Translating Mill on the Floss into French


Synopsis


Before dealing with my personal experience of translating The Mill on the Floss into French, I shall start with a few remarks on George Eliot's literary status in France compared with that in English-speaking countries. In Britain, in the States and other English-speaking countries, George Eliot is usually regarded as a great novelist, of the same magnitude as Dickens perhaps, although her novels are definitely more 'high-brow'. It might even be argued that she is the greatest female English novelist. In France, her reputation is quite different and it is possible to find educated people who have never read her or even heard about her, and the idea that she might be the greatest female English novelist seems to be simply preposterous, for, as French people will say, if she had been so, she would have been familiar to us! In France, great novelists of the world are usually canonized once they are received into the famous Bibliothèque de la Pléiade of the French publisher Gallimard. There you find many major British novelists, like Scott, Dickens, Stevenson, Conrad, Kipling, Joyce and also female novelists like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters and soon Virginia Woolf, but at present, there is no room for George Eliot in this series. Like the great Victorianist and translator Sylvère Monod, I have tried to persuade the Gallimard people that it is a mistake to ignore her, but with little success so far.



Before dealing with my personal experience of translating The Mill on the Floss into French, I shall start with a few remarks on George Eliot's literary status in France compared with that in English-speaking countries. In Britain, in the States and other English-speaking countries, George Eliot is usually regarded as a great novelist, of the same magnitude as Dickens perhaps, although her novels are definitely more 'high-brow'. It might even be argued that she is the greatest female English novelist. In France, her reputation is quite different and it is possible to find educated people who have never read her or even heard about her, and the idea that she might be the greatest female English novelist seems to be simply preposterous, for, as French people will say, if she had been so, she would have been familiar to us! In France, great novelists of the world are usually canonized once they are received into the famous Bibliothèque de la Pléiade of the French publisher Gallimard. There you find many major British novelists, like Scott, Dickens, Stevenson, Conrad, Kipling, Joyce and also female novelists like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters and soon Virginia Woolf, but at present, there is no room for George Eliot in this series. Like the great Victorianist and translator Sylvère Monod, I have tried to persuade the Gallimard people that it is a mistake to ignore her, but with little success so far.

When my translation of The Mill came out in 2003, in Folio classique, a paperback series published by Gallimard, which can be compared with Penguin Classics or Oxford World's Classics, there was no other George Eliot novel in the Gallimard catalogue, apart from a translation of Silas Marner by Pierre Leyris. At that time, Middlemarch, translated by Sylvère Monod was ready for publication, but, for obscure reasons, it did not come out until 2005. My own translation of Daniel Deronda was published there recently, in February 2010. Thanks to this publication of four of George Eliot's eight works of fiction, one may hope that she will be better known in France now than she was a few years ago, but she is not yet really part of our common culture, even among French people interested in the English novel.

It cannot be denied, however, that she had a decisive influence on two great French writers of the 20th century, whose works have little in common: Proust, the major reference for the psychological novel, and Simone de Beauvoir, the major reference for women's studies. Proust read The Mill on the Floss in the 19th-century translation by François d'Albert-Durade, George Eliot's friend in Geneva, and in spite of its imperfections, he considered it a masterpiece. In a letter of 1910 to his friend Robert de Billy he praises the novel very warmly: 'There is no literature which could have the same impact on me as English or American literature. Germany, Italy, and very often France can leave me indifferent, but two pages of The Mill on the Floss can move me to tears.'1

Indeed, there is a real kinship between Proust and Eliot, for they are both interested in the remembrance of things past and also in objects connected with crucial experiences of childhood. They both realize the importance of the pains of childhood, which adults tend to treat too lightly, however excruciating they may be.

