If I tell you that a brand-new translation of Daniel Defoe’s world-famous novel has just been accepted into the curriculum for French schools, you may wonder why you should be pleased, or even interested.
It hasn’t earned big bucks, and it hasn’t made the headlines over here – but it has created a stir in France. So, if you’re a book lover who cares about the literary legacy Britain has given to the world, I’m sure you’ll be intrigued by a peek into the background.
This story concerns my translator friend, Francoise du Sorbier, who spent most of her career lecturing on English Literature at a Paris university, her special field being the 18th Century novel. She has been translating classical and modern authors for many years and we met when she was working on my novel MOON RISING in 2000.
It was the beginning of a rich and lasting friendship. Since then, my husband Peter and I have been able to assist occasionally with knotty little literary problems: obscure dialect and allusions in DH Lawrence; strange phrases in Elizabeth Gaskell; slang and odd references in more modern works.
But it was when Francoise told us that she had been commissioned to undertake a new translation of Defoe’s ROBINSON CRUSOE that our joint abilities came to the fore.
Familiar with the novel in English, Francoise had never studied either of the French translations. Prompted to examine the first one, done in 1720, just a year after the novel was published in England, Francoise could see that it was inaccurate and confusing. The later translation – based on the first – had been done in 1836, and its elaborate prose was quite unlike Defoe’s hasty, breathless style.
Defoe’s novel of shipwreck and survival tells an amazing story, but even in English some of the writing is hard to grasp, while detail regarding Crusoe’s journey, and his attempts to leave the island, is obscure. Francoise wished to translate in language true to the era but clear enough for her French readers to understand.
When she asked if Peter and I would be willing to help with some of the difficult passages, we agreed at once. To assist with such a well-known English classic was an honour indeed!
From time to time I would receive an email referring me to certain pages in my copy of the edition from which Francoise was working. Previously, I’d read only an abridged version at school, so studying the original was a surprise. I had forgotten that the fictional Crusoe was a native of York, like myself, and that he sailed out of Hull, the North Sea port where my husband began his nautical career.
A surprise, yes, but also a shock as I read on. In one of my previous blogs I have referred to my early fondness for semi-colons and lengthy sentences – but in Defoe’s prose, half a dozen semi-colons are commonplace – one remarkable sentence contained fifteen!
I found these sentences so long, by the end of them I’d lost sight of the opening words. Peter and I started referring to the author as ‘Daniel the Foe’ – no wonder Francoise was baffled at times!
It wasn’t often that she needed my help, but when she did, I was able to break these passages up to find the meaning, see the connections, grasp the whole and then translate into modern English. Understanding, my friend was then able to find the appropriate French – the French of Defoe’s time.
I enjoyed the challenge – at times it was rather like solving a crossword puzzle. But then we reached the point beyond which I could not go. Towards the end of the book, Crusoe describes his attempts to leave the island on which he has been marooned. He has provided us with a map, but the location is debateable, as are some of his directions.
It was time to hand over to an expert – namely Peter. Francoise had spotted a couple of navigational errors in the text, but having become thoroughly confused, she had to ask Peter to explain. He then spent a couple of days reading the relevant passages, making notes, and comparing the detail with his own hand-drawn copy of Crusoe’s map.
From there he was able to work out what Robinson Crusoe did, when he did it, and what hazards he faced – tides, hidden rocks and shoals, and variable winds. Peter marked these hazards on his map, together with Crusoe’s courses around the island, and sent it off with notes to Francoise. He explained the navigational aspects – and the errors – so that she had a complete grasp of what was going on in the narrative.
It was so far from his usual challenges, Peter was delighted to have been able to help. And Francoise was so grateful – as she said, Peter’s clarity made her translation accessible to a whole new realm of keen French readers. (Who, incidentally, read far more books than we do in the UK.)
As she phrases it, in translation it is important to get ‘beneath the text’ – to understand not just the words, but what is going on in the author’s mind. Several months later, with the work complete, it was enthusiastically received by her publishers, Albin Michel. When the new translation appeared a few months ago, there was quite a stir in the French press: glowing reviews from Paris Match, Le Monde, Liberation, and Le Figaro. One French critic said that Mme du Sorbier had had to ‘shake off’ the semi-colons in order to make Defoe understandable. (That made me smile.)
In a radio discussion, another critic declared that, ‘the best book of the literary season had been written in England in 1719.’ !!!
Did we feel proud? You bet we did! Proud of Eng. Lit., proud to have been able to assist with such an important work – and proud to see our names in the Acknowledgements.
But most of all, we were proud of our friend. Francoise du Sorbier’s passionate attention to meaning and detail is but one aspect of the book’s success. For as a German friend has pointed out, good translation is also dependent on the translator’s ability as a writer. That this new edition has now been adopted into the curriculum for French schools, illustrates its excellence.
It pleases me to think of young people in France opening ‘the set book’, and being enthralled by Robinson Crusoe’s famous tale, instead of being merely bored and baffled by words on a page.
The story of Alexander Selkirk, cast away – deliberately – on one of the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile in 1704, was well known in its day. There are many similarities, and it was no doubt the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s novel.
The author was not a seafarer, and in writing the adventures of Robinson Crusoe – his castaway in the Caribbean – Defoe would have needed to consult a Master Mariner for navigational details. His advisor was possibly a friend, at home between voyages. Pondering that, Francoise remarked on the fact that she had been fortunate in having a friend in Peter – a modern British sea-captain – to explain what Defoe had written almost 300 years previously.
That coincidence makes a neat circle, real life inspiring the first work of realistic fiction in the English language – while a modern sharing of knowledge has now opened an English classic to new generations of readers in France.