A love-hate relationship

Translating written work is one of my most, and least, favorite things. On the one hand, I hate reading things in translation. It's just not the same. Particularly since the sorts of fiction I like tend to be full of puns and wry, clever phrasing -- it's just not possible to get both the tone and the content of the joke the same every time. 'Stuff I can't read' is one of my very biggest pet peeves, and because I am crazy, every time I run into something I desperately want to read and can't I fix the problem by learning another language. My taste in literature runs to old and drôle, so the tongues I have cover most of the series I know about, but I'm sure I'm missing a fantastic line of snarky adventure novels in Indonesian or something.

Because I have had my nose in the Arsène Lupin books again, and I have a number of friends who don't speak very much French who would nevertheless love the things, I have sat down to try to bring some of the stories across into English. While reading translations annoys me no end, especially when they have no footnotes, creating translations is another thing entirely. There is something very satisfying about taking a passage in one language and re-crafting it in another, rummaging through all of the expressions I know until I can find two phrases that say very nearly the same thing in very nearly the same way. I am very precise in technical translations, where the accuracy of the content is more important than the beauty of the presentation, but when I bring across song lyrics, poetry, or fictional prose, the literal correspondence is much looser. Sometimes it's more important to put across the correct feel than it is to use the absolute closest synonym.

It is especially so when translating Leblanc. The narrator has a quirky sense of humor, and on top of that dear Arsène has his own peculiar way of talking -- he sounds not unlike Lord Peter Wimsy, only not in English and with less actual piffle used as filler. He's not necessarily voluble, but he does like finding the right word or phrase for the job, even if it means constructing it out of other word-parts that the French language just keeps leaving around for anyone to use. The humor in his viewpoint comes not infrequently from using words which have two perfectly correct, perfectly useful meanings at the same time, much like his fellow thief Simon Templar's observation that his favorite part of the law was "the pleasantly musical noise it made when he broke it". Explanations ruin these things as fast as they ruin knock-knock jokes, and the challenge comes from trying to rephrase it in English so the sly humor is obvious.

The people I'm translating these things for are also Sherlockians, to a greater or lesser degree, so I'm only planning to bring across the Lupin stories that feature Sherlock Holmes. (Well, "Herlock Sholmés", in deference to ACD kicking up a fuss. The name change fooled no one and since both characters are in the public domain now, I'm taking the liberty of changing everything back.) If anyone is interested, speak up and I'll post them here.


  1. I am interested! I am just now getting into Sherlock Holmes, and would love some more stories. And if you can point me to the original French, I'll brush off my skills and see what happens :-)

    1. Several of the originals, and almost all of the old translations, are at Project Gutenberg, as is almost everything in the Holmes canon. Copyright law is hideous, but in the US, anything published prior to 1925 is in the public domain; French law protects works for something like 50-60 years (unless you're mort pour la France -- died in service to your country -- in which case your work gets a few more decades of coverage). The only thing in either series that is still under copyright is "The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes", published 1927.

      If there are some you can't scare up yourself, let me know. I think I have all of the above as .mobi for Kindle.

      If you're interested in Holmes on-screen, incidentally, the Granada Television series, starring Jeremy Brett, is widely considered to be the best and most faithful adaptation of the original stories, set in the original era. Netflix has all of it on both DVD and streaming.


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