator should decide which of these priorities is paramount when confronting a text: is the top priority to capture the spirit of the poem, or the literal meaning of the poem, or the music and form of the poem? To demonstrate his point, Zack broke the participants into small groups, each of which had to argue over these priorities and try to come up with a balanced translation of Rimbaud’s poem “O saisons, ô châteaux.” The results of these translations-by-committee were extremely diverse and quite amusing.

Next we turned to prose translation with a look at several different works in French: the first chapter of the satirical Micromégas by François-Marie Arouet Voltaire; a page from Colette’s Les Vrilles de la vigne; and an excerpt from André Breton’s Nadja. We discussed the tone of each piece, the form, and the voice, all aspects of the original work that must be considered prior to embarking on a translation.

The last part of the workshop focused on practical questions for the literary translator. First and foremost, how should a translator choose a project? Because literary translation doesn’t pay well, Zack urged participants to seek out authors whose style they have an affinity for and to choose a text they love. Retranslations can be rewarding, especially if there is a book a translator feels is important but that has fallen out of attention or was poorly translated. It is essential that translators revisit even classic texts periodically, particularly works with dialogue, which changes substantially over time. A new translation can help us see a text in a new light.

To close, Zack briefly discussed rights and contracts—including consulting the sample contracts created by the PEN American Center—and urged translators to push for their name to appear on the title page and the cover of the book. All in all, the participants left the workshop with renewed excitement about their craft. The Center hopes to continue the collaboration with NCTA and discuss possibilities for a variety of future workshops.