I am very excited to share this most recent post, which is a product of a read-along and blog collaboration with Felicia Davin over at Word Suitcase. As we both have studied and worked in French, and consume tons of romance novels, we decided to pick a historical romance out of J’ai Lu’s collection of works translated from English. We settled on Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London, translated into French by Nicole Hibert as Lady Chance. I highly recommend subscribing to Word Suitcase, where this week you’ll find Felicia’s etymological exploration of chit/ingénue, and an insightful discussion of Thomas’s narrative voice.
Personally, I went into this project with very few preconceived notions : I read in French for my job, in English for fun, and I’ve never read a romance in French before at all. Lady Chance was my primary text, which I read start to finish while referring frequently to The Luckiest Lady in London for comparison. It was a fascinating experience, and while I’m not sure I extracted any overarching truths about reading romance in English and French, the two books did feel incredibly different to me. In a few places, the translator was able to take advantage of French’s unique features and add layers to the text- in many others, I felt the loss of the brightness and complex tone of Thomas’s work. I wanted to start by exploring a few instances in both of those categories – where I felt things were gained or lost in translation – and close with some more general thoughts about the experience of reading two very different versions of the same romance. To start, here’s some info on the original text, as well as a link to the French, for those so inclined.
Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix knows very well his golden image is a hoax. But no one else suspects the truth, until Miss Louisa Cantwell comes along.
From their first meeting, Louisa has mistrusted his outward perfection. But even she could not have imagined that The Ideal Gentleman would propose—to make her his mistress.
Yet she cannot ignore the pleasure his touch ignites. Nor can she deny the pull Lord Wrenworth exerts upon her. But dare she get any closer to a man full of dark secrets, any one of which could devastate her?
Image and blurb from the author’s website. Link to the French translation here.
Moving from “vous” to “tu”
One linguistic feature the French translator had to play with is the distinction between formal “vous” and informal “tu” address. Because that distinction doesn’t exist in English, the translator had to identify when a couple who started off as strangers in proper society (using “vous”) would switch to greater intimacy (using “tu”). In Lady Chance, that occurred right after Felix and Louisa sleep together for the first time, marking it – rather than the moment of their marriage ceremony- as the spark of true closeness between them.
What I didn’t anticipate, however, is how the translator continued to play with this register, taking the couple back to using “vous” when they fought – and even having them make the shift at different times, so that there are sections where Felix is oblivious to the extent of Louisa’s anger and still using “tu” while she keeps him at a distance with “vous.”
The use of “vous” between a married couple is brilliant at reinforcing the emotional register of “I am freezing you out while I absolutely burn you to the ground” that is the hallmark of Thomas’s angsty marriage-in-trouble stories. Let’s look at one example, a line Felix says to Louisa:
Permettez-moi de vous donner un conseil, ma chère: il ne faut jamais croire ce qu’un homme vous raconte quand il vous baise.Lady Chance
Let me tell you something, my dear: You should never believe what a man says when he is fucking you.The Luckiest Lady in London
This line is a fairly straightforward translation (except that in French he gives advice instead of telling). But, to me, the last three words of the French “il vous baise” land much harder than “he is fucking you” for the simple reason of register: if you are a reasonably polite person, there is almost never a scenario where you’re employing a word as vulgar as “baiser” with someone you address as “vous.” The seeds of the formality are planted in the English with “he is” instead of “he’s,” and the French takes full advantage of that tension.
There are also a few interesting moments where the translator takes license to choose – and even to add – words and phrases that reinforce Thomas’s themes. One of these happens when Felix is brooding over his marital feud with Louisa. (Because the French is significantly different from the English here, I’ve provided a more literal translation of the French for non-Francophones in smaller script below)
Le dos voûté il gagna son observatoire. Les nuages masquaient l’éclat des étoiles. Il y demeura pourtant jusqu’à l’aube, à scruter inutilement un ciel noir d’encre.Lady Chance
With his back stooped, he reached his observatory. The clouds masked the shine of the stars. Yet he stayed there until dawn, to uselessly examine a sky black as ink.
When he finally took himself to his observatory, clouds had already rolled in. But there he remained until dawn, under a sky he could no longer see.The Luckiest Lady in London
At no point, in Sherry Thomas’s original scene, is Felix’s back stooped. So what is it doing in the French? The adjective used to describe his back – voûté – derives from voûte, or arch. La voûte is commonly used in the expression “la voûte céleste” or “the celestial arch” – referring to the sky or the heavens. So to describe Felix, an astronomer who shares his love of the stars with the woman he has lost, as having a “dos voûté” as he walks up to his observatory, takes advantage of the specificity of the French while reproducing the rich thematic work that Sherry Thomas maintains throughout the book.
I do have to say, though, that moments like this – where the translation is creatively dialoguing with the style and thematic complexity of the novel – are few and far between. My overwhelming impression was of a work of interpretation that, in most cases, didn’t trust the reader as much as Sherry Thomas’s writing does. This issue is likely, in part, circumstantial: it’s impossible for me to know at what pace – and for what kind of compensation – these translations are produced. But overall, reading the translation heightened my awareness of what characterizes Thomas’s writing, because those things often disappeared: suggestively ambiguous phrases, deliberate double meanings, and poetic abstraction of the individual from their own emotions.
The joys of ambiguity
One issue that came up frequently was that, in an effort to render Thomas’s references and metaphors understandable, the translation flattened some of their delightful ambiguity. This passage shows it happening in two different ways.
