In a couple of weeks, I will be going to Montreal for work. Now, my French is very good, but I’m not fluent, and it’s a bit rusty. In order to get back in shape, I watch movies, read books and listen to music only in French. Usually this stretches out my muscles enough so by the time I get to where I’m going, I have no problems.
This time around, I’ve noticed something. When I read in English, I can appreciate the language in a way that I don’t in French. There has been more then one book where I disliked everything, except the writing style. I could sit back and say, “wow, this is all sorts of messed up, but man, the author could write better. Or, alternatively, “what an entertaining novel, but I wish the author could write better.” Part of my regime was a book of short stories by Balzac. And while I assume that his writing is beautiful (because, you know, Balzac), I’m too focused on comprehension to give an opinion.
And this brings up an interesting thought. Typically when I read Hugo or Dumas, they are English translations. I read them and think to myself: “I really like how these guys write.” But do I? Or do I like how the translators write? One of the things I’ve been working on for the past year or so is reading the Bible. The version I’m reading is the New Jewish Translation, which I received for my Bat-Mitzvah. One day, I came across a passage I really liked. Later, I was at my boyfriend’s, and I wanted to share it, so I looked it up in his King James’ version. Whatever I had liked about it, had been quite literally lost in translation.
The fact is, no matter how much I like the idea of reading a novel in the original language, this is really only an option for people who are fluent in the language. In the long run, you will get more out of reading it in your language. Novels that I’ve read in English, I’ve mulled over and found new depths to them that I never see when I read in French. So why be snobby about it? As with everything, you just decide that you accept the limitations inherent in the medium. I could spend the rest of life reading different translations of the same novel. But there is so much out there to read, so why should I limit myself?
Maybe someday I will read French fluently, and will be able to say with no qualification that I liked Hugo and Dumas. But for the moment, it remains an exercise in comprehension.