Douglas Hofstadter on Translating Francoise Sagan

Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach inspired me greatly when I was a teenager. Reading Hofstadter's essay "Translator, Trader," last night, I learned that I can still be blown away by Hofstadter's combination of vast enthusiasm and sheer intelligence.

In "Translator, Trader," Hofstadter describes having to "internalize" a book before translating it. Before translating Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," he memorized the poem in Russian, by way of making it his own.

At one point the heroine of Françoise Sagan's La Chamade says, "Pourquoi toutes ces questions?" Hofstadter rejects the literal translation "Why all these questions?" and instead goes with "Why the sudden third degree?" I think this is the right choice -- if a woman said to me, "Pourquoi toutes ces questions?" I'd feel that I was about to get crockery thrown at my head. The literal English equivalent just isn't as loaded. This illustrates how mysterious translation is, and prompts the inference that a good translator should have dodged a lot of crockery.

Hofstadter, an Artificial Intelligence visionary, is unimpressed by Google's mechanical translation engine. Rather than "literal" and "loose" translation, he prefers to talk of "cold" and "hot" translation -- but he makes the case that translation can never be completely "cold." Cooking changes the way a foodstuff tastes, and interpretation by a jazz master changes the way a tune sounds. So too, to translate a story is to transform it.

3 thoughts on “Douglas Hofstadter on Translating Francoise Sagan”

  1. >> "Why the sudden third degree?"

    Do you know French and/or have you read the novel? If not, then I don't see on what basis you can call this the right choice. If yes, then it baffles me that you believe Lucile could ever say something like this to Antoine. Finally, using such an obviously American idiom (for which there is no corresponding French saying) may be good Hofstadter but it's definitely poor Sagan.


  2. Another thing Hofstadter discusses in “Translator, Trader” is how much slang is appropriate in a translation. He judges “third degree” to be unobtrusive – which is clearly debatable. Hofstadter also notes that the other English-language translation of La Chamade, by Robert Westhoff, is much more literal or in Hofstadter's sense “colder" than Hofstadter's.

    My French is not good, although I can read novels in French, and I lived in France for a while. If I imagine a voice saying “Pourquoi toutes ces questions?" and a voice saying "Why all these questions?" the first voice sounds angrier – Hofstadter seems to have felt the same way, but I'm sure many would disagree. I will plan on reading La Chamade in the original before I read Hofstadter's translation, then perhaps I'll find myself agreeing with you…

  3. It all depends on how hot or cold you like it; certainly, it's not an exact science. As Doug himself wrote, I prefer the shorter leash while he wants more freedom. This led to countless debates, occasionally heated, but always friendly.

    Doug says that musical performers have a great deal of leeway, so translators should, too. For one thing, performing music and translating words are not at all the same thing. Why? Because between composer and audience, there is a middleman, a performer. Unless I am a pianist, Chopin cannot "speak" to me directly; he needs a "decoder", an interpreter. On the other hand, the author of a book requires no such middleman; every member of the audience is addressed directly. This leaves far less leeway to a translator.

    For instance, when I hear Jacques Loussier's Jazz versions of Bach music (there are two or three wonderful albums called "Play Bach"), it doesn't shock me in the least. On the other hand, when I read Rod McKuen's sirupy translation of Brel's "Le Moribond" (English title: "Seasons in the Sun" — I swear I'm not making this up), then I am profoundly bothered. THe funny thing is that I don't exactly know why.

    But anyway, I'm curious to see what your opinion is after you read the book. It's more a philosophical question, really. There are really no objective rights and wrongs in this; my original comment may therefore have been a bit too harsh. I apologize if that's the way it came across.


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