What sorts of phrases or words are best left in the original language?
In 2014, Renée Morel and I published Shipwrecked on Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems by Colette. One of the questions that Renée and I mulled over repeatedly in our collaboration was when not to translate—when to leave a word or a phrase in the original language.
We ended up keeping the French wording in a number of instances—never an entire sentence, just a phrase here and there. Sprinkling in a little French seemed to add to the ambiance—to use another French expression—and to intensify the colors of the setting for this collection of fiction and nonfiction by Colette.
I noticed that there were certain areas where keeping a French word or phrase would not confuse the reader, since there are aspects of French geography and culture that are familiar to most readers of English. These categories might be totally different for other languages. For French, these are the areas where it often felt right to keep the original:
- Forms of address
- Geographical locations, particularly in cities often visited by tourists
- Food and drink
- Stock characters from theater or pantomime
Forms of address. There’s a phrase in Colette’s vignette “The Woman Who Sings” [“La Dame Qui Chante”] where an opera singer responds when she is offered a glass during a break:
“Merci bien, monsieur, mais la champagne m’est contraire surtout lorsque je sors de chanter.”
Renée and I translated this sentence as:
“Thank you, monsieur, but champagne doesn’t agree with me, especially just after I sing.”
We debated using the word “sir” for “monsieur,” but it just seemed to suck out the atmosphere from this Paris salon. So we decided to retain the familiar titles “monsieur,” “madame” and “mademoiselle” throughout the book. I can see making a similar choice in Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese, for instance, where the equivalent titles might also be familiar and comprehensible.
Names of streets, parks, neighborhoods, etc. We made similar decisions about locations in Paris. We kept the word “arrondissement,” for instance, rather than use any of the possible English equivalents such as “district,” “quarter” or “borough.” It’s a word that you are perfectly likely to encounter in any English-language guidebook to Paris, so why lose the taste of those beautiful syllables, particularly since only the French would number the districts of their cities in a curling pattern that mimics the shape of a snail, and the word “arrondissement” retains the echo of the word “round.”
We also chose to keep the French for the names of streets and parks, as in: “Saturday she was on a traffic island in the middle of the Rue Royale…” How could you call that Royale Street or Royal Street? And do you capitalize the word “rue,” since the word for “Street” is uppercased in English, but not in French? I think in general it’s jarring not to capitalize a proper name in English, so I prefer to see “Rue” and “Avenue” in caps. Names of well-known parks in Paris such as the Bois de Boulogne we kept in French as well. We also retained “metro” instead of translating that word as “underground” or “subway.”
These choices to leave words in the original are relatively easy in French. Most educated English speakers, even if they’ve never been outside of their own country, have heard of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Translating it as “Avenue of the Elysian Fields” would only confuse. But what about translating the name of a street in China? I would think you would have to include the word “Street” or “Road” after the proper name, rather than only include the Chinese name.
Food and drink. There are French foods and beverages that I wouldn’t translate, again, to give more flavor to the setting. Some examples would be “café au lait,” “coq au vin,” “boeuf bourguignon” (though one could say “beef bourguignon”) “bouillabaisse,” “cassoulet,” etc. The key question for me is whether the dish is commonly known in the English-speaking world.
Stock characters. Because France has such a strong theater tradition, there are certain types of characters from the stage or pantomime that have also come into the English language, and are better left untranslated, such as “Pierrot,” “soubrette” and “ingénue.” I can imagine that with theater, opera or dance vocabulary in other languages, translators might also choose to keep the original words if they are widely known by English speakers.
Currency. Words for currency such as “sou,” “franc” and “louis” I feel work better in the original language, since they are familiar to English-language readers and add to the texture of the translation.
All of the categories just listed seem to call for the translator to exercise restraint and not translate. But there are limits to leaving an expression in the original language. I remember reading an English translation of a work by Colette (I think it was Gigi) where the translator left in French the phrase homard à l’américaine. I can’t tell you how much that annoyed me at the time. I understood that it meant “American-style lobster,” but I wondered how many of the other readers of the translation would know that. Something about leaving that phrase in French smacked of elitism to me. After all, if readers understood that much, why would they need to read an English translation? Sometimes, it’s a mistake to leave the original wording. Like so many things in translation, it’s a judgment call. But that’s what makes translation so fascinating—every word is a judgment call.