As far as Beauvoir is concerned, there is a whole page of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter published in 1958 where she describes her experience of reading The Mill at the age of fifteen. She does not mention any translation, and there is reason to believe that she read the book in English. She confesses that she was rather inexperienced and naive at the time, and believed in love as mere friendship. She could not understand why Maggie left Philip for Stephen, and was not aware of the sexual attraction she felt for her cousin Lucy's fiancé. She clearly identified with Maggie, when she was alone, rejected by all, even by her own brother. And she concludes: '… I was like her, and now I could see my own isolation no longer as a mark of infamy but as a sign of election. I no longer thought that I could die of it. Through her heroine, I identified with the author: one day a young girl like myself would shed tears on a novel where I would tell my own story.'2

These two quotations are impressive and show the influence of the novel on two great French writers of the twentieth century, in spite of its limited impact on the French reading public as a whole. Fortunately, when I first thought of translating the novel, I was not impressed by them, simply because I had not yet come across them …

My project started with an early frustration. I had read The Mill when I was still an undergraduate. It was my first contact with George Eliot, and I did not know then that I was going to spend about forty years of my life with her. I was just excited by the description of childhood and all the scenes around the Mill, with Tom, Maggie and, occasionally, Lucy. There I found an interesting reflection of my own holidays in the country when I was a child, then a teenager. Meeting the fictional character of Bob Jakin was almost like meeting an old friend. Despite my admiration for other novels by George Eliot, like Middlemarch, then Silas Marner and Adam Bede, which I read later, together with all the others, I have kept a special fondness for The Mill.

So, you may imagine how pleased and honoured I felt in the early seventies, when Sylvère Monod, who was not yet a friend but simply my supervisor, invited me to write a preface for a Swiss publishing firm planning the publication of a new edition of the novel. I did write the preface, but I had mixed feelings when I realized that the new version was going to be the old 19th-century translation by François d'Albert-Durade. For financial reasons, a new translation was out of the question for this book-club edition. Looking closely at d'Albert-Durade's work, I came to the conclusion that it had its own merits, but was too stiff and formal in its dialogues, to say nothing of many inaccuracies and errors. At that time, I was a young research assistant with little experience of translation, but I was ready to work on a new one, which (of course!) would be an improvement on d'Albert-Durade's. However, the whole project came to nothing in the end.

Fortunately, I managed to overcome this early frustration many years later, in 2002, when I learnt that The Mill was one of the set books for the CAPES and Agrégation, two competitive exams for teachers of English. This was a new opportunity, which could not be missed. I had more experience of translation then. I knew some of the Gallimard people, with whom I had worked on Stevenson and Scott, and they were ready to consider my project. I remember a decisive interview I had in late June 2002, with the man in charge of the Folio classique series, Jean-Yves Tadié, a famous Proust scholar with a great admiration for George Eliot, who was one of my colleagues at the Sorbonne. From the start he made it clear that the idea of a new translation was virtually accepted, but the crucial question was how soon I could complete the task. I knew my own daily output as a translator and, given the number of pages in my paperback edition, I thought I needed about a hundred days. This seemed acceptable, for it meant that the book could be published in November or December. However, with his usual humour, Jean-Yves Tadié added: 'Well, I suppose you realize that there is a famous historical precedent for your hundred days. I hope you'll be more fortunate.' Of course, he was referring to the brief episode which started with Napoléon's return from exile and ended disastrously on the battlefield of Waterloo. I did my best to avoid a similar disaster, but working against the clock was a serious challenge, considering that, for various personal reasons, it was an extremely busy summer for me. Eventually, I managed to hand in my typescript in early October 2002, but the book was not published until February 2003. Compared with other translations of the Harry Potter kind, it was clearly not a priority.

In this new translation, I tried to reproduce the quality of the language spoken by George Eliot's characters. I was dissatisfied with d'Albert-Durade because his children spoke like grown-ups, and because his rustic characters spoke like educated town-dwellers. They could even use verbs in the subjunctive, which seemed to me totally out of the question. It all started with Mr Tulliver, who does not speak dialect, but a special kind of English, which is very informal, often substandard, something which linguists call a sociolect, denoting his social class rather than his geographical origin, although his pronunciation is definitely typical of the West Midlands.

