I recently founded Le French Book, an independent publisher dedicated to bringing readers around the English-speaking world, “French books you’ll love in English.” My husband found that tagline. I found our motto: “If we love it, we’ll translate it.”Because I’m the one doing some of the translation. I have many years of translating behind me, but when I took on our first crime fiction novel, The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier, I encountered some unique challenges that required some creative thinking, a lot of research, and then, well, some real questioning about what we were trying to do. That is where I found the answer.
The Paris Lawyer is a legal procedural set in France. The heroine is a rookie lawyer who takes on a big felony case, pro bono, to boost her career and ends up having to confront her own past. It’s a great book. It’s well written. I love it. So what was the problem?
Well, France and the United States have very different court systems. Lawyers do not do the same thing. Court procedure is different. The very purpose of a trial diverges. Oh dear, oh dear.
My worries began when I was walking around the outside of the Palais de Justice in Paris, getting a feel for the place, since the main character is a lawyer and some scenes take place there. It occurred to me as I did so that there is no way you can translate “Palais de Justice” by “courthouse,” which is not nearly grand enough for this edifice. Justice has been dispensed in this building since medieval times. It still holds the Sainte Chapelle, the chapel of the royal palace that once stood here, not to mention the Conciergerie, the former prison where Marie-Antoinette was held before losing her head (literally). OK, OK, none of these details actually impact the story. I ended up making the decision that the story is more important. I called it the courthouse. That’s what it was for the main character.
But then how would I deal with the defendant standing at a bar in front of three judges, not one, who are the ones firing out questions, while the lawyer stands on the side? That is court procedure in France, so there was no question of changing it. I had to make sure that the differences came across smoothly, without them keeping the reader from enjoying the story. I had to find ways to make sure the characters or context explained things, explained that in France, the court appearance is more a ritual confrontation with the law than it is for presenting evidence and facts. This is because there is a prior inquiry during which several judges have actually made a decision. I had to work with the French author to make sure that these adaptations did not denature the story.
Long-time translator David Bellos, in his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, writes that translators are matchmakers, because ultimately, they “find matches, not equivalences…in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve as an overall substitute for the source.” Ultimately this means recreating a reading experience, so it brought me back to the very important question, “What are we trying to do here?” Our goal with Le French Book is to publish entertaining books, my goal as a translator is to make sure the read in English gives the same shivers of expectation, longing to read more and pangs of emotions. I had to make sure nothing took the reader out of the story or undermined suspension of disbelief. Imagine my satisfaction when Edgar Award-winning author Thomas H. Cook read the translation and said it was“beautifully written” and that “it captures the reader from the first page and never lets go.”
Le French Book is so excited about The Paris Lawyer that they are giving away a trip to France and lots of free books, surprises and gifts just to celebrate. This party starts on September 18. Go see for yourself: Great promotion from Le French Book (http://www.theparislawyer.com)
About Anne Trager: Anne Trager has lived in France for over 26 years, working in translation, publishing and communications. In 2011, she woke up one morning and said, “I just can’t stand it anymore. There are way too many good books being written in France not reaching a broader audience.” That’s when she founded Le French Book to translate some of those books into English. The company’s motto is “If we love it, we translate it,” and Anne loves crime fiction.
About Sylvie Granotier: Author, screenwriter and actress Sylvie Granotier loves to weave plots that send shivers up your spine. She was born in Algeria and grew up in Paris and Morocco. She studied literature and theater in Paris, then set off traveling—the United States, Brazil, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, ending with a tour of Europe. She wound up in Paris again, an actress, with a job and some recognition. But she is a writer at heart, and started her publishing career translating Grace Paley’s short story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute into French. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France. Sylvie splits her time between Paris and the Creuse.
The Paris Lawyer: