Lost in Translation

I am a native of Gelderland. Our property consists only of a few acres of briar and brackish water. Pines that rustle with a metallic sound grow on its boundaries. Only a few rare inhabitable rooms remain on the farm, which is dying stone by stone in solitude. We issue from an old family of shepherds, formerly large, now reduced to my parents, my sister, and me.

I was born in Gelderland, where our family holdings had dwindled to a few acres of heath and yellow water. Along the boundary grew pine trees that rustled with a metallic sound. The farmhouse had only a few habitable rooms left and was falling apart stone by stone in the solitude. Ours was an old family of herdsmen, once numerous, now reduced to my parents, my sister, and myself.

Many years ago, when I was first discovering science fiction, I came across a Damon Knight anthology called A Century of Science Fiction. It was one of those defining anthologies for me. It must be 40 years or more since I last read it, but it contained stories that are still vivid in my memory – ‘Sail On! Sail On!’ by Philip José Farmer, a selection from Worlds of the Imperium by Keith Laumer, ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke, ‘The Crystal Egg’ by H.G. Wells, ‘The First Days of May’ by Claude Veillot – along with one or two that now mean absolutely nothing to me (‘You Are With It!’ by Will Stanton??). But the story that stood out then, and continues to be one of the most fondly remembered stories I have ever read, was a piece called ‘Another World’ by J.-H. Rosny aîné (in a translation by Knight himself).

Recently I had the opportunity to review a new volume, Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind, by J.-H. Rosny aîné, the centrepiece of which was a new translation of ‘Another World’. And it was, indeed, every bit as good as I remember. And yet …

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ImageJ.-H. Rosny was really Joseph-Henri-Honoré Boëx (1856-1940) and his younger brother, Séraphin Justin François Boëx (1859-1948), but around 1907 the pair split, and all the works previously ascribed to J.-H. Rosny were now ascribed to Rosny aîné. Rosny jeune did apparently write one novel on his own, after his brother’s death, but it seems not to have been very good.

So Rosny aîné was the writer in the family. He was born in Brussels, but in 1873 he moved to London to work as a telegrapher and stayed there for 11 years. During his time in London he was exposed to the debates on evolution that were then continuing in lively fashion (the same debates that young H.G. Wells would have been discovering about this time, though it is doubtful that the two would ever have met). Rosny also probably wrote his first novel, Nell Horn, in London before he moved to Paris, since it is a naturalistic novel set in the London slums.

Nell Horn was published, in French, in 1887, as was his first work of sf, the prehistoric adventure Les Xipéhuz. Thereafter he would divide his writing between realist novels and science fiction, and also wrote works of popular science (a career that seems to mirror that of Wells). He was an associate of Edmond de Goncourt and later became president of the Académie Goncourt, and was also highly respected among French scientists (it has been claimed that he knew the Curies and Einstein personally). Like Wells, he wrote prolifically right up to his death, on the eve of the German entry into Paris in 1940.

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ImageHis place in the history of French language sf is unassailable, but his work is little known in English. Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser, who translate and introduce Three Science Fiction Novellas, mention only L’étonnant voyage d’Hareton Ironcastle which was loosely translated and effectively re-written by Philip José Farmer, and the Hollywood film of The Quest for Fire. Though they conveniently forget that two of the stories in their collection, The Xipéhuz and Another World, were previously translated by Damon Knight, while the third, The Death of the Earth, has recently been translated by Brian Stableford.

That, to be honest, in not the only questionable statement I found in Chatelain and Slusser’s introduction. Of Les Xipéhuz, they say it clearly drew inspiration from English evolutionary debates because ‘no analogues to the prehistoric extrapolation of this novel exist in the francophone world’. Oddly enough, in Nicholas Ruddick’s masterful account of prehistoric fictions, The Fire in the Stone (2009), he demonstrates that there was a clear tradition of prehistoric fiction that had started as early as 1861 and that was almost entirely French in origin.

They then spend the bulk of their lengthy introduction (over 70 pages, with only 120 pages devoted to Rosny’s fiction) comparing Rosny first with Jules Verne, then with H.G. Wells, to the disadvantage of Verne and Wells of course. The trouble is, given that we have not been given reason to trust them before this point, it is very hard to accept their arguments here. And little inaccuracies keep creeping in (‘Wells wrote at least one prehistoric tale’, they tell us, when he actually wrote two very well known examples of the genre). So when they compare the versions of the end of the world presented by Rosny and by Wells (in The Time Machine) I found myself not at all surprised, but not at all convinced, when they declare: ‘Wells’s treatment of these bold topics, compared with Rosny’s, appears surprisingly conservative.’ Really? They complain that the Time Traveller is confined to Richmond, though of course he has no means of travel in the future but still covers a very extensive territory on foot. They complain that ‘he apparently wore a Victorian day coat and socks … on his travels to the death of the Earth’, though given that he was a Victorian and a man of his era, what else should he wear? Targ happens to wear appropriate clothes for the end times simply because he is a native of those times. And they complain about ‘the dimensions of irony and satire’ in Wells’s novels, as if that is a bad thing.

