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French embraces the abstract much better than English

Translator George Miller explains the process of turning French-language novels into English ones, in conversation with The Connexion

In-demand translator George Miller (pictured above) has worked out he has translated close to a million words for Le Monde Diplomatique’s English-language edition over the years.

French author Delphine de Vigan told Connexion she is lucky to have a translator like Mr Miller who knows her style well and gives an accurate portrayal of her work. His latest translation of her book Loyalties was published in January.

He studied French at Oxford, and spent many years working as an editor for Oxford University Press and Granta Books.


How did you get into literary translation?

I studied French at university and then went into publishing so I wasn’t using my language professionally, but I kept it up by reading and visiting France.

When I was working at Granta, I had a book which I really wanted to publish and I needed to do it quickly but I did not have a translator so I thought I would do it myself.

It was following 9/11 and was about Al-Qaeda and their sympathisers in Paris written by an Algerian journalist, Mohamed Sifaoui, who had infiltrated those circles undercover and was writing about their beliefs. The book was doing well in France. So I thought, it is quite short, it is journalistic, I have a degree in French, how hard can it be?

Did you find it came easily as you know French well?

I had done some translating in my degree and kept up my French, but you find that translation is a different skill from just reading something in a foreign language and understanding it.

You then have to put it into words in your own language. Taking it from the stage where you understand and putting it into words which are comprehensible and approachable and accurate and fluid, that is something new you have to develop and that you have to exercise.

The main challenge, was to know how closely I should stick to the original, word for word.

How flexible can you be?

Friends have said to me that surely the number of words in a translation is the same as the number of words in French, but what you are doing is translating the ideas rather than the individual words.

I am in favour of being flexible so it reads as naturally in English as in French. You are trying to replicate the effect rather than stick to word order.

That means you need to know the language you are translating extremely well, to know its nuances and what different expressions mean.


How do you keep up your French, particularly as you live in the UK, not France?

I have a lot of contact with French journalists because my main bread and butter translation work is for Le Monde Diplomatique and I can ring up a journalist and ask them the particular significance of this or that word or expression. They are always very helpful. 

I also have a dog and I love listening to podcasts while I am out walking. I listen to France Culture radio and, of course, this is just one particular kind of language but you have to be pragmatic. 

I specialise in political journalism and literature. I might not perhaps be able to translate slang from Marseille or Lyon, for example.

The internet is a wonderful resource. I use the Oxford English Dictionary which is available online free and you can really burrow into the history of a word and learn all the connotations and the way the meanings have changed. Likewise, there are similar French resources.

I can also put in an expression in either language into a search engine and find out what it really means. You have to have that mindset to be a translator. You’ve really got to love words, their subtlety and their variety. A lot of it is getting the feel of how the language is working, both the French and the English.


How do you tackle translating a whole novel?

I like to read the whole book first to get an idea of its shape and its sense.

I will then put down a first draft, which will be a horrible thing and I would not let anybody else have a look at it. It is like the initial scaffolding for a building. Some of it will remain, but some of it will have to be torn down and repointed.

Maybe a better metaphor might be a sculpture as you first carve out the rough shape of the block, but you know it will need a lot of polishing and working on.

I do not know quite how many times I will have gone over one of Delphine de Vigan’s books, probably six before the editor and she will have seen it, and up to four after that. You know when it is not quite ready because it does not feel as if it is living and breathing and fluid enough yet. It has still got those bumps. 

The dialogue might flow but then there will be an expression, and you think you have not quite solved that, there is a word order that jars. There follows a collaborative process with the editor and with Delphine. We try not to be perpetually running back and forth to the author, but we will give her around three-dozen questions to ask her the nuance of this or that phrase or word.

Then it will be read by a copy reader and then go into print. A short novel might take three to six months, and a longer book six to nine months, though not working on it full time.


What have you learned about the two languages by working with both of them?

This might be skewed from the kind of text I work on, and not the same approach or conclusion when dealing with the kind of language you need to go to the garage to get your tyres changed. But I do think French has a greater ease with embracing abstraction than English which tends towards the Anglo Saxon and the robust and the pragmatic.

One of my challenges is that I can understand what the author means but it is difficult to find the right words in English. It might just be describing something simple such as the movement of a head, but to replicate the simple way in which it has been written in French might be difficult in English.


I do translations for tourist brochures and I find the French is too florid for English tastes. Would you agree?

It does almost become second nature taking away some of the poetry when you translate into English.

Even with the newspaper we will take away flourishes in the French, which we will just find too frilly in English.


If you want to read a French classic in translation, Madame Bovary for example, is it important to choose the right translation?

I think it is important to get a good translation but I think the standard of translation is very high now. Maybe if you were looking for one in the 1920s there might have been some ropey ones, but if you read a translation published by Penguin or Oxford and the New York Review of Book classics series readers can have a pretty high level of confidence that it will be a faithful and intelligent version.


Is it satisfying to be able to come up with the right words to translate a language?

Yes, if you didn’t have some sense of achievement in thinking you had done your best so it can go out in the world, it would be hard to sustain the energy to go through a long text.

It’s nice to know another language. Sometimes when I am listening to a podcast and forget it is in French and am just interested in what they are saying, I think, ‘oh that is good’, and it is like having a secret superpower, even though it is of no everyday use here in Somerset!

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