Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2018

The Kites, by Romain Gary, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot #BookReview

The Kites was the last book by Romain Gary  (1914-1980), an author much loved in France.  The Kites (Les Cerfs-volants) was his attempt to reconcile ideas about the banality of evil and the paradox that inhumanity is part of being human.   The story takes place in rural Normandy just before and during the German Occupation, and the kites symbolise freedom of thought that the occupiers could not repress.

It takes a while to set the scene for the most interesting part of the plot.  The first third of the book introduces Ludo Fleury as the young orphaned nephew of an eccentric uncle who makes kites.  Ludo, despite his lowly status as the nephew of a mere postman, makes friends with an aristocratic family from Poland, falls in love with the daughter Lila, and because of his astonishing memory and ability with mental arithmetic, gains an entrée to the estate when he does the books for the Count (who is always on the verge of bankruptcy because of risky investments and gambling).  In the immediate pre-war period Ludo follows them back to Poland, where their estate borders Germany and a cousin in the German military becomes a rival for Lila’s affections.  All of this becomes relevant once the war starts and Ludo joins the Resistance, but for me, the portrayal of the quixotic Lila in this period became very tiresome.  Perhaps she represents France in its pre-war delusions of invincibility and perhaps the way her egotistical adolescent ambitions are crushed symbolises the crude reality of the French defeat, but as a character in a story, she is irritating and it’s hard to understand why Ludo is so smitten.

The kites become significant during the war.  In the pre-war period, decorations on these kites represented the intellectual and cultural history of France and under the Occupation the Germans recognise that they could be used not only for sending signals but also for inspiring resistance.   But even when they are not allowed to fly – and one with the face of de Gaulle, for example, has to be hidden – these kites remain a potent symbol of hope.  Similarly, French cuisine, which continues under the baton of Marcellin Duprat and his sommelier Monsieur Jean in the Restaurant Clos Juli, is a symbol of what is fine and desirable about the ancient traditions of French life.  The author is at pains to explain why what looks like collaboration (since the Germans are Duprat’s best customers and facilitate the acquisition of supplies despite rationing) is in fact a courageous assertion of French identity.

Putting this in context, the publication of The Kites in 1980 – only twenty-five years after the armistice when memories must still have been raw – was perhaps a call for reconciliation and forgiveness.  When Lila tries to explain why she took so long to reunite with Ludo after the war, it’s because she feels shame about what she did to protect her family.  Women like her who bartered their sexuality were humiliated as collaborators, but Ludo doesn’t see it like that.

‘Listen to me, Lila.  In this time and place, being a tramp is no kind of sin.  In any time and place, really.  Where your ass has been is the least of our worries.  Tramphood is pretty much sainthood, compared to all the rest’.

‘You’ve changed so much, Ludo!’

‘Maybe.  The Germans helped me a lot.  The inhumanity of it is what makes Nazism so horrible – that’s what people always say.  Sure.  But there’s no denying the obvious: part of being human is the inhumanity of it.  As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling ourselves pious lies.’ (p.215)

And if Lila also represents France, perhaps Romain Gary is also suggesting that it’s time for a reappraisal of the shame of the surrender and the Vichy regime.

I am indebted to Emma at Book Around the Corner who buddy-read this novel with me, for the information that Gary’s role model is Gogol, not Zola. He doesn’t care about historical accuracy or being realistic. He’s a storyteller not a writer of historical fiction. So it’s a mistake to be bothered over the representation of the Resistance which doesn’t conform to what I know about the Resistance from books and from the TV series Un Village Français However, while I understand that the author is acknowledging that there was inhumanity on both sides, I think that the muted representation of German atrocities weakens his position.  For readers who know nothing about it, there is a temptation towards moral equivalence between freedom fighters perhaps being brutal in their activities for the Resistance, and the institutionalised atrocities for which the Germans were responsible.  It’s too easy to say that both sides were inhumane in one way or another if you don’t really acknowledge what was done.

*****

This translation has been described by various reviewers as stylish (the NY Times), stunning (Three Percent) and with Romain’s text captured magnificently (Publisher’s Weekly). With these (all American) plaudits in mind, the translator is not to going to be bothered by the opinion of an obscure Australian blogger so I feel free to express my thoughts about it. I think it’s dreadful.   If you consume a lot of American media it may not bother you, but the intrusive Americanisations in the text ruined the book for me.  I could never settle into the French setting with French characters because I was constantly being jerked out of it.  It was as if I were reading a clumsy book by an American author, not an icon of the French literary world.

