Xavier-Marie Bonnot, The Beast of the Camargue (translation Ian Monk, Maclehose Press 2009)
Maybe I’m turning into a horrible person, because here’s yet another book I’ve laid aside, this time just before page 100. It was a big hit in France, so it might be that I’ve lost all sense of what makes a good read. But it’s a murder mystery, and very little had happened by the time I parted company from it – the body of an extremely rich man who has been missing for a fortnight or so has finally been found in a swamp, so it feels as if the story might be about to start. An unnamed man who is probably a psychopathic serial killer has made a couple of lacklustre appearances. There’s a cop with enough idiosyncrasies to make him interesting, a romance that will probably stay unconsummated, and a beautiful, rich widow with something she’s not telling. There are English-speaking tourists, wandering with their cameras through places where evil lurks. Oh, and there are hints that the evil might be in some way occult. In other words, it’s familiar territory, and there evidently wasn’t enough in it to engage this reader.
Two things kept me reading even this long: the setting and the translation. The action takes place in parts of France I visited last year (as one of those gormless tourists), and I was hoping there would be pleasure in revisiting them – but the sense of place, it turns out, isn’t very strong. I was fascinated by the translation. When Gregory Rabassa was working on his translation of A Hundred Years of Solitude, an interviewer asked him if he knew enough Spanish for the task. He answered, ‘The question isn’t whether I know enough Spanish, the question is do I know enough English.’ I have no doubt that Ian Monk’s French was well up to the challenge of translating this book, much much better than mine I expect, but his English is disconcertingly uncomfortable in its own skin. A quick google just now turned up this sentence from the original:
‘Sortez du problème, les gars. Allez fourrer votre nez là où personne n’irait jamais le fourrer.’
As luck would have it, I knew where to find the English version (on page 83):
‘Move outside the problem, lads. Go and stick your nose where no one else would stick it.’
The French, advice that a wise old cop once gave our hero, looks to be casual speech, but the English is oddly stilted. Sortir is ordinary language for leaving or going out (of something), but who says, Move outside (something)? And how could anyone else stick the lads’ nose anywhere? How about:
Step outside of the problem, lads. Stick your nose in places where no one else would think of sticking theirs.
That’s just nit-picking, of course. My eye glided over that sentence when I read it in context. I noticed its awkwardness now because it’s the only sentence from the book I’ve seen the French for, so it’s the one I was stuck with to consider here. But the cumulative effect of such small misfires is both fascinating (as in, I’d love to study this closely because it shows a lot about language) and unpleasant (as in, I keep being jolted ever so slightly out of the world of the story).
Actually, I think Ian Monk is probably a very good translator. I spent maybe ten minutes playing around with that one sentence. He had to earn a living. Translators aren’t exactly paid at merchant banker rates, and you do what you can in the time you’ve got.
Anyhow, Commandant Michel de Palma may be the French reading public’s equivalent of John Rebus, but he couldn’t keep me reading past page 98.