Because he is uneducated he tends to drop some syllables, like in 'cademy or 'rithmetic. This has to be rendered into French by similar forms: la cadémie, la rithmétique. He also tends to modify some syllables, like erigation for irrigation, and eddication for education. This was slightly more difficult. Érigation was possible in French as a malapropism very close to the original, but eddication did not really make sense. So I had to resort to a deviant form for instruction, which would be more natural here in the sense of schooling, and I thought of astruction as a possibility.

Mr Tulliver has his favourite phrases, which have the same function as leitmotifs. I shall give two examples: 'Life is a puzzle'; 'speaking is a puzzle', which can be rendered by 'la vie, quel casse-tête'; 'c'est un vrai casse-tête de parler'; and also 'the world's been too many for me', which can be rendered by 'ce monde est trop fort pour moi'.

But that's not enough to convey the real voice of a character like Mr Tulliver. His English is definitely substandard and his French has to remain so. He is fond of repetitions and his way of speaking has to be made slightly redundant. Many of his words are elided and his style teems with truncated forms, as often happens in substandard English. There, however, I realized that too many contracted forms would make his language unreadable in French. So I had to convey this by restricting the elisions to negative forms, relatives and pronouns. In formal French, let us say in a formal written document, a character may declare 'je ne sais pas', for 'I do not know'. But this seems highly artificial in oral French, as d'Albert-Durade should have known, since we commonly say 'je sais pas', dropping the first part of the negative form, in the same way as you say 'I don't know', or even 'I d know'.

In order to render orality, it is also possible to elide relatives. Instead of saying 'des mots qui ont du sens' for 'words which have a meaning', we can say 'des mots qu'ont du sens', which is more colloquial. An interesting statement of this kind combines the elision of the negative with the elision of the pronoun, which gives the informal 'des mots qu'ont pas beaucoup de sens', instead of the formal 'des mots qui n'ont pas beaucoup de sens', for 'words which have little meaning'. A last trick to convey orality was the elision of the pronoun of the third person singular. Instead of 'il', I chose 'y': 'y dormira' for 'he will sleep', and 'y sait pas' for 'he doesn't know'.

By combining these very simple devices, I created an artifact which seemed closer to oral French. I had to stick to this strategy, although I was tempted to introduce more elisions, but I believe that it was wiser to resist the temptation in order to preserve a degree of clarity. I was lucky to find a practical test to determine whether my oral French was acceptable or not, for my grandparents were all country people, born in the nineteenth century and, to my mind, they had a similar way of speaking. I had a grandfather whose style was very rustic, and I kept trying to remember his pronunciation and his way of speaking. Without using Flaubert's 'gueuloir', I tried to reconstruct his style, and he came to be my model for Mr Tulliver. From him I also borrowed a favourite word, which struck me as being a close equivalent to Mr Tulliver's word for Maggie's cleverness. The miller sees Maggie as a 'cute little wench'. Considering that cute is the elided form of acute, for 'an acute mind', we have almost the same transformation in French with 'fûté', which comes from 'affûté', in the sense of 'made sharp, acute.'

This strategy of controlled elisions was extended to the other characters, who have their own rusticity. Mrs Tulliver is a case in point. This appears clearly in her dialogues with her husband. There, I also had to make an important decision. How to translate 'you', when she is addressing her husband? Was she going to use the formal pronoun 'vous' or the familiar 'tu'? I chose the second option as more likely in this social class. Yet I noticed a disparity between the way Mr Tulliver addresses her as 'Bessy' and the way she addresses him as 'Mr Tulliver'. She is apparently more respectful, as a dutiful wife. So, I kept 'Bessy', but instead of 'Monsieur Tulliver', which I had never come across in a similar context, I chose 'Père Tulliver', which is definitely rustic and carries some echoes of country stories by George Sand or Maupassant.

In the case of Mrs Tulliver, I also had to pay special attention to rustic exclamations, which have no direct equivalent in French. I can mention 'Dear heart!' as an example. For that, I had to find a rough equivalent like 'Euh là, mon dieu!', which is still occasionally heard in Normandy and in Western France nowadays, and keeps something of its original religious inspiration.