As regular readers know, I’ve read heaps of books in translation (283 reviewed on this blog as of April 2018). Many of them have been translated from French. (All of Balzac and Zola’s fiction, and more relevantly to a novel first published in 1980, more than twenty French novels published since WW1). I have read all these translations from all over the globe without any awareness of the translator’s nationality – except for the Zolas (where translation is an issue because of 19th century censorship in Britain) and also a couple of books translated by Will Firth, an Australian translator featured on this blog. All of these translators have achieved what Miranda Richmond Mouillot defines in the afterword of The Kites as an effective translation:

Translation, effectively done, builds a window, with a pane pellucid enough for the reader to enjoy an unobstructed view. (p. 308, italics mine)

That is to say, the reader can enjoy the novel as if reading the original text. Deluded, if you like, because there are always nuances that can’t be captured in translation, but the reader ought not to be confronted with reminders that there is another hand at work in the translated pages that she reads.

But on almost every page of The Kites the translator was there, a tiresome intrusive presence.  The excerpt I quoted above is typical.  It’s not just the American spelling which I don’t expect to find in an Australian edition, though Ambrose Fleury’s mustache instead of moustache was particularly irritating because every time I saw it my brain registered it with an American twang.  Ludo freshens up and forgets to shine his damn shoes.  Characters go a little ways and they swear like characters in American gangster movies. A chauffeur (who’s supposed to be British) describes someone as a patsy who was made to be stiffed. There’s a milepost when every fool knows that the French measure distance in kilometres (and have done since the 18th century).  Some slang I simply didn’t understand: what is an old saw in reference to a person? What’s a rutabaga? There’s even a reference to Napoleon who only needs to put on a fedora and he’s Al Capone. Is that faithful to the original? Capone was a Prohibition era mobster who died not long after WW2. It seems an incongruous allusion for a rural postman in wartime Normandy and his young listener…

Readers can’t be too particular about grammar these days but surely we can expect something better than this gobbledygook:

The months or even years that I would be obliged to live apart from her revealed the existence of a duration that reflected nothing I was capable of calculating. (p. 70)

I remember reading in the introduction by Margaret Mauldon to Zola’s L’Assommoir that it was a title notoriously difficult to translate because Zola used ribald songs and slang in the dialogue, so I do appreciate the complexity of translating idiomatic language and slang.  But the last straw for me was on pages 259-60 where a character reads a German poem by Heine, which he then renders for Ludo as a French poem by Verlaine because he says the translation doesn’t matter.  I’ve translated the Verlaine here because the translator hasn’t deigned to: in a footnote she has supplied the first and last couplets from ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerald Manley Hopkins which she thinks says more or less the same thing.  I don’t, and I don’t think narrators should stick in their own oars like this either.

Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

I remember
The old days
And I cry

An unobstructed view?  I don’t think so.

Author: Romain Gary
Title: The Kites (Les Cerfs-volants)
Translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017, first published 1980
ISBN: 9781925498813
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Kites

 


Responses

  1. Really interesting review Lisa. Apart from what you say about the moral ambivalence, I tend to agree with your views on the translation. Unless there’s any good reason for it, constant Americanisms undermine what is a translation of a European book and I think it’s sloppy actually. I’m keen to read Gary, but maybe not this version….

    • I’m going to read some of his other books, but not without checking who the translator is. And I discovered when I went looking yesterday how hard it is to (a) find who did the translation and then (b) find out if they’re any good. I always #NameTheTranslator but online bookshops certainly don’t, and I often have to add it to the info for books at Goodreads too.
      The thing is, it’s hard to know if any translation is a good one, unless you have some of the language. I think it’s something we need to talk about more in our reviews, even if it’s just a short comment at the end.
      PS I’m so sorry I didn’t join ion the 1977 club, I had my book all lined up and started it (Petals of Blood by Thiongo), but I have done very little reading this week, just a few pages at bedtime, and a bit more in the morning, and in the end I just couldn’t get there.

