Sunday, December 24, 2017

Translating George Sand

I’ve always admired the French writer and activist George Sand (1804–1876). She was a prolific author and a dedicated advocate for social change who fought for the rights of women and workers. 

George Sand

Currently Sand is far better known in the English-speaking world for her audacious life than for her writing. Sand had many lovers, both men and women, including the composer Frédéric Chopin; bad-boy poet and playwright Alfred de Musset; and Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen. George Sand was notorious for cross-dressing as a man in order to attend the Paris theaters that were only open to males.

George Sand:  Prolific Author

Sand (whose real name was the Baroness Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant) was a workhorse as an author. Also highly social, she entertained guests during the afternoon and evening, then wrote most of the night. There is a story about George Sand, perhaps apocryphal, that she finished writing one novel halfway through the night, and not willing to lose valuable time, she started another one without a pause. Whether this anecdote is true or not, it says a lot about her reputation as a hardworking author.

George Sand painted by her friend Eugène Delacroix

Finding the Right Work to Translate

I was, to be frank, more than a little in love with George Sand. Not owning a time machine, I decided the best way to get close to her was to translate one of her works. But which to pick of her 100 novels, plays, and memoirs? I couldn’t read them all. Most of her plays were untranslated, so I started there. But I soon realized that the theater in nineteenth century Paris was a lot like network television today. It was a popular form of entertainment where the standards were fairly low, and not much revision or planning went into the throwaway scripts.

Many of George Sand’s most renowned novels had already been translated either during the first wave of interest in her work in the nineteenth century, or during the recent feminist revival. The majority of her prose works felt dated to me, sentimental portraits of virtuous peasants. The fact that she was renowned in France as a great stylist, the mentor of Gustave Flaubert, a writer’s writer, was not coming across to me. I started to wonder if there was a translation project involving George Sand that would make sense for me.  

Searching for Clues When Looking for a Work to Translate

I was combing through various biographies of Sand, looking for a glimmer of a translation project I might start. I came across a reference to an obscure novel of hers titled Horace. The biography mentioned that Sand’s publisher had absolutely refused to accept the manuscript when she had presented it to him in the early 1840s, despite the fact that Sand was then a best-selling author. That aroused my curiosity.

I did some more digging and found another interesting clue. The French publisher Éditions de l’Aurore, which was undertaking a major effort to reprint most of Sand’s works, chose Horace as the second book in their series, ahead of almost all of her most famous novels. I immediately ordered the French edition of the book.

When I read George Sand’s Horace, I found it charming, witty, and amazingly farsighted politically. It reflected the real world that Sand lived in, including both the banter in aristocratic Paris boudoirs and arguments in gritty Left Bank student garrets about overthrowing the corrupt monarchy. I knew I had the book I wanted to translate, and even better—it had gone untranslated into English since Sand had essentially self-published the book 150 years before.

Finding a Voice That Sounds Right for a Nineteenth-Century Novel

I immediately went on a sort of literary diet in order to get into my mind the voice of a nineteenth century woman novelist. For two years, while I was creating the first draft of the translation of George Sand’s Horace, I read only novels by English women writers. It was a delicious bubble bath of books, including Persuasion by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and Mary Barton by Edith Gaskell. Reading all of those books helped me in getting the right diction, tone, and viewpoint for the translation. Somehow, though, none of those novelists quite reminded me of George Sand’s sardonic Paris salon humor. It wasn’t until I read William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair that I found a voice in English that matched Sand’s urbane and urban voice in Horace.

I created a first draft of the translation in a style that was as close as I could get to the diction of a nineteenth century novel. I sent the book to someone I trusted, Tom Christensen, then editor in chief at Mercury House, a fine literary publisher near where I lived in San Francisco. Tom accepted the book, but he asked to meet with me about the translation.

“The translation is fine as far as it goes,” Tom said, “but it’s stilted, it’s stiff. You can’t write this as if you lived in the nineteenth century.” I realized Tom was right. I had fossilized George Sand’s language in diction that wasn’t natural to me, an idiom that didn’t exist any longer.

I completely rewrote the translation, using phrasing that was much closer to contemporary English. When I was reading the nineteenth century novels, I had compiled a list of contractions that were actually in use during that time, such as can’t and don’t. In the new version of the translation, I used those contractions every chance I could, both for the narrator’s voice and for dialogue. Proudly I brought my revision to Tom Christensen.

His reaction wasn’t what I was hoping for. “It sounds too contemporary,” he said. “You need a voice that seems like the nineteenth century, but actually uses some modern phrases. There has to be a balance.”

My third draft was somewhere in the middle—neither purely contemporary nor completely archaic. I only used contractions for the dialogue and very sparingly in the narration. That middle version satisfied Tom.

How the Translation of Horace Was Received

I was fortunate that my translation of George Sand’s Horace was the first to appear in English after the release of the popular movie Impromptu, starring Judy Davis as George Sand. Horace got written up twice in ten days in the New York Times, and the first printing sold out in eight weeks, unusual for a translation of an unknown nineteenth century novel. The English translation of Horace remains in print more than twenty years later.

A Favorite Passage from Horace

Here’s a favorite passage from the novel, where George Sand talks about students and how they become less radical as they grow older and more cautious:

“…we regard as youthful foolishness those courageous theories that we once loved and professed; we blush at the thought of having been a Fourierist, a Saint-Simonian, or a revolutionary of any stripe; we hardly dare recount what audacious motions we put forward or supported in political groups; and finally, we are astonished that we ever hoped for equality with all its consequences, that we loved the people fearlessly, that we voted for the law of brotherhood with no amendments. And after a few years—that is, when we’re well or poorly established—whether we be right smack in the middle, royalist, or republican, of the shade of opinion of the Débats, the Gazette, or the National, we inscribe over our doorway, or on our diploma, or on our license, that we never, in all our life, intended to commit any offense against sacrosanct Property.”

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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