I took great pains with Bob Jakin, who is a remarkably rustic character, and very talkative at that. With elisions and repetitions, I partly rendered his way of speaking, but that was not enough. So I had to resort to other devices. I noticed that he made numerous comparisons about himself. There, I made him very colloquial and even ungrammatical: instead of saying 'c'est comme si j'étais…', for 'it's as if I were', he repeatedly says 'c'est comme si que j'étais', which is a clear indication that he never went to school and never learnt to speak properly. His speech is punctuated by a number of 'he says', which in French too can produce a slightly comic effect, when they are redundant. When he admits that his mother did not often send him to school, which he now blames her for, we have, for instance:  « Je lui dis : 'T'aurais dû m'envoyer davantage à l'école, que je lui dis.' »

But in the case of Bob, I noticed that he uses very unconventional phrases. For instance, he says to Mr Glegg: 'It's botherin', a wife is', which became in substandard French: 'mais c'est du tintouin, une femme.' I came to a similar choice when I translated his remark about his dog Mumps, 'an' make no jaw', by 'tout en la bouclant'. Here we come very close to slang. Elsewhere, Bob tells Mrs Glegg that he does not want to sell his wares too cheap because the other packmen would laugh at him, saying he is 'a flat'. This could not be simply translated, and I had to find an equivalent, 'me prendre pour une andouille', a slang word for 'stupid'. At times I had to go very far with Bob. When he finds fault with his mother for not sending him to school, I ventured the word 'engueuler' which is quite commonly used in substandard French for 'to quarrel with', but definitely vulgar. There I knew I was reaching the acceptable limits of orality, and I had to be careful not to go 'too far' (to quote Mr Brooke in Middlemarch), if I wanted to be true to George Eliot. But my intention was to give a clear idea of Bob's level of style.

With Tom and Maggie as children, I tried to make good use of elisions again, in order to reproduce a childish language devoid of formality. But I also looked for words frequently used by children. When Tom finds that some games are great fun, I used the word 'marrant', which is a very mild form of slang, or at any rate substandard French. I had problems with the word 'silly', which describes the way he sees his sister Maggie and girls generally. I found that the usual translation by 'sotte' was perhaps too formal. So I preferred 'gourde', which is more colloquial and more sarcastic.

I noticed that in the third volume brother and sister speak a language which comes very close to standard English, for various reasons: they have received some education, they have grown up, they have seen more of society, and, being the hero and the heroine of the novel, they speak almost the same language as George Eliot's readers. This had to be taken into account, and there I tried to make their dialogues closer to standard French than before.

When my translation came out, it was generally well received. Some of my students who used it when reading the novel found it a great help in clarifying some difficult passages in English. It was reviewed favourably by three French journals, Études Anglaises, Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens and La Quinzaine littéraire. In the first of these journals, the reviewer was Sylvère Monod, who praised my translation and approved of my judicious use of elisions. Being an expert in translation, he noticed that there were a few occasions where he might have made different choices, which was a very elegant way of saying I had made mistakes, but I found it reassuring to learn that he had only noticed half a dozen of them in so many pages. John Rignall, another authority on George Eliot, reviewed the book in the George Eliot Review for 2004, making interesting remarks on the Preface and the editing, but saying little on the translation proper, because in this joint review, he mainly discusses my book on the novel, written in French, which was published by another French firm almost at the same time.

One day, thanks to an unexpected email, I heard from a young Canadian student, Savoyane Henri-Lepage, who had written an MA thesis for MacGill University in Quebec, based on a comparative study of three translations of the novel, the first by d'Albert-Durade in 1863, the second by Lucienne Molitor in 1957 for the Belgian publishing firm Marabout, and the third my own. It was flattering to learn that she appreciated my interest in the different voices of the novel. She referred me to a detailed synthesis of her work, « Traduire les voix dans The Mill on the Floss », which was published on the website of TTR, the review of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies.3 I shall simply reproduce her abstract here:

The Mill on the Floss, by Victorian novelist George Eliot, is a polylinguistic novel in Bakhtine's sense of the word in that it integrates the linguistic diversity of the society which it depicts. This novel published in 1860 was translated six times into French but never enjoyed a great reception in France. We examine three translations in this thesis: the first is by François d'Albert-Durade (1863), the second is by Lucienne Molitor (1957) and the last is by Alain Jumeau (2003).

