I just came across this interesting passage in an article by Dave Hickey on The Brooklyn Rail discussing his experiences teaching French theory.
[…] since the texts we read were written in French and being read in French or translation, there are some eccentricities of the French language that need to be acknowledged. First, the standard English vocabulary is about 900,000 words. The standard French vocabulary is about 100,000 words, so French words aren’t surrounded with garlands of synonyms and adjectives. Each word does a lot of work in French, so it is possible to write a sentence in French in which the same word appears four times and means something different every time. American translators, sadly, thanks to the New Yorker, are fearful of iteration, and identical French words blossom into bouquets of synonyms. Americans fall back on synonyms to avoid iteration and this blurs meaning and euphony. It stains the architecture of the sentences. So English translations, with few exceptions, distort the text, and the French is very meticulous. So we should return to the Renaissance practice of the paragone. We go back and forth from one text to another, from one language to another. Add into this the fact that American translators invariably try to make these theorists into liberals, and you have a built-in moral paradox that can’t be redacted.
I was interested by the numerical difference between English and French vocabulary he cites. I’m not sure whether Hickey is suggesting here that the same word needs to be used in translation each time. Because of the diversity of meaning of single words in French, using the same word in every instance doesn’t always work. One needs to look carefully at the other surrounding words in order to give the word the right feel in English.
This doesn’t apply to all words. If we are considering Foucault’s work, for example, he often uses a very precise technical vocabulary – and some words do indeed need to be translated with the one term in English in order to provide continuity for readers in English. One word that might qualify here is ‘dispositif’ to which Foucault attributes a precise meaning. This word has been confusingly translated in a number of ways in English. The word – which is not an uncommon one – used by another French author, however, would be entirely susceptible to translation in a number of ways.
Not all French theorists are as precise as Foucault. Hélène Cixous, for instance, is very hard to pin down and translation of her work needs to be very creative. It is not simply a matter of differences in the respective sizes of vocabularies. The structure of French sentences is very different from the structure of English sentences. French sentences can be very long and complex with many conjunctions and gendered pronouns and the phrase order is often different. These sentences need to be shortened, reorganised and additional nouns inserted when rendered in English translation to make for an elegant and clear style in English.
Hickey’s point about Americans turning these radical theorists into ‘liberals’ is an interesting one (in the American sense of the term presumably. See the Political Compass site for a useful discussion on this). Certainly, the kind of debates and problems Americans conduct around the works of French theorists often seem to be at odds with the debates that interest commentators in Europe and elsewhere.