      • Agreed – I know no Russian so it’s hard for me to be sure. I have to go by an emotional response and whether the translator makes the book sing and speak to me. Plus I have a name or two that I avoid because I know they don’t work for me…

        And no worries about 1977 – believe me, I know how hard it is to keep up with this stuff….

        • Well, I’ll have to do better with the 1944 club. I’ve got two from 1944, one is 702 pages (Collected Stories of Somerset Maugham) and the other (For Love Alone by Christina Stead) is 502. I will need to get started early!

    • I’ve read it in French and partly in American. I think this American translation is excellent, compared to the text.

  2. Oh, I hope Lizzy’s Literary Reads sees this! Your comments about translation will chime with hers. We had a great conversation about translated fiction when we caught up for a drink last week.

  3. […] LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read […]

  4. I’ve run into Americanised translations a couple of times, and as you say, it spoils the story. Not having any other languages I expect a translation to be both unobtrusive and to leave the reader with a feel of the original – in the phrasing and in the original words, names mostly, retained.

  5. Poor translator! I think she’s good, faithful to Gary’s voice and to Gary’s vision of translation.

    There’s a lot of informal language in the original text and with that kind of vocabulary, you have to pick a nationality when you translate it into English. She’s American, working for an American publisher, you can’t hold it against her that she wrote in American.

    This sentence that you disliked “The months or even years that I would be obliged to live apart from her revealed the existence of a duration that reflected nothing I was capable of calculating.” is not by her.

    That’s the original text!
    “Les mois ou même les années que j’allais être obligé de vivre loin d’elle me révélaient l’existence d’une durée qui n’avait plus aucun rapport avec ce que j’étais capable de calculer.”

    So maybe Gary is clumsy.

    As for references to miles vs kilometers : American books translated into French always have distances in kilometers and temperatures in °C. Otherwise we French readers are lost!

    What you mention about slang is also true for crime fiction translations. It’s tricky to translate from one country to the other because it’s a language rooted to a place, it’s not neutral at all. There’s no perfect choice for this.

    About the Verlaine / Heine part. It’s the same in the French original. There’s no translation about the Heine verses, only the “equivalent” poem in Verlaine’s poetry. It’s about having the blues, in both poems. Naturally, the translator suggests (in a footnote, not in the text by Gary) an equivalent poem in English speaking poetry.
    What you think comes from the translator actually comes from the author.

    Gary means that whatever the language, the human feelings behind the poetry are the same from one country to the other because we’re all humanbeings. What Heine meant has been written differently by Verlaine. The Heine poem is Die Lorelei and it’s as famous for German poetry as Verlaine’s Chanson d’automne.

    Gary wasn’t a sticker for literal translations of his own work. There are significant differences between White Dog and Chien Blanc and White Dog has been written in English by Gary. (with help) In his mind, you need to write in a way that’ll help the reader understand what you mean. And the communication channels aren’t the same from one country to the other.

    I don’t think that it’s a problem that this translation is full of “Americanisms” It’s American. Point blank. To me, it’s a great translation of Gary’s work.
    But as far as this translation is concerned, in my opinion, it’s faithful to the text, to the writer’s voice and to his work, his vision of translation.

    The question is “should English/Australian publishers adapt this translation for their public”?

    Your dislike for this translation raises another question about the “English” language in general and the way British and Australians look down on American English.

    I don’t look down on French from Québec, Belgium or Africa. We’re all part of the Francophonie, a large community who speak “French” with differences. We find them funny, we acknowledge them but we don’t think that the French from France is better than the French from Québec. They evolved differently, that’s all.

    It seems to me that British and Australians are not so friendly about American English, that for them “real English” is spoken in London and that the American language is just an ancillary version of it, used in former colonies.

    Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that it’s a language in itself, just as noble as the one from London.

    So for me, the problem is not the translation per se because it it brilliant. The problem is that the Australian publisher didn’t do a revised translation to speak to the Australian audience. Something Gary would have liked, I think.

    • Well, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one…

      • Maybe but I would have liked to go further in this debate. :-)

  6. How fascinating! I just read Emma’s review and thought it was a novel I would like to read but now I’m not so sure. I really feel like the Americanisation as detailed by you would turn me off. I wonder if it didn’t bother Emma because she held the French edition in her memory?