D'Albert-Durade's translation evacuates the linguistic diversity in order to shape the novel to the requirements of the target literary polysystem. Molitor, by homogenising the eliotian prose, turns the canonised English novel into a French popular novel. Jumeau, for his part, by rehabilitating the peasant sociolect in his translation, marks the beginning of a rehabilitation movement of George Eliot in France. This study, through the analysis of the voice of a few key characters, attempts to follow the French 'translative journey' of The Mill on the Floss.4

All this was gratifying, of course, showing that my translation was seen as innovative. Yet, to be quite honest, I realized, when re-reading it for this conference, that I was not entirely pleased with it, that there were still a few inconsistencies and minor errors. As far as I am concerned, I am ready to admit more than half a dozen! Perhaps this is the consequence of working against the clock. Nowadays I do my best to avoid the challenge of the hundred days. Still, I remember this translation of The Mill as a very enriching experience, which increased my determination to translate other novels by George Eliot, paying much attention to the different voices, including the voice of the narrator, with its remarkable variations from the commonplace to the sublime, from the very serious to the humorous, from the prosaic to the lyrical. In spite of its imperfections, my translation of The Mill gives the French reading public the opportunity of discovering or rediscovering this magnificent novel acclaimed by Proust and Beauvoir, which deserves to be regarded as a great English classic in France too.

Works Cited

BEAUVOIR, Simone de. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1958.

BURY, Laurent. « George Eliot, enfin ! » [review of Le Moulin sur la Floss by Alain Jumeau.] La Quinzaine littéraire 862 (1-15 octobre 2003): 14.

COUCH, John Philip. George Eliot in France: A French Appraisal of George Eliot's Writings, 1850-1960. Chapel Hill, U of North Carolina P, 1967.

ELIOT, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. Gordon S. Haight, with an introduction by Dinah Birch. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

ELIOT, George. Le Moulin sur la Floss. Texte présenté, traduit et annoté par Alain Jumeau. Folio classique. Paris: Gallimard, 2003.

ESCURET, Annie. Review of Le Moulin sur la Floss, translated by Alain Jumeau. Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens 58 (octobre 2003): 129.

HENRI-LEPAGE, Savoyane. « Traduire les voix dans The Mill on the Floss ». TTR 16, 2 (2003): 103-135. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ttr/2003/v16/n2/010717ar.html [vol.17, 2004 for the abstract.]

JUMEAU, Alain. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot. Paris: CNED/Armand Colin, 2002.

MONOD, Sylvère. Review of Le Moulin sur la Floss, translated by Alain Jumeau. Études Anglaises 56 (2003): 509.

RIGNALL, John. Review of Alain Jumeau, The Mill on the Floss : George Eliot (Paris: Armand Colin, 2002), and Le Moulin sur la Floss, translated by Alain Jumeau (Paris: Gallimard, 2003). The George Eliot Review 35 (2004): 55.

Notes

  1. My own translation of a quotation given by John Philip Couch in George Eliot in France: A French Appraisal of George Eliot's Writings, 1850-1960, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1967, p. 150: « Il n'y a pas de littérature qui ait sur moi un pouvoir comparable à la littérature anglaise ou américaine. L'Allemagne, l'Italie, bien souvent la France, me laissent indifférent. Mais deux pages du Moulin sur la Floss me font pleurer. »
  2. My own translation of  Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1958), pp. 196-97: « … je lui ressemblais, et je vis désormais dans mon isolement non une marque d'infamie mais un signe d'élection. Je n'envisageai pas d'en mourir. À travers son héroïne, je m'identifiai à l'auteur : un jour une adolescente, une autre moi-même, tremperait de ses larmes un roman où j'aurais raconté ma propre histoire. »
  3. TTR, Traduction, terminologie, rédaction 16, 2 (2003):103-135. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ttr/2003/v16/n2/010717ar.html
  4. TTR 17 (2004) for the abstract.

Published on 1 August 2012

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