À Propos: Memories of The Lover

ata-fld-newsletter-logoHave you ever had a lover?  Have you ever been a lover?  Or, perhaps a better question, is there someone who is the love(r) of your life?  Have you ever lived or dreamed a love so beautiful, so real, that it could not have possibly existed?  Are you haunted by memories of what was or what could have been?   Some nights, maybe only in your dreams, does that become your reality?  Do you wonder what love really is?  What it looks like?  How it smells?  How it feels?  Reading L’Amant (The Lover) by Marguerite Duras brings up these questions and more.  Written in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, The Lover skyrocketed the already well-known Duras to international acclaim.  Its theme of forbidden but powerful love continues to resonate with readers today.

The Lover is the story of a poor, white, 15-year-old French girl living in French-colonized Indochina (present-day Vietnam) in the early 20th century. She falls in love—or, if you don’t believe it’s love, has a torrid physical affair with—a rich, 27-year-old Chinese man.  China’s colonization over Vietnam has been shattered by the French, and those people remaining are permitted to stay, in part because of their wealth or contributions.  These two broken and resilient people come from vastly different worlds.  They could never connect.  Yet, here she is, alone.  He’s intrigued, she’s amazing.  Nothing could possibly come of this.  Or could it?

Could such a love be real?  Could a poor little abused white girl in colonized Vietnam really fall in love with an older, rich and powerful rich Chinese man?  Could he love her?  Is this just a form of prostitution? After all, he gives her money to give her family, and he enjoys a sexual relationship with his would-be colonizer, reversing, challenging, and twisting traditional roles of race, power, and gender. (This is a generalization, but traditionally, the Chinese were, and perhaps still are, hated by the Vietnamese.)

It is the story of love, yes, but also of survival and death: the girl survives her father’s death, an abusive family, the death of her beloved brother, and more.  And she loves.  She loves her French roommate at boarding school.  She loves her brother.  And then there is her lover.  Our protagonists have no names, which creates a kind of slippage, allowing the reader to enter the text in a way.  The open language, lapses, white spaces, and wide margins (in traditionally type-set editions) allow those who have been marginalized, those with no voices, to enter and speak.  In fact, Duras’s writing style, characterized as l’écriture feminine by noted French feminist Hélène Cixous, creates a cloud-like world where time loses meaning.

The language is deceptively simple.  The narrative, however, does not follow a linear train of thought.  Instead, the story weaves around an aged narrator whose face has been ravaged by time and alcoholism and who reminisces about her “true” self and the infinite incarnations of that self throughout her life.  The text invites the reader into her world.  We are there when her brother dies, when her best friend leaves to get married, when she is excited about school, when she remembers her mother singing.  It is fuzzy at first, and the reader is disoriented.  But let it go.  Go with it.  Let it wash over you like the waves along the Mekong.  Imagine the bustle and smells of the Cholen, the section of Saigon known as Chinatown.  Feel the warm sun and the cool shade of the lovers’ love nest.  You will be taken on an incredible journey into a world that explores the very nature of memory, love, power, betrayal, and reconciliation.

Truth is somewhat elusive in this powerful text.  In some interviews, Duras claimed the text was autobiographical, but the text is classified as a work of fiction.  There are contradictions in the text that always bother my students, but to me, these differences explore the concept of memory, how it changes, and how it works against us as time passes.  Our cherished memories lose part of their reality as we write them, rewrite them, and replay them in our attempts to relive them and hold on to them.  The truth is lost.  We can feel it slipping away sometimes, causing us to hold on tighter.  We attempt another revision or ignore any disparities until there is no longer an outside perspective.  We look in the mirror and no longer see the adult we have become; only we can still see the young girl or boy, perhaps naïve and ignorant in their world view but worldly all the same and ready to embark on an adventure.download film Walk with Me 2017 now

The narrator looks in the mirror and sees not the woman withered from age and trauma but her true self, herself at fifteen and a half.  I can too see this girl boldly crossing the Mekong on a ferry wearing her threadbare hand-me-down silk dress, a man’s pink fedora, her brother’s belt, and gold lamé high-heeled shoes.  The wind is blowing her braided hair.  Her face is warmed by the hot Vietnamese sun as water splashes against the boat.  Then she notices the black limousine, hiding the silhouette of a delicate Chinese man.

