I recently translated a fun, classic whodunit from French into English for Le French Book. It’s called Treachery in Bordeaux and was written by two Epicurean French men, Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. It is set in, well, Bordeaux. When you hear the name Bordeaux, you think wine. In my case at least. And wine is a large part of the story, and a key element in the whole Winemaker Detective series (there are 20 books to date in French).
Yet, as much as the story is about wine, it is also about place, about Bordeaux, city and region, past and present. Here are five of the ways the authors got across that sense of place.
1) Opening with setting. The authors chose to give an immediate sense of place in the opening paragraph. Note the hint of timelessness:
The morning was cool and radiant. A west wind had swept the clouds far inland to the gentle hills beyond the city of Bordeaux. Benjamin Cooker gave two whistles, one short, the other drawn out, and Bacchus appeared from the high grass on the riverbank… The Médoc was still wild, despite its well-ordered garden veneer, and it would always be that way. In the distance, a few low wisps of fog were finishing their lazy dance along the Gironde Estuary.
2) Focusing on details. Notice the use of something everyone can relate to, which immediately puts the readers right there in Bordeaux itself:
As they approached the limits of Médoc, traffic slowed little by little until it stopped entirely on the boulevards. Construction bogged the city down, disfiguring it everywhere with orange-yellow signs that looked like they belonged in a cheap carnival. Cranes stood with empty hooks, and aggressive bulldozers lumbered like large lazy insects. The tramway—silent, shiny and bright—would soon rise from this tangled mess that had mired the city for several months. Some irritated Bordeaux residents honked without any illusions of being able to move along, while others just put up with it silently.
3) Using the senses. The five of them have this way of grabbing the imagination:
The Rue des Faures smelled of lamb. A heavy aroma of spices and grilled meat rose up in thick swirls from the hodgepodge of Arab shops, suitcase salesmen and faded bistros.
4) Juxtaposing disparate elements. After a scene that advances the story, we return to the same street. Notice the modern and historic all mixed together, and the refined Cooker with his greasy sandwich:
When he stepped out of the workshop, he crossed the Place Saint-Michel and bought a lamb kebab from a tiny take-out. Then he went to sit at the base of the bell tower facing the church. Around him, a group of acne-faced teenagers were playing with a soft-drink can. Young Kabyles from northern Algeria formed another group under a basketball hoop near the Gothic bell tower. On the steps in front of the church, a couple of lovers whispered to each other. Nobody paid any attention to Benjamin Cooker. The sun was warm, and no heads turned to see him savor his too-fatty, too-spicy overcooked sandwich that should have ended up in the first garbage can he found.
5) Using dialogue. Not to be neglected to introduce elements of place:
“This is the first time I’ve been here. I had no idea that the development was so spread out,” Cooker noted, thinking it best to change the subject.
“It’s a ghost town, a concrete cemetery, that’s what it has become! And the middle classes get off on moving into a historical area. It’s all being bought up by architects, doctors, lawyers—people who think they know something. They invest in cultural heritage. Some heritage. Just junk!”
The authors use other techniques as well, such as character descriptions that compare and contrast with preconceived ideas readers may have about a place and the use of a painting compared to an actual place. They are particularly skilled at getting across a sense of actually being there, in the city of Bordeaux in transition, but also in the vineyards. I’d feel I were cheating you if I didn’t give you one more quote from among the actual grapevines:
The winemaker took advantage of the moment to get a closer look at the new cabernet franc stock that had just been planted on a small parcel. Tender sprouts were starting to bud; they would not give clusters for another two or three years. He glanced over the meticulous rows of vines, quickly judging the state of the soil composed of thick Gunz gravel, sand and clay and noted with pleasure that the vineyards had just been plowed. His eyes stopped for a moment on the Haut-Brion estate hilltop that dominated the neighborhood.
I’ll leave you to read it for the descriptions of the wines!
Le French Book is having a special promotion ofTreachery in Bordeaux starting on October 9. They are giving away a trip to France, French wine (of course) and lots of other gifts, and dropped the usual list price for a limited time. Check it out: http://www.treacheryinbordeaux.com
About the authorsJean-Pierre Alaux is a magazine, radio and television journalist when he is not writing novels in southwestern France. He is a genuine wine and food lover, the grandson of a winemaker and exhibits a real passion for wine and winemaking. For him, there is no greater common denominator than wine. He gets a sparkle in his eye when he talks about the Winemaker Detective series, which he coauthors with Noël Balen. Noël lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making records, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic and has authored a number of books about musicians in addition to his novel and short-story writing.
About the translatorThe translator, 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 as much as she loves wine.
Buy links for Treachery in Bordeaux: