How long should a translation be?

I am a wordy translator. I prefer “possession of the ball” to “ball possession”. But even by my own standards I was surprised to see the final word count of my translation of Radisson. Was I really that wordy? Surely there is plenty in there that needs to be chopped? I’m going to let the text settle for a week or two and then go back and see.

In the meantime, though, it got me thinking. Everyone knows that French is a wordier, wafflier language. It’s taken as a given that an English translation should be significantly shorter than the original French. But I can think of a handful of examples off the top of my head where the English is longer. And, it seems, they all add up.

First is the French language’s love of using adjectives to describe people, most often—God fordid—in case we had to repeat a character’s name more than once in the same paragraph. So we get le blond, le roux, la fille, etc. In two of my three examples, on the rare times when I didn’t just repeat the character’s name, the English is longer than the French: le blond becomes (in theory) the blond-haired man or the blond man and le roux becomes the red-haired man or the redhead. Only with la fille and the like can we get away with the girl, which is just as short.

Second is adjectives that are simply longer in English. Grandiose sounds fine in the French, but often I found I’d rather put something like larger than life. Which is, of course, longer.

Third is tense. The whole French novel is written in a vivid, action-packaged historic present, which works fine in French, but not so well in English.

Radisson hésite à les suivre. (2 words)

Radisson wasn’t sure whether to follow.  (4 words)

Il veut rester le plus longtemps possible… (2 words)

He wanted to stay as long as possible… (3 words)

Au fur et à mesure qu’ils s’éloignent des quais, des navires et des odeurs de mer, Poncet prend du mieux. (1 word)

With the wharves, ships, and smells of the sea behind them, Poncet began to feel better. (3 words)

Looking back at these examples, I can see the extra words in English aren’t down to changing the present tense to the past in English, but it is nevertheless striking how often the English turns out to be longer, even for very simple sentences.

One example I can think of without taking the time now to back it up with evidence is cases where the present tense in French (Radisson pleure, Radisson arrive, Radisson regarde, etc.) all needed a little fleshing out in the English as stand-alone sentences (Radisson began to cry, Radisson looked around, etc.).

Another factor I suspect of adding to my wordiness is the author’s fondness of the word qui. This technique allows him to introduce a noun and then tag additional information on. So, for example, Radisson entered the room, which was…

I quickly tired of this in English, often finding it more natural to use an -ing construction instead.

En un tournemain, trente personnes se mettent à danser sur le plancher qui ploie dangereusement. (15 words)

In the twinkling of an eye, thirty people were up dancing, the floor sagging dangerously beneath their feet. (18 words)

Même dans cette ville portuaire où passent maints voyageurs, il n’est pas sûr qu’il connaisse cette colonie. (17 words)

Even in a busy port like this, with many travellers passing through every day, Radisson wasn’t sure if he would have heard of the colony. (25 words)

In the examples above, even a simple expression like “en un tournemain” becomes longer in my English translation. In fact, “in the twinkling of an eye” is twice as long. I do think it sounds good, though. And that is my main aim when translating. That is also the thinking for adding in a little information of my own in the first example above. In the French, the floor sags dangerously; in the English, it sags dangerously beneath their feet.

For years, I got tired of being edited and having every possibility being boiled down to the shortest possible version, of more often than not having more than ten people changed to over ten people just because it was shorter, for example. Shorter is not necessarily better to my ear.

But it’s all enough to make me wonder how long a translation should actually be.