    • I think what this reveals for me is that (whoever they were and wherever they came from) translators of the other books I’ve read must have had a ‘neutral’ form of English. Using Google I’ve done a mini survey of the last 20 translations I’ve read and four of them were done by American translators, (and one of those was a novel written in French). (The others were from Germany and Sudan). The point is that I didn’t notice at the time where the translator was from, I only know it now because I Googled their names. It turns out that of the others, there was a Lithuanian, one was Dutch, there was one from Turkey, and the rest were from Britain but that includes Scotland and someone from the northern counties.
      Maybe just as the English spoken by the English varies widely from Scotland to Wales to the northern counties and Cornwall, but the published versions of it tend to be ‘neutral’ (in the way that we all learn to write Standard Australian English at school whatever our accents, grammars and origins) the American English spoken in America varies from the Southern states to African American and Hispano-Americans, but in general what’s published is ‘neutral’ too?

      • The use of colloquialisms is discouraged to authors in general, unless it forms a necessary part of your narrative. I would think this would extend to translators, but the importance would be even more so given that you are unlikely to be from the country the book you are translating is set in. I can imagine the reading process would have been disconcerting. France would be in your head and then a harsh American twang would rip that away with each piece of dialogue. I wish I could just read French (big sigh).

        • I am bit tempted to get a French edition, but I’m not good enough to read a whole novel yet. But I’ve just started my fifth book in French: it’s a novella by George Sand called La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool) and I’m finding it easier than the last one (L’absence des hommes/The Absence of Men) though I’ve had to learn a whole lot of vocab for French farming because it’s about a peasant – furrows, oxen in a yoke and so on!
          But *sigh* I don’t think there’s any chance of me learning enough Russian to read Tolstoy et al in the original…
          (Now that reminds me, the American translators of War and Peace did a wonderful job of it, I thought. Richard Pevear is American and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky is Russian, a translation match made in heaven!).

          • Lisa, try to download a sample on the kindle. At least you’ll have an idea of the original. It’s too difficult for you to read in French because Gary doesn’t write in classic French.
            If you want to have another taste of his style, there’s a “Wednesdays with Gary” series on my blog with quotes from various books by him. I needed help from an English speaking native to translate these quotes, it was too difficult for me to translate. (There’s a Wednesday with Gary category to sort these billets out)

            About La mare au diable.
            You have the same problem as me when I read in English. 19thC lit is easy: lots of common words between English & French, so you can guess a lot of words and there’s no slang.

            Problem is with “popular” words like the ones describing peasant realities because the words don’t have latin roots in English. So you can’t guess anything from the words, only from the context. If I tried to read The Mill on the Floss in English, I’d have the same trouble as you with La mare au diable.

            About translations of books from that time:

            I think that American and English have less differences in the 19thC early 20thC lit (like Edith Wharton or Willa Cather…) because to write well was to write British English.

            Maybe the American language also changed much more after the big immigration wave from Europe in the end of the 19thC / beginning of the 20thc : these immigrants must have brought words and expressions that were integrated in what is now American.

            20th / 21th C lit is more difficult to read. Slang is more common, puns are more frequent and plays with words and grammar more accepted.
            The French literary intelligentsia looked down on Gary. They thought he couldn’t write because his French was unusual. It’s more relaxed, less classic. The funny thing is : the ones who criticized him the most are probably the ones that are forgotten now while his books are all over bookstores.

            PS : From my French window, there’s no slang in Zola.

          • I am so impressed you can read French.

        • Colloquialisms are part of the narrative here. Gary loves to play with words and use popular expressions and turn them around.
          Plus his native language is Russian and he said that Russian grammar is more flexible and that he wanted to bring part of this flexibility into his French.

          • Colloquialisms need to be true to the setting in order to work. I haven’t read the novel, but from Lisa’s examples, the translation is inauthentic, giving an American experience within a French setting, at least, that’s my impression. The translator must surely take some responsibility for that.

    • I’ve read it going back and forth between the French and the American. I read some chapters in French, others in American. I wanted to see if I was bothered by the switch from one to the other. (like when you switch from dubbed film to non dubbed)

      I had no problem at all, the voices are similar.

      But I wasn’t bothered by the fact that it was written in American. I can understand that it grates a British or Australian reader but that’s not the translator’s fault.

      • True and true, but there are plenty of American novels that don’t overly sound American either. Depends on the intent, I suppose.


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