“Is That a (Michael) Fish in Your Ear?” The fun and Games of translating cultural references…

Watching the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Games at home here in France prompted thoughts of my next translation – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain’s touching, thoughtful, entertaining, feel-good tour of French society in the mid-1980s, published this year by Flammarion to popular and critical acclaim, and coming soon in English from Gallic Books.

How so, I hear you cry?

Well, both ceremonies were big on nostalgia, like Laurain’s novel, and all are awash with loaded references – in Laurain’s case, everything from Minitel soft porn to household-name presenters of France’s day-time TV news, an insidious anti-Mitterrand shibboleth that did the rounds of Paris society back in the day, and a clutch of echt-Eighties products and pop tubes. In which context, it is a truth universally acknowledged that every loaded reference in an Olympic ceremony, novel or other cultural manifestation must be in want of an appropriate, thoughtful and entertaining explanation. Back, then, to the opening night of London 2012, viewed chez nous during a lively BBQ with French friends and neighbours. Some things needed no introduction, bien sûr

Haha! Monsieur Bean!! Excellent! L’humour British… La classe!!”

James Bond, the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter, and David Beckham thundering down the Thames in a speedboat, were all received with delight and understanding. And the tribute to the NHS was easily dealt with (“Ah… Ze Nashurneul ‘Ealt Seurvees, N.H.S., d’accord…”). Great Ormond Street Hospital, less so: why were we being treated to a huge cartoon of a child in tears? “Well,” I weighed in, “It’s the symbol for the charity that helps fund Great Ormond Street, which is a big children’s hospital in London… it spells GOSH, you see, er, like ‘Tiens!’, ‘Dis-donc!’.”  Blank incomprehension. (But the French were not alone in this – a doctor friend has since pointed out that Great Ormond Street was actually part of the “children’s literature” section of the show, because Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie donated his royalties to the the hospital. Who knew? Not me…).

Onto the iconic clip – so familiar to any Briton of a certain age and then some – showing Michael Fish presenting the weather forecast on that fateful evening in 1987.

“Aha! Ze famous Breeteesh wezzer!” chortled our French  friends and neighbours.

“Well not quite…” I launched into an account of how Michael Fish had reassured the nation that a telephone warning from a woman in France, about an impending hurricane, was quite mistaken, just before half the trees in southern England were felled overnight. But the ceremony had continued on its wondrous, bonkers way, and none of our assembled company were any the wiser.

I watched the closing ceremony home alone – just as well, perhaps, what with Only Fools and Horses, and Stomp’s (intentional?) choreographed nod to the People’s Clean-Up after last year’s London riots. Put that in an Olympic ceremony and try and explain it to the French…

My point being that in translation, as in TV broadcast commentaries for the benefit of non-native viewers, any attempted explanation of country-specific references should be unobtrusive and sufficient. Enough to deliver an appreciation of  the reference and its significance, while not interfering with the enjoyment of the words on the page, or the ceremony on the screen. A lesson I hope I can apply…

The President’s Hat will be a co-translation, appropriately enough for a novel that unfolds through the eyes and reported thought of four different characters. Working with Gallic’s in-house translation team, we’re taking a “voice” each. Mine is Daniel Mercier, the hero of the opening and closing episodes, a down-trodden salaryman whose life is transformed by the “Mitterrand touch.” When Gallic tweeted news of the book recently, twitterers pondered a possible sequel: “Sarkozy’s Platform Shoes?” One reference that needs no explanation, across the Channel or around the world…

I hope we succeed in bringing the mood, the icons and the essential spirit of the Mitterrand years back to life – as Antoine Laurain has so triumphantly in French – for English-speaking readers. And especially, perhaps, for the Children of Mrs Thatcher’s Handbag. Moving from London to Paris at the dawn of the Nineties, I was enthralled to catch the tail end of the Mitterrand presidency. They were doing things very differently in France back then.

And they are again today.

PS: References aren’t only country-specific, of course. Folk unfamiliar with the world of translation may not have picked up my title reference to David Bellos’s recent book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? all about the challenges and delights of our craft. And anyone – of any nationality, profession or age – who has never read, listened to, or watched Douglas Adams’s Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its many states (as a radio series, book, TV show and film) won’t have spotted Bellos’s reference to the Babel fish, that enormously useful alien creature which, when popped into the user’s ear, allows him or her to understand all the languages in the known universe. But not necessarily their associated cultural references…

 

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