On the “translation” process at a certain publisher

I’m amusing myself by reading a French translation of a Kiwi novel I like, and right off the bat I have discovered something that both amuses and annoys me.

The author wrote for Mills and Boon, which typically published light romantic fiction — they were Harlequin romances, basically, and in fact many of the old Harlequin romances were simply reprints of Mills and Boons titles. But Essie Summers was one of their earliest authors, one of their most prolific, and certainly one of their best. Mills and Boon had a strict formula you were supposed to follow, and a strict word limit — they tried to be as standardized as MacDonalds and for much the same reason. But Summers was in rather her own class, and Mills and Boons had sort of the Essie Summers Rules and then the Rules for Everybody Else, to the annoyance of the Everybody Else (though the annoyance was mild since all the other romance writers knew Summers and seem to have adored her personally). Susan Napier once said, in fact, “Essie Summers could write as much as she liked and it got printed. The rest of us are restricted to 55,000 words, which is a considerable cut.”

What I didn’t realize until reading A Votre Guise was that any Summers book that got translated into other languages DID had to follow the Mills and Boon rules — but only in the translations. So the hacking is severe; it’s like reading a Readers Digest Condensed Book except that the condensing is not at all skillfully done. As I find incompetence amusing, I am amused; but as I like Essie Summers, I am a bit horrified by the thought that French readers were given the highly misleading opinion that what they were reading was Essie Summers. For what the editors cut out in translation seems to be…well, everything that would make a Summers book different from a forgettably run-of-the-mill computer-generated romance novel.

For example, here is a typical Summers passage from The Tender Leaves, which is the book from which A Votre Guise was translated, or butchered, or whatever. The passage was inspired and shaped by the many deathbeds that she, as a minister’s wife (the more important of her two vocations) had attended, if not by an actual event. Characteristically, it includes a poetic quotation that is quite genuine because Summers’s heroines generally loved reading and poetry as much as she did. (I have greatly enjoyed several real-life writers whose work I came to know because an Essie Summers character told me they were worth knowing.) Struan, having just discovered that Maria’s father was a rotter who abandoned her mother in Maria’s infancy, has assumed that Maria has a bad opinion of romantic love; but she has replied that working in a hospital has taught her about how deep and lasting love can be. Struan has just expressed surprise that such a lesson could be learned in such a place, by saying, “I’d never thought there could be an idyllic side to hospital life.” Maria explains…

‘There is,’ she assured him. ‘Sheer devotion sometimes. Devotion that’s tried and tested. There’s a line of Stephen Phillips’ that I like tremendously, he calls it:

‘”Beautiful friendship, tried by sun and wind, durable from the daily dust of life.”

‘In hospital I once saw a man and woman taking farewell of each other after fifty years of wedded life. I’m not so silly as to think it had been half a century of bliss — how cloying that would be — but it was so real, that farewell. I had the oddest sensation that I actually envied that woman who was slipping out of life. I even thought that if it was given to all to have so perfect a moment, who could be afraid of death?’

She was silent, remembering. Then Struan said, ‘Yes?’

‘They were quite ordinary people, but articulate. He’d been an engine-driver, she’d been in a factory. They’d never had much money, but she said none of the highlights of life had cheated her. We’d had her in for months, and we enjoyed hearing her talk. They’d had a week-long honeymoon in a little stone cottage on the Isle of Mull. Getting to know each other in a new way, she said, and loving every memory of that week, even though they’d had to draw water from a well and cook on an open fire. She’d had three children, each one loved and wanted. It had always been a struggle financially, but they now owned their own house and managed comfortably on the pension. “And when I’m gone,” she said, “the children are all near enough to see to their father. One of them will call in on him every day.”

‘She told us she’d carried red roses at her wedding, tied in a knot with white heather and a bow of tartan ribbon. She’d had a white dress and veil but couldn’t abide everything white. As she put it, “I aye liked a splash of colour.” Her Alex was sitting by her the night she died. Jessie was weak, but her mind was clear. I’d come in silently with something to moisten her lips, but I paused, unseen, in the doorway. He put his hand in his pocket and drew something out, took her hand, opened it, and closed it over what we found later was a bit of red tartan ribbon and some dried heather. We left it there. I heard him say, “I thought you’d like to take this with you, lass, into that other world.”

‘I managed to melt away backwards without a rustle and by sheer will-power stayed dry-eyed. Because shortly afterwards he came in search of me to say she’d gone.’

Now here is the corresponding passage from the French “translation.”

– Je pourrais vous citer des exemple sans nombre. Ce sont des cas comme ceux-là qui vous permettent de redonner aux événements leur juste place, murmura Maria.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or curse. It’s not just that you lose any sense of Maria as a character — Essie Summers herself is banished as well. Whatever A Votre Guise may be, it’s hard to say that it’s an Essie Summers novel. At best I think you could say it seems to be recognisably one of Essie Summers’s plots.

[signs off the post, still shaking his head]

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