Their story is one that I recommend you read.  Be prepared for confusion, twists, and challenges.  Be prepared to have your memory stimulated.  Your past loves and lovers may come to mind as you navigate this beautiful and tragic world.  The text haunts me, in the best ways.  The last few pages, especially the last paragraph, always give me shivers.  My students do always not understand; most have not been or had lovers.  They have not been all-consumed.  They still like the text but they wonder.  They have questions.  As someone with some experience in life, I have some answers.  My answer is yes.

Gay Rawson

Dr. Gay Rawson is a professor of French with over 20 years of teaching, translating and interpreting experience.  Twentieth-century French literature is one of her many passions.

À Propos: Synonyms in French

ata-fld-newsletter-logo French is a language that makes liberal use of synonyms. Et pour cause. Synonyms add variety to writing.

But the French don’t seem to be content with simply using the occasional word having the same (or nearly the same) meaning as another in the language. They use these “lexical stand-ins” at every possible turn.

More accurately, many of these lexical substitutes are metonyms. A metonym is a figure of speech in which a person or thing is called by another name rather than its own. (Think about how many times you’ve seen l’Elysée used to refer to the French government.)

Consider a recent article I read about a French soccer player. In the span of 79 words, the writer referred to Charles N’Zogbia as Charles N’Zogbia, le gaucher, and l’ancien Havrais. (He used to play for Le Havre AC.)

In fact, instead of using only [player’s name] and a pronoun [il, elle] for variety, French writers invariably name the player by other means. These include the use of demonyms (le Francilien, la Bulgare) as well as position or ranking (l’ailier, la 2e mondiale).

Of course, we see this in English sports journalism, too—“the power forward,” “the LSU alum”—but my suspicion is that it’s a writing technique not used to the same degree as in French.

Politics is another realm in which synonyms are widely used. As you would expect, you see titles and positions used (both to provide information and to avoid the repetition of the person’s name), as in président le la CMP and le député du Nord. But you also see sentences like the following:

Aucune majorité n’étant dégagée sur ce point, l’élu a jugé vain de poursuivre plus avant la séance.

Can you think of a single English article in which you’ve seen the term “the elected [one]” used to refer to a politician?

Synonyms abound in financial writing—especially, it seems, in articles about the stock market. Take the English word “increase,” for example. You might see it used in an article about a stock index of a particular country. Read a French article about the same topic and you’re likely to see not only augmenter, but s’élever, en hausse, monter en flèche, prendre son essor, and perhaps s’intensifier, s’amplifier, se développer, and se multiplier.

Mais le comble ? In an article in Science & Vie magazine by French science writer Lise Barnéoud titled “Vers la fin des grands arbres,” les grands arbres are referred to in almost twenty different ways: as doyens de la nature, maîtres de l’espace et du temps, rois des forêts, and titans ligneux, to name a few. (You can read my post “18 Ways to Say ‘Large Trees’ in French” for the other phrasal synonyms that she uses.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on “synonym density” between French and English. (Corpus linguists, consider that an idea for your next academic paper!) But I suspect that the French use synonyms, metonyms, and other lexical stand-ins more frequently than Americans.

Matthew Kushinka

Matthew Kushinka is a French-to-English translator and the owner of RedLine Language Services LLC, a company that offers translation, copyediting, and formatting services to commercial clients

If you have comments or links to other articles about this topic, please write me at matthew@redlinels.com. I’d love to see some numbers on the subject.

