Philosophical translations

Les critiques judicieux sont rares.

This was the first sentence that I was called on to read aloud, and translate, at the first meeting of my French Translation course. For no obvious reason, the professor called on me first. I hadn’t realized that we’d be getting a chance to also practice our pronunciation (bonus!). I read it out loud, and then translated:

Fair critics are rare.

And we were off! We continued around the room, reading and translating sentences from the textbook. We completed all of Chapter 1 (to be, negation, plural nouns, articles, to have, the partitive pronoun en, -er verbs) in the first class, and Chapter 2 (-ir verbs, demonstrative adjectives, -re verbs, imperative verbs, reflexive verbs) in the second class; our professor says that we’ll slow down around Chapter 5 when things get “plus difficile”.

The authors of our textbook frequently have chosen quotes from famous French philosophers as example sentences for us to translate. Therefore, instead of dull sentences like “The cat is black,” we end up debating whether or not we agree with a particular statement about the purpose of life or the differences between men and women. This also means that the sentences are more challenging (which I like) since they sometimes involve abstract concepts or comparisons that really cannot be rendered literally. Here are some examples:

  • Il n’y a pas de roses sans épines. (Proverbe) “There are no roses without thorns.” (Or “Every rose has its thorn,” in 80’s parlance.)
  • Je n’imagine pas le génie, sans le courage. (Montherlant) Lit. “I do not imagine genius without courage,” which doesn’t really work. Instead, “I cannot imagine genius without courage,” or even “Genius is impossible without courage.”
  • Quand un acteur est mauvais, l’applaudissement le rend pire. (Renard) “When an actor is bad, applause makes him worse.”
  • Ceux qui s’appliquent trop aux petites choses deviennent ordinairement incapables des grandes. (La Rouchefoucauld) “Those who devote themselves to small things usually become incapable of accomplishing large ones.” (Excellent advice for work, eh?)
  • Les livres d’histoire qui ne mentent pas sont tous fort maussades. (A. France) “History books that do not lie are all very dull.”

Translation being a subjective art, please feel free to suggest improvements to these renditions.

We’ve had two classes now with no homework! In the meantime, I’ve been compiling a list of sources of public domain French texts for potential practice, including the French wikisource, the Internet Archive, and feedbooks. As usual, there’s so much more out there than I could ever hope to read!

4 of 4 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Elizabeth said,

    September 14, 2009 at 8:21 am

    This is so neat. Aren’t the French wonderfully quippy?

    You might enjoy this interview with Edith Grossman, a wonderful and highly respected translator of Spanish-language books into English (notably a relatively recent new edition of Don Quixote). She has lots of fascinating insights into the delights and difficulties of translating abstract language.


  2. Katie said,

    September 14, 2009 at 9:28 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I am impressed! This sounds like a great course! Enjoy it.

  3. Terran said,

    September 14, 2009 at 11:41 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Wow — nice translations. Did you have all the vocabulary in your head, or did you have to go to a dictionary? I remember smatterings of my HS French, oh these many moons ago, but I couldn’t get more than about half of your quotations there.

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