Frame en français, Philip Knight

Le Lagon et Autres Nouvelles 
Janet Frame (trans Jean Anderson and Nadine Ribault)
Des Femmes-Antoinette Fouque, $28.50 [approx],
ISBN 2721005278

In the past several years literary relations between New Zealand and France have come alive as never before. Among the new signs of life are the Bornholdt-O’Brien anthology of French-New Zealand writing The Colour of Distance, and several important events planned for this year: a conference in France in late June, a bilingual anthology of New Zealand poetry, and a special issue of the distinguished French literary review Europe. Perhaps the major catalyst for all this has been the new fellowship for French writers associated with the Randell Cottage in Thorndon, Wellington, set up four years ago to correspond with the venerable Mansfield Fellowship in Menton. It’s in this context that Jean Anderson, French programme head at Victoria University of Wellington, has served as principal literary mediator, translating a number of pieces from the three first Randell Cottage fellows which have appeared in a variety of reviews and collections.

Now comes this first French translation of Janet Frame’s earliest short story collection The Lagoon and Other Stories, jointly translated by Jean Anderson and the second Randell Fellow, Nadine Ribault. A collaborative translation like this is an event in itself, since it promises to ally French literary sensibility with real awareness of New Zealand language and culture, indeed almost guarantees that source-language and target-language are both respected. And, in the event, the promise is brilliantly fulfilled, the guarantee holds good, for this translation is a tour de force.

Janet Frame’s extraordinary first stories are full of challenges and potential traps for would-be translators. These are stories ranging from intimate accounts of family and group relationships to prose poems and fairytales, all perhaps aspiring to the condition of parable, as Patrick Evans, Winston Rhodes and others have noted. The range of genres must be carefully marked in the translated version, while preserving at the same time the overall sense of experience coming into being as a new kind of language, deceptively simple, precise, sensitive, fantastic, almost fey. The question of “register”, of different levels of language, is particularly acute in this collection, and the Anderson-Ribault translation carefully reproduces them all. Here are the evocations of landscape, subtle social commentary, economical dialogue, and fleeting reported thought of stories like “The Lagoon” and “Swans”, the subtly evoked mental anguish of “Jan Godfrey” or “A Beautiful Nature”, and the outright fantasy and lyricism of true parables like “Spirit” and “The Birds Began to Sing”. It is clear that a policy of respect for every aspect of Frame’s language is in place here, and it is carried out meticulously.

One particular set of translation problems arises in this collection with Frame’s extraordinarily varied use of direct and indirect speech and thought. Sometimes the language veers from a character’s speech to the voice of the narrator without missing a beat, as in “Swans”: “and she said I’m sure I don’t know kiddies when they asked about the station, but she was big and warm and knew about cats and little ring-eyes”. Or, as in “The Lagoon”, the narrator is evoking the various voices of memory:

I remember we used to skim thin white stones over the water and catch tiddlers in the little creek near by and make sand castles, this is my castle we said you be Father I’ll be Mother, and we’ll live here and catch crabs and tiddlers for ever … .


In both these cases the translators shrewdly introduce a familiar touch to denote direct speech: so the first includes “elle disait là franchement je ne sais pas mes p’tites” and the second “ça c’est mon château qu’on disait tu s’ras le père et je s’rai la mère”.  Frame sometimes introduces direct speech seamlessly in interior monologue (as above), sometimes with an indented new line, either without an opening dash, or with one, as marvellously in “Child”:  – Breathe in, class, slowly and quietly and breathe out, counting up to ten.” Here the translators almost always reproduce the original faithfully. In other cases they are less consistent, as when a wayward capital letter is sometimes used to introduce internal direct speech, so that Frame’s “when I went to school the teacher said shoulders back don’t poke your head” (in “Jan Godfrey”) becomes “quand j’allais à l’école la maîtresse disait Les épaules en arrière et redressez la tête.” This is effective, even if it is not consistently used in this version.

These texts present another particular challenge through Frame’s frequent use of quotations of songs, poems and nursery rhymes, all very specific to English-language culture. Even two of the stories’ titles are quotations: the Blakean “Tiger, Tiger” and “The Birds Began to Sing” from the child’s rhyme about “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”. In these cases there is a minimalist policy of direct translation, refusing to substitute “equivalent” references from French culture, a strategy which avoids alien overtones but can’t help losing some cultural resonance all the same. At times the translators are able to invent an excellent equivalent, translating “little rhymes about Christmas Cheer and the Glad New Year” (in “A Beautiful Nature”) as “des petites rimes sur Joyeux Noël et Heureuse Année Nouvelle”. At other times song lyrics or titles are sometimes translated here (“Oh Shenandoah” and “Young Lochinvar” in “Child”) and sometimes left in English (“Beyond the Sunset” in “A Beautiful Nature”). Bits of English poetry quoted in the text, however, are usually translated: Glover’s “quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle” becomes “wou-lou-lou-lou-dooo”, and lines from Wordsworth and Tennyson are put straight into French, like “Tiger, Tiger” itself.

Overall, the confident strength of this translation is best exemplified in its way with specifically New Zealand social and cultural references. References like “NZ Gov”, and “VC”, as well as periodical titles like Truth and Woman’s Weekly, are left untranslated. And for the iconic items “bush” and “paddock” this version keeps the English words. These direct unexplained renderings are emblematic of the dominant tendency in this translation to avoid “adapting” the original to meet a French reader’s supposed expectations. This policy of minimal intervention, excluding explanatory paraphrase or over-eager “naturalisation” of the style in the target language, places the text before the French reader as undeniably a text from elsewhere, to be respected on its own cultural terms.

This collection appears before its new French public, then, as truly a foreign document, writing an unfamiliar new world into being. Its presentation is enhanced by fine book production (gorgeous paper and print), but even more by setting Frame’s stories in a context of three of her shorter autobiographical pieces, and a “Postface” by Nadine Ribault. The latter is a particularly moving account of the French writer’s visit to Janet Frame in Dunedin in 2003, when she was given a copy of “The Lagoon” and told to “Keep on writing”, echoing the words (quoted in the blurb for this edition) that encouraged Frame herself at the beginning of her career. The French public knows something of Frame already in translations of other works, and especially through Jane Campion’s film An Angel at my Table. But this translation of her first work will certainly call for a new kind of readership and (to quote Mansfield’s words of 1922) “make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World”.


Philip Knight is a Wellington reviewer and retired professor of French.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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