31 mars 2016

ENG - Translating Chester Himes

One of the labels in this blog is Translation. It may be surprising for the English-speaking readers who are not familiar with the translations of Chester Himes in French, Spanish, Portuguese, or other languages, nor aware there might be a problem about these translations.

For the French, it is of crucial importance. Himes' novels were read in France and in French through the mediation of a team of translators, who though they sometimes were not professional translators (or more accurately because they were not professional translators) had be chosen by Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel himself, the director of the famous Série Noire, the Gallimard collection, was a well-known translator without an academic education.

The situation of Himes in relation to the Série Noire is particular: Himes' novels were not translated into French after being published in English. They were written for the Série Noire and Himes worked - in a certain way - on commission. Thus there were less cuts in Himes' novels than in some other authors' works. In his introduction to the English edition of the first three novels of the Harlem domestic novels, Melvin Van Peebles shows Himes' work method: "He pointed to the two neat piles on either side of the typewriter and explained that before he started one of his 'detective stories' or 'action novels' as he insisted on calling them, he would count out 220 pieces of carbon paper and 440 pieces of typing paper. He would then place a sheet of carbon paper between every two sheets of typing paper so that way he would have an original and a copy of each page that he completed. He would then put the untouched pile on the right hand side of his typewriter and begin to bang away. After he finished typing a page he would put it down on the pile at his left. (…) 'When the pile on the right hand side begins to get low I know it's time to start winding the story up."[1]

Still Himes wrote in English and had to be translated. The language the Série Noire translators produced, meant to be an equivalent of Himes' language, highly contributed to the success of his novels in France. It draws upon the Parisian slang (argot). In the issue of 813 dedicated to Chester Himes, the French translator Pierre Bondil acknowledges that Himes is not easy to translate but reports the over-use of Parisian argot to render the black vernacular, and numerous treasons of the style and rhythm of Himes' language.[2]

It is no use criticizing these translations. They belong to a general cultural era (ignorance of the American culture and particularly of the African American culture;  distrust regarding America in the cold war period). They also belong to a certain cultural and economical context of the Série Noire itself.

Gallimard revised these translations in 2007 (Quarto collection). Still a totally new version, with different fundamental choices is something to dream about.

Portuguese and Spanish translations of the titles of several novels have been reviewed in this blog. As one can see with the different versions of The Heat's On, unlike the French version they were translated from the titles Himes chose for the later American publication of his books.

[1] Chester Himes, The Harlem Cycle, volume 1, Edinbourgh, Cannongate Books, 1996.
[2] Special issue of 813 dedicated to Himes.

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