5 February 2011

Translating Louis-Ferdinand Céline

There's a fascinating article in this month's Magazine littéraire, titled 'How do you spell "rouspignolles" ?', which is written by Pascal Ifri and concerns the two English translations of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932)  - Journey to the End of the Night (1934 and 1988). Céline called his distinctive writing style his 'little music', and encouraged his first translator John Marks to try to convey a similar impression of the 'dancing' rhythm of the text, which Marks didn't do at all, which is clear from his early version of Céline's highly influential novel.

However, Ralph Manheim's second translation does pay closer attention to the original style of the text. Manheim had to correct many errors made by Marks, and made it more in keeping with the spirit of Céline's work by Americanizing Marks's British English. Censorship - or simple coyness - would also have been a problem for Marks, and the later version set about restoring, for instance, 'shit', 'frustrated vaginas', and even masturbating soldiers where they had been completely excised.

The effect of Manheim's restoration certainly gives a better idea of what Céline's French should read like, but translation of course always poses problems. Add to this the particular difficulties that such an original and ground-breaking work must bring, and we have at least an idea of the colossal problems such a translation task must have involved.

Ifri is obviously forced to conclude that Manhiem's version isn't ideal, but... But for 54 years English readers of Journey to the End of the Night had to make do with a far more inferior version. How then is it that Céline had such an impact on American writers, most of whom (I assume) must have been reading John Marks and not Céline? Ifri believes it was Céline's 'vision of the world' rather than his writing style that caused the influence. (Céline was obsessive about his French being correctly emended for publication, but as for his translations, well, it was just the money that interested him.)

And 'rouspignolles'? Well, 'balls' or 'ballocks' convey the idea, but, as ever, the difficulty of exact translation rears its ugly head again.

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