In an effort to improve my French, I’ve been reading a few of my favourite books in translation alongside the original. It saves me from having to pick up a dictionary every time I come across a word I don’t know, and it also encourages me to try and work out what words mean myself (it’s a bit of a pain stopping and starting and switching between languages, so I try to do a paragraph or a page at a time). I’ve just finished L’appel des morts, by Ian Rankin (also known as “The Naming of the Dead”; one of my favourite Rebus novels). This was a challenge, but fun, and made all the more so by the entertaining footnotes. Yes, Rankin with footnotes. And entertaining, because they’re frequently wrong.
The footnotes are usually explanations of cultural references (this Who song, that Rolling Stones number). However, when the translator isn’t sure what the reference is to, sometimes he just pulls something out of his arse. For example:
- When Rebus passes Big Top, just around the corner from Canning Street, the footnote explains that this is a reference to the film Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Top. I’m not an Edinburgh expert, but… I don’t think Ian Rankin is likely to slot a reference to a US film into a geographical context, and I expect there’s actually a venue called Big Top there.
- Rebus and Siobhan have just arrived at Gleneagles and it’s all rather intense. Rebus says to Siobhan “… we’re not in Kansas any more… “, to which Siobhan replies “Does that make me Toto?”. The footnote explains that Toto is a reference to the 1970s american pop-rock band. Seriously.
I’m slightly surprised that there’s so much variation in translation quality. The Harry Potter books are cleverly done (Oliver Wood becomes Olivier DuBois for example), but the Fred Vargas novel I’m currently reading has been translated from French to English by someone who clearly owns The Bumber Book of British Clichés. It makes me think about all of those other books I’ve read in translation – and to wonder what I’m missing out on by not tackling the original. But let’s be honest, I’m not going to bother to learn Russian.