À Propos: Book Review – La billebaude


The week before we left Paris, my husband and I went to Boulinier on boulevard Saint-Michel and bought several boxes’ worth of two-euro paperbacks from the sale bins. We knew that finding books in French wasn’t going to be easy in the US, and as voracious readers, we stocked up like soldiers preparing for a siege and shipped them all tarif livres to my parents’ house in Oregon. We chose books at random: some classics, some we thought we’d heard of, maybe, and others that just had good titles or intriguing cover art. Now, nine years later, we’re still working our way through that literary plunder. One of my favorite recent discoveries from the pile is a best-selling 1978 memoir by Henri Vincenot called La billebaude.

 As a little boy, Henri Vincenot lived with his grandparents in rural Burgundy, which he proudly refers to as “the rooftop of Europe.” They taught him care and respect for the land, and for the flora and fauna that provided for them so richly. Young Henri is fed on potée au lard, bouilli (pot de feu), carpe farcie à l’oseille, boudin, paté, and poule en sauce blanche, all with plenty of fresh cream. He learns at a very young age how to butcher meat and take care of the farm animals. But he is also fascinated with the people that fill his world, from the local lord and his manor to a grandmother who can magic away eczema, to a beautiful cousin who is a wet nurse in Paris. The person he admires and idolizes most is his grandfather, “Le Tremblot,” an expert hunter and woodsman who knows the region by heart and whose skills are renowned by villagers and lords alike. Le Tremblot practices la chasse à la billebaude, an adventurous style of hunting based on taking chances and on knowing the land and the ways of its animals.

As a once-vegetarian and lifelong animal lover, I have never been interested in reading about hunting. And believe me, there are a lot of hunting scenes in La billebaude. But Vincenot’s enthusiasm and passion are hard to resist. His descriptions of the hunters’ efforts are detailed and colorful, and the in-depth understanding of nature that Le Tremblot shares with his grandson is so remarkable that I found myself drawn in scene after scene.

Vincenot also offers us a child’s point of view on other aspects of village life: the tall-tale stories told by Le Tremblot and his friends; neighbors joking and teasing as they help each other with the harvest or with repairs; the excitement of welcoming visitors to the village; the arrival of new machines and other suspicious innovations; the enormous, delicious traditional holiday meals; the solemn, otherworldly elegance of church. I felt like I too was five years old, taking it all in with wide eyes. And when young Henri, cursed with strong academic ability, is forced to leave Le Tremblot and his beloved village and forests behind for boarding school in the city, my heart ached for him.

To complete our transportation into the land of Vincenot’s childhood, La billebaude is filled with Burgundian words that even the hardiest, most experienced translators and interpreters may not recognize. Some of my favorites were piolé (freckled), les chauds-réfrédis (pleurisy), and les encolpions (magician’s tools). In the Folio edition, footnotes are included to help with most of these terms. But even the ones that forced me to stop reading and put my research skills to the test were fun, because they added so much regional and historical flavor to the tale.

Vincenot does have a tendency to slip into lecture mode, bemoaning our noisy, crowded and polluted industrial society and insisting that everything was better in the olden days. But having joined him in imagination as he tracked wild deer across the Burgundy hills, explored the rich forests of the Auxois region, and stuffed himself on delectable plats du terroir, I tended to sympathize with him. In fact, many of his beliefs fit right into current environmentalist thought. Others are a little harder to swallow, such as his comment that the women in his village were content with serving the men and staying in the kitchen, and were much happier than modern “emancipated” women. But on the whole his story made me nostalgic, not for my noisy, crowded and polluted life in Paris, but for a rough, sweet life I’ll never know, in a village that once existed in a quiet corner of France.


Arwen Dewey

Arwen Dewey lives in Seattle, WA where she works as a singer, actor and freelance translator specializing in the arts.

À Propos: Book Review – Le Livre des Baltimore


Je regarde regulièrement « La grande librairie », l’émission de François Busnel sur TV5 Monde. Ce journaliste invite des écrivains qui viennent de sortir un livre, de gagner le Prix Goncourt, etc. J’avais donc déjà vu Joël Dicker parler de son dernier roman, qui m’avait semblé intéressant.

