If I had a sandwich for every time someone questioned why I refuse to read English translations of literary works that were originally written in French, you would find my picture in The Guinness Book of World Records under World’s Fattest Woman. Here’s the short answer: there are some things that even the best translator can and probably will screw up. Any other language has words and concepts that do not translate effectively to English.
One example is tutoiement vs. vouvoiment. For those of you who don’t know, French has two ways to say “you.” One for informal situations (tu in subject form, toi in object form), the other for formal situations or referring to more than one person (vous in both subject and object form). Which one a character uses to address an individual can imply several things about their relationship. For example, when Javert re-arrests Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, he tutoies him. Since Valjean is the mayor of the city and most people would vousvous him, this implies that Javert no longer respects his former authority figure. Another implication of tutoiement is shown in Le Petit Prince in the title character’s first encounter with the narrator. When he says, “Dessine-moi un mouton, s’il vous plait,” (Draw me a sheep please) the boy uses the informal verb form and says “please” formally. This implies that though he knows that the narrator is an adult who he should respect, he also sees him as a friend.
Often translation errors even affect titles of books. I bet many of you didn’t know that the correct title of Victor Hugo‘s novel that you know as The Hunchback of Notre Dame is in fact simply Notre Dame de Paris. You may ask “Why does this matter, Lauren?” First of all, I don’t understand why it is necessary to change it like this. If a translator actually thought that the English title of the book means the same thing as merely the name of the cathedral or “Our Lady of Paris,” I think that person needed to get fired. Secondly, anyone who has read it knows that Quasimodo is not the entire focus of the narrative. I have heard interpretations that the cathedral and that Esmeralda are, in fact, the true protagonists. In both of these cases the original title makes more sense than the English one.
Similarly, English versions of Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants Terribles are often titled The Holy Terrors. Maybe I will understand a little better why it is not called The Terrible Children when I read the book, but looking only at the title it makes no sense. Anyone who has read it, please feel free to add feedback on this subject. Since it is a surrealist work, I have heard that it is nearly impossible to translate in the first place.
Mis-translations are an even bigger problem for song lyrics. Just last night I had a discussion with a close friend in which I told her what some audience favorite songs from the musical adaptation of my favorite novel were REALLY saying before they translated them for Anglophone audiences. For example, though Do You Hear the People Sing is moving in English, the original French lyrics are exponentially more powerful. The chorus of A la Volonté du Peuple literally translates as follows:
At the will of the people and the health of progress
Fill your heart with rebel wine and see you tomorrow, loyal friend
We want to make the light despite the mask of the night
To illuminate our world and change the life.
After I sang the original version of I Dreamed a Dream for my school’s senior night I explained to a lot of people that it was even sadder in French, the most powerful lines translating to
I paid with all my tears
the ransom for a small pleasure
to a society who disarms
the victim and not the thief.
In the words of the friend who I shared this with last night, they really dumbed it down for English speakers. For this reason, I’m glad that they didn’t even bother to introduce La Révolution Française, another one of my favorite Boublil and Schonberg shows, to Anglophones.
In conclusion, if you can read or listen in a work’s original language, please do. If you can’t, then it’s fine to get a translation. Just be aware that you’re not getting the whole thing.