Friday, May 24, 2013

Foibles of French Translation

I have been translating a philosophical article in French on semiotics off-and-on for the last few months, and in the process had the following thought about academic American English vs. Parisian French style, especially as regards prepositions and relative pronouns.

In contemporary academic English, pronoun use is like plumbing. One connects just the right pronoun to just the right verb or noun, where each kind of connection serves a notably different purpose. Meaning flows through the verb+preposition or noun+preposition in directed streams, and good use of relative pronouns and prepositions allows an author to direct attention as well as logical and semantic structures at the level of grammar.

Yet in my experience of recent academic French, especially translation, pronoun use feels like directing traffic. Yes, grammatically French is far more restrictive than English, but in reading and written translation it feels like the rules are rigidly directing traffic while it is up to the reader to navigate the semantic terrain. That is, despite the stricter grammar, I feel the ambiguity and perhaps freedom of French in a way that I do not in English.

As a caveat, while I have some limited immersive experience in Quebecois French, most of my lengthy experience in the French language has been either in a classroom or in translation, and thus my perceptions may be very idiosyncratic. It may be entirely due to the wide differential in my abilities with both languages, but I still find the thought intriguing. 

In a parting thought, years ago my studies of French altered how I write in English, as I returned to writing in clausal structures that haven't been common in English since the Victorian era, yet much more closely match French structures. Specifically, I began using more relative pronoun and preposition combinations for clauses, whereas contemporary English prefers appositive phrases or adverbial phrases functioning as adjectival phrases. I dislike that development in English, for while it is easier to skim, the grammar obscurs the logical and clausal structure of a sentence. That is, adverbial-adjectival phrases and appositive phrases are not grammatically connected with the rest of the sentence, though they must be semantically connected, yet semantic connection is usually not strong enough to support the causal and logical. I might comment later with an example, as I have grown so used to doing without appositive phrases that I cannot think of a good example....

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