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Chaucer en français: The Problem of Retranslation

St Jerome, the patron saint of translators. Claude Vignon (1626). courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Sweden.

In my most recent blog post for the Global Chaucers Project, I promised to talk about how I planned to transform Chaucer back into the original French language that influenced him rather than modernizing everything. And I will get back to that soon, but first I feel the need to say a few words about the process of retranslating Chaucer into French. That is, what does it mean to be not the first but one of many translators who have brought Chaucer’s works to Francophone audiences?

It has not always been easy to find a reliable edition of Chaucer’s work in my native language. I am (obviously) not the first to translate his Middle English, but the existing French editions have made editorial choices that greatly differ from my own vision of how Chaucer could be presented to a Francophone audience. The Canterbury Tales have been translated a few times over the last century for instance, but these attempts have often offered a selection of Tales rather than the whole thing. Some of the translations were in verses, others in prose; some tried to follow Chaucer’s language, others just tried to keep their lines as attuned to modern French conventions as possible. Most were incomplete. None were completely bilingual, with both Chaucer’s Middle English text and the French translation sitting side-by-side. It was just ten years ago that we got our first complete Chaucer in French, thanks to the work of André Crépin[1] and his team[2]. Despite the contributions of this particular edition, translating Chaucer into French still feels like exploring an undiscovered territory.

I want to use this blog posting to show the ways this process of retranslation becomes an essential moment in the history of a work’s reception. When I single-handedly translate the Chaucerian corpus, my retranslation has at its core a paradox absent from the first complete Chaucer into French. Simultaneously, my translation acknowledges the limits of previous translations as a transferential activity, and it contributes to the integration (thanks to the very existence of these successive versions of a work) of the heritage of a foreign language, in this case Middle English, into the receiving language (French). That is, my translation both abandons its predecessors and embraces the linguistic, semantic, and formal legacy they represent. When I started working on this retranslation, I wondered how I ought to deal with this paradox. Should I entirely ignore the work accomplished by former translators, or should I allow the acknowledged voices of my predecessors to appear in my own work? I quickly realized that the particularity of my undertaking was that I am working on my own. If my retranslation were part of a collective effort (such as the one led by Crépin), then it would more naturally participate in the historical chain of translators and their translations. As Yves Chevrel remarks in his Introduction to La Retraduction, such collective tasks seem to reintegrate the translated work into the chain of translations; it recognizes its belonging to a series of translations, to a work in progress whose purpose is to create something closer to the original text than the other translations.[3] It almost stands out in the chain of translations as an academic exercise. Why? Because all members of the team know they are part of a group, of a collective effort. I, on the other hand, am a “lone” translator. Though I of course know my position in the line of Chaucer’s translators, being a lone translator allows me to feel a special connection to the author. I am engaged in a tête-à-tête with an artist whose vision I plan to faithfully reproduce in (an earlier version of) my native language. In a recent interview with Margaret Jull Costa, Veronica Esposito neatly summarizes the lone retranslator’s position:

That’s just what retranslations are about—the arrogance, or maybe the courage, to try and bring a new eye and ear to an author whom we think we know so well. And that’s a great thing about translation: the major texts are so rich that they can sustain the eyes and ears of many, many translators.

So, should I ignore previous translations? Not really. It is because I have access to these attempts that I can continue to adjust our reception of Chaucer (his style, content, and language) in French. He managed to assimilate England’s French heritage, and now the French are trying to digest him back, a rather ironic state of affairs. Anyway, as I keep on translating him, I learn from the successes and stumbles of my predecessors. I follow their leads sometimes, but most of the time I choose my own way. The most important part, as far as I am concerned, is not losing sight of the text, of what Chaucer actually wrote, without surrendering my voice to his genius. As Jean-Yves Masson explains in his paper “Territoire de Babel, Aphorismes, “If the translation respects the original text, it can and must even dialogue with it, face it and oppose it. The dimension of respect does not involve the annihilation of the one respecting his own respect. The translated text is first an offering made to the original text.”[4] What does that mean? Well, even though I try to follow Chaucer as closely as possible and wish to offer some sort of linguistic transfer from Middle English to French via Middle French (I promise I will get back to this point in a later post), I sometimes have to face Chaucer and express what he says in a slightly different way: I have to reorganize some lines to disambiguate meaning or double the length of a sentence to fit a ten- or eight-foot line into its French equivalent. Sometimes I have to confront his twentieth-century editors and change their imposed punctuation (say, turning semicolons into full stops or adding exclamation points) to make the content clearer or dialogues more lively. In the concrete exercise of translation, the translator is systematically confronted with choices, bothered by contradictory imperatives (in my case, turning Chaucer’s poetry in poetical prose) that need to be hierarchized and addressed. That challenge means I must keep the meaning, duplicate the rhythm (if possible), and reproduce the metaphors—all at the same time. As these little assignments pile up as bricks and turn into a labyrinth, I can find my way in it only by following my own voice, remembering all the while that the author’s voice, too, is my guide—and remaining aware that either voice can lead me to an impasse.

-- This blog post was written for and first published on Global Chaucers. --

[1] Chaucer, Geoffrey, Les Contes de Canterbury et autres œuvres, trans. André Crépin, et al. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2010.

[2] Jean-Jacques Blanchot, Florence Bourgne, Guy Bourquin, D.S. Brewer, Hélène Dauby, Juliette Dor, Emmanuel Poulle, and James I. Wimsatt.

[3] “Introduction”, La Retraduction, ed. Robert Kahn and Catriona Seth. Rouen: Publication des universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2010, p. 15.

[4] “Si la traduction respecte l’original, elle peut et doit même dialoguer avec lui, lui faire face, et lui tenir tête. La dimension du respect ne comprend pas l’anéantissement de celui qui respecte son propre respect. Le texte traduit est d’abord une offrande faite au texte original.”

J.-Y. Masson, “Territoire de Babel. Aphorismes.”, Corps écrit, 36, 1990, p. 158.

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