In Windows on the World, a novel by Frédérick Beigbeder (published in French in 2003 and in English translation by Frank Wynne the following year), the narrator reluctantly joins a demonstration in Paris against the Iraq war. Agonising over how the West should respond to the attack on the Twin Towers, he asks himself, ‘Am I a coward, an appeaser, an anti-Semite, a cheese-eating surrender monkey, as the American newspapers say?’
The phrase ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’ originated on The Simpsons as a parody of Bush era Anti-French prejudice before it was taken up and stripped of irony by rightwing American commentators. I was startled to find it in a French novel and curious to know what it looked like in the original. Had Beigbeder translated it from Simpsonese only for Wynne to translate it back again? So I got hold of a copy. I was surprised to discover that the American phrase stood in place of a single word – pétainiste.
In cutting this reference to Marshal Pétain, who led the Vichy government and collaborated with the Nazis, and replacing it with a joke off The Simpsons, Wynne made the text more accessible, I suppose – at least in the short term, until surrender monkeys chatter off into obscurity. But he sacrificed the historical resonance of Beigbeder’s soul-searching.
I can’t help thinking that an English-language novelist attempting to capture the French experience, would be more likely to opt for Pétain. The novelist is focused on evoking the strangeness of the other place. The conscientious translator presumably finds satisfaction in substituting the familiar. Nobody could accuse Wynne of shirking his duty. But sometimes, with translation as with other things, less is more.
Opening at random my copy of A Farewell to Arms, a novel set in First World War Italy, I find this conversation among members of the army ambulance corps about the families of deserters:
‘They are all without law to protect them. Anybody can take their property.’
‘If it wasn’t that that happens to their families, nobody would go to the attack.’
‘Yes. Alpini would. These V.E. soldiers would. Some bersaglieri.’
‘Bersaglieri have run too. Now they try to forget it.’
I’m guessing that when I first read this I had no idea who the bersaglieri were, other than a branch of the army reputed to be less courageous than the alpini, whoever they were – alpine types? So I knew quite a lot actually. Enough to follow the conversation, anyway. Hemingway might have called them the light infantry and the mountain soldiers. And I would have gained some factual information, but I would have lost some of the illusion of listening in.
The protagonist of Tahmima Anam’s novel The Good Muslim, set in 1980s Bangladesh, rescues her nephew Zaid from an oppressive Madrasa. She puts him on a boat while he talks compulsively about what he’s been taught.
Maya pleads with Zaid to eat something. He refuses, gazing through the thin bamboo netting arches over the boat, his eyes searching for the night sky. I know the Arabic alphabet, he repeats. Where is my mother? She isn’t here, Maya tells him, you know that. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem, he begins, reciting the words he has been taught. Nauzubillah hira-shahitan-ir-Raheem. A small lizard has made its way on board, and scuttles back and forth among the curved roof slats. He settles for this, chasing it with his finger.
Zaid says two things in Arabic. I quickly find a translation on the internet for the first of them. For now, the second eludes me. But the meaning isn’t so important. It’s their dramatic significance that matters – fragments of rote learning to which Zaid clings in his anxiety. And the language is part of the soundscape, which takes its place in the scene alongside the bamboo netting and the lizard and the night sky.