Gregoire Bouillier
Grégoire Bouillier

I used to use as my standard example of why translation is hard — and why fully automatic high-quality translation (FAHQT) is unlikely in our lifetimes however old we are — the translation of the first word of the first sentence of the first book of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The example isn’t mine. Brown et al. cite a 1988 New York Times article about the then-new translation by Richard Howard. Howard chose to translate the first word of the work, longtemps, as time and again (rather than, for example, the phrase for a long time as in the standard Moncrieff translation) so that the first word time would resonate with the temporal aspect of the last word of the last volume, temps, some 3000 pages later. How’s that for context?

I now have a new example, from the Lorin Stein translation of Grégoire Bouillier‘s The Mystery Guest. Stein adds a translator’s note to the front matter “For reasons the reader will understand, I have refrained from translating the expression ‘C’est le bouquet.’ It means, more or less, ‘That takes the cake.’” That phrase occurs on page 14 in the edition I’m reading.

The fascinating thing is that the reader does understand, fully and completely, why the translator chose this route. But the reason is, more or less, because of a sentence that occurs on page 83, a sentence that shares no words with the idiom in question. True the protagonist perseverates on this latter sentence for the rest of the novella, but still, I challenge anyone to give an explanation in less than totally abstract terms, as far from the words actually used as you can imagine, to explain the reasoning, perfectly clear to any reader, of why the translator made this crucial decision.

Language is ineffable.