– Je sais pourquoi je t’aime, ma douce. Et je t’aimerai encore plus lorsque les braves gens viendront chercher avec leur fourche la sorcière que tu es.
Elle éclata de rire puis, reprenant son sérieux, plongea son regard dans le sien
– Et moi, je sais qu’aucun homme au monde ne pourrait me rendre plus heureuse.
I know why I love you, my sweet. And I’ll love you even more when the good people come with their pitchforks looking for the sorceress that you are.Lady Chance
She burst out laughing, then, becoming serious again, plunged her gaze into his.
– And me, I know that no man in the world could make me happier.
“I know I love you for a reason. I will love you even more when they come for you with pitchforks.”The Luckiest Lady in London
She laughed, cupped his face, and looked into his eyes. “And I could never be this happy with anyone else”
Reading this passage, two different things jumped out at me: the appearance, in the French, of “the sorceress that you are” – which doesn’t exist at all in the English, and “becoming serious again” – which replaces “cupped his face.”
“The sorceress that you are” is a fairly understandable addition. While in English, the word “pitchfork” is enough to conjure up images of an angry mob, in French “fourche” mostly just suggests a farmer. A fun – though by no means foolproof – way to test vocabulary-use theories is to run words through Google image search: “pitchfork” brought up a pretty even spread of farmer images and devil images, whereas “fourche” definitely leant more heavily towards the farming end of things. Even more tellingly, “with pitchforks” turned up lots of images of angry mobs. “Avec des fourches” taught me that this word in French is also used for having split-ends.
As a reading experience, adding sorcery to the pitchforks errs on the side of clarity, but I think it also takes something away : a trust in the reader to conjure up images with a single word. Obviously somewhere in French there’s a corresponding metonym for crowds, but it can be hard to turn away from the more direct, explanatory translation.
“Becoming serious again” is an interesting example of an instance where an action doesn’t have a simple, elegant translation into French, and the translator has instead substituted a feeling. While French obviously allows for describing the motion of placing a hand against someone’s jaw, there isn’t a single verb like “cup” that does so quickly. I agree with the choice to substitute something else for “took his face into the palm of her hand” or “pressed her hand to his face,” but there’s a loss of interpretative work for the reader, when the translator preempts the choice of that gesture conveying tenderness or playfulness or attention, and decides it marks seriousness instead.
One of my favorite things about Thomas’s writing is that she isn’t afraid to play with syntax in a way that distances her characters from strong emotions they can’t yet face. Two of my favorite lines in the English describe Louisa and Felix as deeply in love, yet incapable of expressing the sentiment. For Louisa, it’s the first time she sleeps with Felix, which the narration describes like this:
It was like the sky falling.The Luckiest Lady in London
Beyond, the stars.
I love the truncated simplicity of “Beyond, the stars” and how it captures the confusion of falling in love. The focus on things (the sky, the stars) rather than emotions also matches the state of a character whose emotions haven’t yet caught up to physical sensation. The sheer magnitude of the images reflects the grandeur of what she experiences. The French, unfortunately, simply captures this as “Elle voguait en plein ciel, parmi les étoiles/She was sailing across the sky, among the stars” which strikes me as both more simple and more conventional than the original.
Similarly, when Felix first suspects he might have fallen for his wife, he thinks to himself
“Such a lonely feeling, being hopelessly in love.”The Luckiest Lady in London
There’s an ambiguity there: obviously we as readers know Felix is thinking this because he is in love with Louisa, but Felix keeps distance by not inserting himself into the sentence. The aphoristic quality of phrase is key, as it – artificially – abstracts “being in love” from anything he’s feeling. In French, this is rendered as a fully grammatical sentence, with Felix as its subject: “Il était amoureux, et il se sentait désespérément seul/He was in love, and he felt desperately lonely.”
I think it’s easy to get caught up in this kind of comparison. As I read Lady Chance I accumulated an entire document of side-by-side quotes that ranged from clever additions, to faithful renderings, to absolutely baffling changes and frustrating absences. My reading of the French was haunted by assumptions about the original. I’d come across a word and dash back to The Luckiest Lady in London, wondering where it had come from and how it had come into being. It was tellingly difficult for me to not let the translator stand in between me and the “real” text like an interloping second reader: I was constantly aware of consuming someone else’s reading, rather than the new and independent text that a translation ideally becomes. That’s in part, I think, because of my reading method (I knew I was reading comparatively for the blog), and in part because the style of the translation leaned so heavily into the task of interpreting even the most poetic of ambiguities.
Ultimately, the exercise of reading Lady Chance and The Luckiest Lady in London gave me a new perspective on one of my favorite topics: how much the individual reader brings to the consumption of a novel. It made me think about why I needed “sorceress” to stand alongside “fourche” but not “pitchfork” – and how hard it must be to make linguistic choices as a translator when every word is dragging a suitcase full of historical usage around with it. Ultimately, this experience reminded me that I appreciate authors who trust their readers to do some work with what’s on the page: to decide what cupping a face means, or to revel in the grammatical dark spaces around phrases like “Beyond, the stars.” All the while, though, they also have to have a sense of their readers as a community, with shared understanding of language: otherwise you have a bunch of random farmers showing up to taunt your heroine, instead of an angry mob. Part of what Sherry Thomas’s original accomplishes so well is conceiving of its readership as a community, but one made up of many individual interpretations. Reading these two texts together really drove home why ambiguity, and innovation, and lexical incompleteness are a part of the magic of my favorite writing.