Books, Reading, The Translation Project
Comments 28

[Definitely] Getting lost in translation

Due to me not checking to make sure there was a phone line in my new house when I moved in (because I’m not sure if you guys have noticed, but it’s 2016 so I kind of assumed that there’d be a phone line; clearly I’m an idiot), I’ve been on a forced study hiatus. No phone line means no decent internet, which makes studying difficult since it’s all via correspondence online (also, NO NETFLIX AT HOME – it’s been lonely). To sweeten the deal, lessors are under no obligation to provide a phone line (again, it’s 2016 so I was surprised to learn this), which meant if I wanted one I’d have to pay for it myself, assuming the owner of my house didn’t want to contribute. Long story short, I got quoted an outrageous amount for the line installation, but I got lucky and my superpower kicked in (my superpower is basically my ability to get a thing that I want at a discounted price: flights, hotels, clothing, etc.), and for some mysterious reason the major Australian telephone provider installed a line at my house without me asking them to, and apparently free of charge – they may charge me later for it, but for now I’ll ask no questions, play dumb, and just accept it as a miracle.

Me with no Internet

Life with no internet

Thankfully the whole fiasco is almost at an end. Unfortunately by the time it’s all sorted it’ll be getting close to Christmas and I won’t be likely to enrol for the study period that starts in December as I’ll just be too busy with Christmas things. So I’ve decided that in order to keep myself busy I’d start a new project that I can devote the best part of the next six months to. So because I barely speak a word of French (aside from the usual foods and greetings), I thought the smart thing to do would be to translate a French novel into English. Yes, you read correctly – I’m losing all sense of reality.

Those of you familiar with the novels of Elena Ferrante, would likely be also familiar with Ann Goldstein, who is the translator of Ferrante’s work, and since Ferrante herself is anonymous, Goldstein has pretty much become the face of Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Novels’. Why do I bring up Goldstein? Well a couple of months ago I saw her give a talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, in which she shared the story of how she got into translating work in the first place. Basically in her mid-30s (not too far off my own age), she was learning Italian and decided to translate a book to help her with the language. And look where it’s taken her. I’m not saying that I will ever be at the calibre of Goldstein and her contemporaries, but we all have to start somewhere.

SoumissionThings began well last week when I picked up a French to English dictionary that also includes a bit about grammar; then I had to decide which book I would translate. I ended up going with Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Submission); a book that was brought to my attention a couple of months ago on a tv show here in Australia. I managed to find an eBook on Kobo for the bargain price of only $5.99, which I was very excited about. So excited, in fact, that I didn’t realise it wasn’t even the book – it was a sort of reading guide (naturally I had to Instagram about it; there are probably loads of French-speaking people who are snickering at my obliviousness). If I hadn’t been so excited I might have realised this, but it may come in handy eventually anyway. So my translating career has gotten off to what I think is a funny start and hopefully isn’t a sign of things to come. After scouring the internet I managed to find a not too expensive copy of the book in England that should be here in a couple of weeks – I double checked and it’s definitely the book and it’s definitely in French, so things are looking up.

Anyway, I expect it to be a very long process and I doubt that I’ll get it done within the next six months, but I’ll be updating here infrequently so you can all see how out of my depth I am. Having said that, I’m really excited for the challenge and to be doing something I’ve never done before and who knows, maybe it’ll be the beginning of my own translating career (assuming I don’t give up halfway through).

Have you ever tried to translate a book from another language? Or am I the only one out of touch with reality?


  1. Haha omg good luck with this. Let me know when you go mad 😂😂 what a great idea though! You’ll have to keep us posted on how difficult (or easy?) it is to do!

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  3. I adore the fact that you’re diving so wholeheartedly into a project like this. I’m such a perfectionist that I often have trouble committing myself to things that I may very well fail at (or take a lot of time to get even mildly decent at). You make me want to reconsider that habit! 😉

    Et bonne chance! Je ne parles pas français très bien. 😉


    • I started out wholeheartedly, but haven’t done any work since the book arrived 😳 Next week I’ll do some, definitely.

      You should definitely try something a bit out of your comfort zone. I’d actually recommend something that no-one – including yourself – expects immediate results in (like translating a book). That way you can take as much time as you like with it.

      Je devais utiliser Google traduction pour traduire ce que vous avez écrit. Peut-être que je devrais simplement traduire le livre en entier de cette façon??


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  7. dreamingthroughliterature says

    I don’t think this makes you out of touch at all. It can be fun to do something like this! I’ve never translated a whole book, but I’ve done chapters and poems, and short stories – but mainly for my own reading enjoyment. I’ve studied Spanish, French, and some Italian since I started learning foreign languages at the age of 14. Reading and translating what you read is a great way to learn a foreign language and develop translating skills! I recently bought a copy of Harry Potter in Spanish so I can brush up and actually have a conversation in that language again. I wish you all the luck with this project and hope it’s fun (even if it will most likely get frustrating at times)!


  8. I haven’t but I would if I could, which I know sounds silly with you giving it a go as you are. Not out of touch with reality, ambitious 🙂 Great idea.

    Interesting that that’s how Elena Ferrante’s translator began; she’s not done badly!


    • You should give it a go one day (although I might have different feelings about it once I get started properly!).
      I was amazed at how Ann Goldstein had started her career. It’s cool how deciding to do something just because can lead to a career you may not have considered previously.


