I spent an hour this morning listening to Tim Parks read Peter Stamm’s “Sweet Dreams” on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. It was enjoyable enough, although a few points in the translation jumped out. “His face looked familiar to me” seems to have directly carried over the mir from the German, when there was no need. And “We should initiate the corkscrew” is just plain off. Christen, anyone? Break open?
But it was a point in the story when Lara is reading the local newspaper that really stood out. “An ex-Miss Switzerland wanted to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for a children’s cancer hospital.” Now I can’t wait to find out if the “ex-Miss Switzerland” and “children’s cancer hospital” were put there by the translator or by Peter Stamm. The podcast began with a discussion about how international a writer Stamm was, so I suspect he was responsible. But to me the difference was striking compared to sometimes very parochial-sounding writing from Québec.
I’m quite sure that “An ex-Miss Switzerland wanted to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for a children’s cancer hospital” would have been something like “Sylvie Fréchette wanted to climb Mont des cygnes to raise money for Les petits frères des Pauvres” for a Quebec writer. Even writers I greatly admire like Eric Dupont and François Barcelo are fond of puns and playing with the French language. Calling a street Pie-VII (sounds like pissette) and having characters like Madeleine la Mére (the acute accent coming from the local accent) doesn’t translate very well—into English or to a global audience.