“How do you translate bread?” An interview with Prof. David Coward.

David Coward is a professor of French literature at the University of Leeds and veteran translator of French literature. His translation of Arthur Cohen's Belle du Seigneur won a Scott Moncreif Prize. He is currently translating Georges Simenon's popular Inspector Maigret series for Penguin Classics. A Maigret Christmas is available now.

We caught up with him to talk translation, his newest Inspector Maigret, and the impossibility of exact translation.

David, could you start with a quick summary of how you got into translating?

I was teaching French at the University of Leeds and in 1986 OUP rang me up and asked would I translate The Lady of the Camellias, which I’d never read. I thought it might be quite dreadful, but of course I said yes. Later on I was asked by Penguin to translate a book by Albert Cohen called Belle du Seigneur which was really rather long and quite hard, it came out at about 1000 pages, but it won the Scott Moncrieff Prize. Anyway I’ve now translated about 30 books.  I fell into it, if you like.

And how long did 1000 pages of Albert Cohen take to translate?

Oh god, years. I was working at the time, it was about 5 years on and off, I did other things as well.

What do you enjoy about translating?

I quite like translating because being a bit of a ham, I always think the translator gets to play all the parts, you can do all the voices you know? You are the narrator, all the characters, sometimes you talk in different accents, but that in itself can be quite difficult.

Talking of difficulties, what’s the biggest challenge?

One of the things you have to do as a translator is clear up the vague bits in the original text, because authors try it on, sometimes they will try an image and you’re not quite sure what that image means. You then have to interpret it and force a meaning on the reader and hope to goodness that you’ve got it right(!)

Then there’s the cultural challenges: for example how do you translate ‘bread’? Bread in English conjures up in the eye of the average British reader something that is square that you make sandwiches with and form triangles, whereas bread in french is something long you put under your arms. When you change the nationality of objects, then of course all the historical references that every nation has change with it.

Can you give a good specifically historical example?

Well, in terms of translating a French book from the German occupation of France, you talk about ‘semelles de bois’: The merry sound it made as you crack along on your wooden shoes because there wasn’t any leather around. But in England we wouldn’t understand that so you have to convey that without putting a footnote, which is terribly boring and taboo as far as I’m concerned(!)

Right! 100% direct translation is basically impossible, isn’t it?

Ultimately I suppose, direct translation is not possible. Somebody in the 16th century said when you read a translated book it’s really rather like looking at a Flemish tapestry from the back, you get a lot of fluff and inklings and the broad idea but the finer points skip you.

Can you think of any phrases or passages that really gave, or give, you a headache when it comes to translation?

Oh gosh. Well, ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is a bit of a snorter to put into French. Is this cat a male cat or a female cat? And when it sat, was it sat sitting? Or did it sit down, at that moment? These tenses are much more distinct in French than they are in English. Now what about your mat? What sort of mat are you thinking of: something behind the door? In front of a fire?

If you wanted to put that into French you’d bear in mind the general sense of what this sentence means, it’s heavily rhythmic and alliterative isn’t it? Now instead of making the cat sit down on some mat or other that I can’t actually translate, I would call it a female cat, ‘la chatte’, and then there’s a verb in French which is to scratch, which is ‘se gratter’, and then the word for a cat’s paw is ‘la pate’. So I would translate that as ‘la chatte se gratte la patte’ which gets the rhythm of ‘the cat sat on the mat’, and it’s just as nonsensical. But you see how something that appears to be quite simple is in fact fiendishly complex.

Sounds like a headache…

It does take a bit of time, absolutely. I mean, to talk about Simenon, it was his habit to lock himself in a room for 10 days with a pencil and paper and he would emerge with a novel ten days later in 20 chapters, and it took him less time to write the damn thing than it takes anyone else to translate it!

When it comes to Simenon, you’ve translated many books in the Inspector Maigret series, which is your favourite?

I think this Christmas one. It’s three longish short stories. The variety is very interesting and the stories are very compelling. It’s good Maigret stuff, it’s about the psychology of the individual, tracking what they do, judging them by what they’ve done, and then trying to second guess what they might do next. French detective fiction is very different to ours, we tend to go by ‘there was blood on the floor’ or ‘the train went at six forty five that day instead of half six’ therefore the butler is lying!

More quantitative clues?

That’s right! The french have gone according to the psychological makeup of the criminal which can be deduced from his actions.

Are the three tales straight up detective stories?

One is not really about crime at all but is a very subtle short story and full of humanity, which people don’t often associate with Simenon, because he has this terrible reputation for being a rather louche character, and the others are plain detection. They’re very satisfying because the wicked are brought to justice.

A big Scooby-Doo resolve at the end?

Umm, not my generation I fear…

I mean… a good Shakespearean resolution at the end?

Much better! Yes that’s the one.

Finally, the big question: French or English?

Oh English every time! Oh yes, English has got a wider vocabulary and is much more down to earth and its range is wider. The reason why the French have so much slang is because they their vocabulary has been reduced whereas ours continues to proliferate. It seems to me English is much more wedded to practicalities, whereas french is a language of abstraction. There are times where French can be opaque, although it seems clear, which explains I think, why until the early 18th century French was the international language of diplomacy because you can say nothing more elegantly in French than in any other language ⬛️

Thanks to David Coward for speaking to us, and of course the pleasure of representing him as literary agents. Interview by Angus MacDonald; transcript has been edited for clarity.