Inspecteur Rebus

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.

8 thoughts on “Inspecteur Rebus

  1. Sandrine and I have a long-standing disagreement about whether the reason that Orhan Pamuk sounds so bloody clunky in English is because some of the translations are awful, or because he’s just a bloody clunky writer. One of these days I’m hoping to get round to reading the new translation of The Black Book to try to bring more data to bear on the issue. Maybe.

    BTW, and on a vaguely related note – have you read ‘The City and the City’ (in any language)? What do you think of it?

  2. @bill Not read “The City and the City” yet, but it’s on my list.

    I’ve never read any Orhan Pamuk either, although I’m disappointed to hear you’re not trying to settle the translation question by reading it in Turkish. Which of his would you recommend to start with?

  3. I have to say that after doing A level French and O level Latin, the English translations were close enough for me. All the quotes that we needed to know – Emma Bovary’s three flounces and M Homais’ slippers – were handily pointed out in the Cliff’s notes.

    I saw Back to the Future 3 in Paris with French subtitles. The translation of things like “Great Scott!” cracked me up.

  4. @admin: As I’m sure you know, I’m still finding new grammatical nuances in my reading of ‘The Happy Hippopotamus/Mutlu Suaygırı’, (much of which I now know by heart) so I think its probably going to be a while before I try tackling OP. n any case I’d have to persuade Sandrine to re-read him as well,and I suspect that just wouldn’t happen.

    As for where to start: I guess that ‘My Name is Red’ is probably the mosy readable/enjoyable (especially if you’re into detective fiction at the moment) and ‘The White Castle’ has the merit of being short. Also, if you read it, you can tell me if it is as much of a shameless rip-off of Italo Calvino as it struck me as being.

    The City anbd the City is excellent, by the way; and when you read it you’ll see it raises all sorts of issues about translation…

    @Fenny: I’m assuming that ‘Great Scott’ came out as ‘Ecossais enorme’ or something similar.

  5. Further to my previous on OP, I should probably say that both ‘The New Life’ and ‘Snow’ are both worth avoiding unless you find yourself becoming *extremely* enthusiastic.

  6. Lol. I hate translations but the Toto one is hilarious!
    I hate reading in translation too. You miss out on too much.
    But I wouldn’t bother with Pamuk. He sucks balls.

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