  9. Quelle bonne idée! What a great thing to do! You’re making me remember the first book I was given to read in French, Le Petit Prince, of which there are a multitude of versions for every age, from pop up toddlers book to children’s to adult!

    And the first time a book club suggested we read a novella in French, which really got me thinking about the conundrum of translation right from the front cover, as the titles meant quite different things and I realised it wasn’t possible to create the same expression in English.

    Here’s a link to that reading experience if you’re interested and a really lovely book to read in French, Philippe Claudel is one of my favourite French authors, I highly recommend his novels, he writes thought provoking books with a real sensitivity, just beautiful.

    La Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel


    • I’ve never read The Little Prince – maybe I should have started with that!

      I agree completely with the conundrum of words meaning different things. I translated the ‘About the author’ page of the reading guide last weekend, and it had a list of some other books by Houellebecq included. I could have cheated and just googled them, but I did it properly. One of the books was ‘Les Particules élémentaires’; according to my dictionary, “élémentaires” could have been either “elementary”(which is what has been used in the English translation), or “elemental” – similar words, but they make the title completely different because of how we use those words in English.

      Thanks so much for sharing your post with me – I really enjoyed reading about your reading experience. Are you quite comfortable reading in French now? I’d love to be able to read Patrick Modiano in French; I feel like there’d be so much more added to his work just by reading it in the native language of the author.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The great thing about many French authors is that they write novellas and I think Modiano’s book aren’t too long either.

        I don’t have too much trouble reading in French, but because I have to speak and live French everyday, reading in English is my little pleasure – but I have promised myself that when my life is less busy than it is currently I will read more in French, I love the library here and there is such a wide range of fiction, with 50% of the fiction they read being translated from other languages, so they read works from so many more countries than we are able to, which is also exciting for me.


        • That’s amazing. It’s so hard to find a wide range of translated fiction where I live. Most of what I’ve read recently has been from NetGalley (usually Pushkin Press), but my local bookshop and library rarely have things I’m interested in (having said that, it wouldn’t hurt to branch out a little). You’re very lucky!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Netgalley is great for accessing what’s new isn’t it. Check out Gallic Books as well, they are now on Netgalley, Antoine Laurain is a wonderful (though relatively light) read, they’ve translated two of his already and another is about to come out. Love his work, especially as there are so few authors who write uplifting novels.


    • But is it really cool to translate a novel from another language for “fun”? Haha.

      I’m really excited to get started – I translated a couple of pages (the title page and the author bio) of the reading guide on the weekend and it was fun. Already I’ve had to think about context; like, for some words there are multiple ways it could be translated to English and I don’t know which one to use until I’ve looked at the whole sentence. But then you have to look at that sentence and how it fits in with the sentences around it to make sure it all makes sense together.

      It’s amazing and I love it (for now).


  10. Oh my gosh, the internet/phone situation sounds like a nightmare. Bless your heart, I hope it stays sorted out and doesn’t end up costing you a fortune.

    Does Latin count for the translation thing? Latin teachers can start you on translating primary sources pretty early — I did Caesar my first year of high school, second year of Latin studies. If so, then yes! I have translated a bunch of the Aeneid and whenever I feel glum about my Latin skills and want to dive back in, I’ll have a go at translating some of the Metamorphoses or some Cicero. (Cicero has lovely long sentences and is difficult but satisfying to translate.)


    • I’m hopeful that in the next three weeks I’ll be able to watch Netflix at home to my little hearts content and google all of the things – I’m getting unlimited internet for only $65/month!!! It’s going to be worth all the hassle.

      That’s so exciting you know Latin! Can you speak it as well? I’ve been thinking about doing it as an elective for my uni degree – would you recommend it? I mean, obviously it’s not a something I would use every day, but it sounds great just as something fun to do/know.


  11. Wow! What a massive and impressive project! I wouldn’t even dream of attempting a translation although decades ago I read in German (I’m too rusty now).

    Your phone line story reminded me of when I had my first baby. I was in a private hospital despite finding out months before the birth that something had been wrong with my health insurance and pregnancy wasn’t covered. I fixed the glitch but obviously it was too late to serve a 12 month waiting period. So I focused on the baby, my husband sweated bullets over what the hospital bill would be at the end. Had the baby, left the hospital, no massive bill… Hmmmm… About a month later I get a letter from the hospital and I figure the bill has finally arrived (I’m estimating $10,000). Instead, it’s a cheque with the note that our insurer had overpaid (?!?!) and we get a refund. To this day I don’t know how that happened and I’ll never ask (my baby is 14 now so I’m probably in the clear!).


    • Wow that’s so lucky! Considering the cost of having a family over the years, you guys got off to a good start – I can’t believe how expensive it might have been just to give birth. It’s definitely a good thing you didn’t ask questions, and you got money back. That’s a win.

      I’m finding with the phone situation that neither Optus or nbn have any idea what the other is doing/are meant to be doing; and I have no idea what either of them are doing. Just today I got a call from an nbn technician saying he was on his way to the house to hook up the nbn connection – I didn’t even know there was an appointment booked.
      Maybe a similar thing happened to you – the insurance provider and the hospital had no idea what the other was doing and you came out on top.


  12. I haven’t tried to translate a book the way you have; however, I have read books in German, the only language other than English in which I’m comfortable communicating.


    • German would be hard I think. At least with French a lot of the words look at least a little similar to the English ones, but German words are so long and look so different. I studied German for a little while in high school and really liked it, but I remember doing a bit better at French (for the year I studied it as well).

      Liked by 1 person

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