Apparemment, Dicker est devenu une célébrité après avoir publié son premier roman (« La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert »), paru en 2012. Ce grand succès en librairie, alors que son auteur n’avait que 27 ans, avait fait l’admiration de tout le monde. Peut-être pas tout le monde cependant, car dans Le Monde des livres, Eric Chevillard donne un avis non edulcoré à propos de Joël Dicker :
« L’ombre de Philip Roth plane au-dessus de cette laborieuse entreprise romanesque. Joël Dicker croit réécrire Pastorale américaine (Gallimard, 1999), mais il nous donne plutôt un nouvel épisode du Club des cinq honorablement troussé. »

J’ai la chance d’avoir une très bonne amie française qui me prête toutes sortes de livres. On échange des bouquins tout le temps. Nous sommes toutes les deux des lectrices toujours avides de bonnes lectures et constamment en quête de nouveautés dont nous espèrons nous régaler. Elle m´a donné cette fois, non pas le premier roman de Joël Dicker, mais Le Livre des Baltimore, paru l’année dernière. Je n’en attendais pas trop car je prefère les livres français qui me parlent de la France et de ce qui se pase en France, plutôt que la lecture d’un écrivain suisse francophone écrivant sur la Nouvelle Angleterre et l’Amérique. Pour cela, je prefère des Américains comme Jonathan Franzen ou Jeffrey Eugenides, ou même John Fante, qui est un grand écrivain.

Mais Joël Dicker a vécu et étudié aux États-Unis et connaît bien les endroits dont il parle dans son roman. Il est capable de créer un roman crédible qui est une espèce de polar. Ce n’est pas un « roman de plage », comme les trilogies de Katherine Pancol. Joël Dicker, lui, cultive le « Thriller ».

Grande a été ma surprise parce que l’histoire est vraiment intéressante et que Dicker sait très bien maintenir le suspense jusqu’à la fin. J’adore les livres qu´on a du mal à laisser de côté avant de s’endormir le soir. Celui-là en fait partie. J´ai donc décidé de chercher son premier bouquin et de le lire aussi.

J’ai toujours une longue liste de livres à lire, cela me permet notamment de maintenir mon niveau dans les langues que je connais. Je trouve que la lecture aide beaucoup à ne jamais perdre de vue la beauté et la saveur des mots. Le travail quotidien de la traduction de textes techniques arides et sans âme tétanise un peu nos sens. Parfois, j’ai même besoin d’un peu de poésie, mais pour cela, je lis en espagnol. D’autres fois, je copie et je collectionne des lignes particulièrement belles qui m’ont fait chaud au cœur et que je ne veux jamais oublier. La bonne lecture est très enrichissante, on traduit mieux, on découvre de nouveaux mondes, des modes de vie, des moeurs différents, etc. Le livre est une fenêtre ouverte sur les complexités intérieures et extérieures de la vie des gens. Mais je digresse.

Joël Dicker raconte une histoire de famille, en particulier le lien entre les cousins avec lesquels le protagoniste a fondé le « Gang des Goldman ». Au fil des flashbacks, le roman se construit autour d’un mystérieux « drame », qui forme le cœur de l’histoire. Des « twists and turns », il y en a beaucoup.

Il y a eu un bref échange sur la page Facebook de l’ATA French Division en ce qui concerne le style d’écriture de Dicker. J’ai vu des commentaires sur son « American feel ». Quelques-uns pensent que son français semble avoir été traduit de l’anglais. Je crois que Dicker est un auteur multilingue, comme beaucoup de Suisses, d’ailleurs. Peut-être que cela exerce une certaine influence linguistique sur son écriture, c’est possible. Ce n’est peut-être pas de la grande litérature, mais c’est incontestablement une lecture agréable et vivante, je dirais même dynamique.

Anamaria Argandona

Anamaria Argandona is an English & French into Spanish translator. She can be found on Twitter at @translates or www.spanishtrans.com.