Puns in Translation
A guest post by Peter McCambridge

There is a whole range of sighs that only literary translators the world over can hear. Oooph. Seriously? He got to translate that? Really?

Ppphh. And then he translated that like that? Oh dear.

And then there is the most serious one of all. The sound varies from translator to translator but, to the uninitiated, it at first sounds like air escaping from a balloon, our next breath only coming when we’ve come up with at least half a solution. Our hands rattle uncontrollably against our keyboards. We hold on to our mouse like grim death. And above all else we think, Seriously? He didn’t stop to think this book might be translated into English one day. And he squeezes a pun in there? Why? Why? Why?

But by the time we’ve reached the third why—or, on a good day, the second—we’ve usually come up with the answer. Sure, we might mull it over for another month or two. We might run a few ideas past the author. We’ll look up all possibilities in the dictionary, try and shift our brains into top gear, turn to Wikipedia for inspiration, ask a friend or three, break out the coloured pencils, but just as our body begins to notice we’ve stopped breathing, we’ll realize all is not lost. What we’ve come up with just might do the job.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Intralingo, I Hate Hockey, Francois BarceloThe first pun I had to translate for a publisher was, naturally enough, in the first novel I translated: I Hate Hockey by François Barcelo. A bicycle plays a key role in the plot. Towards the end of the book, our hapless narrator sees a bike and he has to know immediately that it belongs to his son. So, in French, the bike is yellow (jaune). And his son is called Jonathan. Do you see where we’re going here? Barcelo’s narrator mentions that he bought him a yellow bike for his fourteenth birthday more or less just to write “À Jaunathan” on his birthday card.

What did I do? I made that sound and then I wrote:

“I don’t see Jonathan’s white mountain bike. (I got him a white one so that I could write “All white, Jonathan?” on the card he got for his fourteenth birthday, although he barely cracked a smile.)”

Geddit? All right? All white? I never said it was the world’s best solution, but it got the job done. Lame joke from Dad? Check. Easily identifiable bike colour? Check.

In the novel I’ve just finished translating, Les Aventures de Radisson, I Intralingo, The Adventures of Radisson, Martin Fournierhad a more straightforward pun to translate, this time courtesy of author Martin Fournier.

“The time has come to make peace with the Hurons also. They are our brothers (frères),” an Iroquois tells a Jesuit missionary, Father Ragueneau.

“Vos frères ennemis,” the Jesuit says to himself.

Which becomes: “‘You are your brother’s keeper,’ Ragueneau muttered to himself.”

The English doesn’t say exactly the same as the French, but in this case I was happy to use a phrase that seemed like something a Jesuit might say and that kept the reference to brothers.

Intralingo, La Fiance Americaine, Eric DupontFinally, there was the time I was translating the first chapter of Eric Dupont’s La fiancée américaine. It is a riot of a novel, full of references to excess and food and sugar and priests and nuns stuffing their faces all the way through Lent.

“Taking one look at the pie, the priest calculated that by sending Michaud on his way and hurrying just a little, he might have time to eat even the tiniest slice of pie, Lent or no Lent. Old Michaud walked into the church five minutes before the priest. And when the priest did appear in the sacristy, he still had crumbs on his belly.”

Then comes the punchline:

“Le sermon fut doux.”

Doux meaning gentle, mild, subdued, or… sweet.

In this case, I cut my losses and moved on. “The sermon was a gentle one.” Yes, we lost the pun in English. But we didn’t replace it with something that only half worked and that drew too much attention to itself.

That said, if you have any better ideas, I’d love to hear them!

Peter McCambridge is a full-time literary translator based in Québec City and has translated a half dozen books from French to English. He recently founded Québec Reads (quebecreads.com), a website that helps bring the best of Québec writing to the English-speaking world.

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