No, honestly, I hold Rosny in very high regard, nearly as high a regard as I hold Wells, but this special pleading, this distorting of Wells in order to exalt Rosny, actually diminishes the man.

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But if the scholarship dismays me, the translation disturbs me even more.

I must make it clear, I have not read the original, I can make no judgement on the accuracy of the translation. But there is something in the spirit of the work that falls flat for me.

At the head of this post I quoted the first paragraph of Another World as translated first by Chatelain and Slusser, and second by Damon Knight. Which do you prefer?

There are things wrong with Knight’s translation. The ‘yellow water’ is a mistake, since our narrator cannot see colours in the same spectrum we see, so yellow would be a meaningless term for him. Even so, I think that ‘heath and yellow water’ gets across more of the type of land this is than ‘briar and brackish water’. And Knight is, perhaps, wrong to cast the paragraph in the past tense. Chatelain and Slusser are so literal in their translation that I am sure Rosny used tenses the way they do. Except that the whole of the rest of the story is in the past tense, it is a memoir written some time after the events recounted. Chatelain and Slusser’s translation drifts into the past tense midway through the second paragraph; so I don’t think Knight is doing any damage to Rosny’s story by being that bit more consistent in his use of tenses.

These small quibbles aside, Knight’s translation represents a much more natural-seeming use of language. That ‘once numerous’ surely works much better than the rather stiff ‘formerly large’. And Chatelain and Slusser’s choice of a word like ‘inhabitable’ when Knight opts for the much more informal ‘habitable’ seems to speak volumes for the style of the translation. And when Knight writes that the farmhouse was ‘falling apart stone by stone in the solitude’ he conveys, in ordinary language, a process while setting the farmhouse in its solitary landscape. When Chatelain and Slusser say the farm ‘is dying stone by stone in solitude’, the dying seems to reach for a poetic language without quite reaching it, and ‘in solitude’ suggests to me an abandoned building rather than a solitary landscape, though we know that the farm isn’t abandoned.

In one of the notes that accompany ‘The Xipéhuz’ they say: ‘Sentences like this may seem awkward, but we have rendered Rosny’s austere, almost hieratic style as faithfully as possible, except in cases where it ceases to be English’.  I’m not sure this is doing Rosny any favours (and I’m particularly sure that pointing this out in a footnote is not the done thing). I suspect that Knight’s translation, while less academic, does a better job of rendering Rosny for a modern reader.

Rosny is a superb storyteller. The strange, geometric alien beings that flit obliviously through the pages of ‘Another World’ are one of the great inventions of science fiction. His work survives the rather stilted translation it gets in this new collection. But I am glad I first encountered it in Damon Knight’s translation, because that is how I still remember it.

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4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. He is in the Public Domain in France: his novels can be downloaded or read online here:

    http://www.ebooksgratuits.com/ebooks.php

    Here’s the first paragraph of Un autre Monde:

    Je suis natif de la Gueldre. Notre patrimoine se réduit à quelques acres de bruyère et d’eau jaune. Des pins croissent sur la bordure, qui frémissent avec un bruit de métal. La ferme n’a plus que de rares chambres habitables et
    meurt pierre à pierre dans la solitude. Nous sommes d’une vieille famille de pasteurs, jadis nombreuse, maintenant réduite à mes parents, ma sueur et moi-même.

    The style is indeed peculiar; note for instance the postponement of the relative clause in the third sentence. I knew his name, but seems I had miscast him as a more pulpish/hackish writer than he is.

  2. My French is not very good, I’m afraid, but this is interesting. It seems that Slusser and Chatelain are closer to his sentence structure (yes, his style is rather peculiar), but Knight still provides the better translation (it is, indeed, ‘yellow water’.

    The problem with any writer from so long ago is that it is all too easy to think of them as eith high literature or low hack work with nothing much in between. I make no claims for Rosny as high literature, but he is certainly better than low hack work, and I think his science fiction is more inventive and interesting than Verne’s, so I suspect he should be regarded as a far more important figure in the history of the genre.

  3. Pingback: 2012 Reading « Through the dark labyrinth

  4. Thanks for this review, I was wondering about which one I should buy, these or the Stableford. I go for the latter and get the Knight pieces too.

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