How to identify particularly good French translations of English books?
April 9, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

My SO prefers reading in French, and I'm introducing her to some of my favourite English-language books. Is there a site somewhere that I can use to look up which books are agreed to have really great translations from English to French?

Her English is good enough that she can check how good a French to English translation is before making a recommendation to me. My French is nowhere near good enough to do that for her, so I'd like to be able to gauge the quality of a translation before handing over a book.

I don't know much about translating but I assume that judgement of the "best" or "good" translations of fiction books will be mostly subjective, and that's OK. Perhaps an experienced reviewer, or some sort of voting/public review site? Or collated comments from authors? For example, I've read that Terry Pratchett has been told the German version of one of his books is actually funnier, and that George Orwell preferred the first French translation of "Down and Out..." over the second.
posted by metaBugs to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately I do not know of such a site. If it does exist, it would probably be as a forum of French literary fans of English authors.

I can give you some examples of good and bad translations that may help your search.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was translated from the original English into French by the author's parents, Nicole and Émile Martel, who are both native French speakers. To me this would indicate that the tone and context of the original are probably as close as it can be. It also helps that the author's father is himself a writer who won the Governor General's Award for French-language poetry in 1995.

I have not read it in French but apparently the translations of Game of Thrones / Song of Fire and Ice is not true to the original. For example, "Dire Wolf" is translated by the French word for "Werewolf" and "She must be in mourning" is translated by "She must be desperate". The books still sold a ton in France but to those that could read both languages, the translation was far inferior.

Another example of bad translation is the series Wheel of Time by Robert Jordon. In that case it was just so generally bad that the translated books did not sell at all in France. There is even an editor that recently bought the French distribution rights and is having them re-translated in hopes of recuperating some sales.

One series that is usually agreed to be very well translated is Harry Potter.
posted by TinTitan at 8:02 PM on April 9, 2014

I don't know a particular site, but you might get good advice on the How to Learn any Language forums.

From personal experience, I can tell you that Alice in Wonderland is awful, and does not capture any of the wit or humor of the book. The Harry Potter translations, on the other hand, are uniformly excellent - I've used them to bring my Spanish and French up to reading speed. J.K. Rowling has a reputation for insisting on excellence in the translated books.

Another possibility - Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century is a list compiled after they asked their readers "Which books have stayed in your memory?" I would guess that the English-language books on the list must have had good translations. There are the usual "great books" suspects (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brave New World, The Sound and the Fury), and some nice surprises (Martin Eden, The Martian Chronicles, The Big Sleep).

It's also an awesome list if you're looking for modern French novels.
posted by kanewai at 8:08 PM on April 9, 2014

Look for the "Super Challenge" discussions on the HTLAL site. Members tried to read 10,000 pages (100 "books" at 100 pages:book) in their target language in 20 months. A lot of people started off reading their favorite novels in translation before moving on to native materials.
posted by kanewai at 8:12 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The product reviews at often comment on translation quality, e.g. Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice. Right away, you see readers disagreeing, but the specific comments about older translations being too weighty or a newer translation making characters speak like teenagers perhaps helps you decide what to recommend to your SO first and warns her about what isn't the fault of the author.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:33 PM on April 9, 2014

I can't say on quality, because my French isn't good enough to be discerning, but I have a bunch of Diana Wynne Jones books in French meant to inspire me in relearning the language (after three years of HS classes).

I've read them in English a few times and they are utterly charming.
posted by itesser at 10:47 AM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a Governor General's Award for English to French translation that might be a good place to start.

Then you could probably also do a search to find other translations by the same people, which one could assume would be of equal quality.

I'd also second the Harry Potter series as well-translated. I definitely felt that it had the same humour and mood as the original.
posted by mr. manager at 11:09 AM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all, for your suggestions!
posted by metaBugs at 3:06 AM on April 14, 2014

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