Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)
It’s been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer’s art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There’s the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there’s how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.
But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.
Given these limitations, how do we appreciate a novel that we are reading in a language not its own? I felt I could only judge Le Grand Meaulnes for its basic ideas and structure, which are no more than its bones, and that I was missing the most vital, intangible element, its animating spark of life. The result was a rather frustrating experience, like trying to see a scene of magical beauty through a thick distorting glass.
To summarize the “bones”: A young man, the Meaulnes of the title, wanders by accident into a mysterious domain where costumed revelers, many of them children, are preparing for the son of the house to return with his bride. Their celebration is abruptly ended without the expected wedding, but not before Meaulnes has met and fallen in love with the daughter of the house. He returns to school without knowing where the domain is, and spends the next months and years trying to find it and his lost love; he also becomes involved in the affairs of the other unhappy couple, which tragically intersect with his own.
All of this is narrated not by Augustin Meaulnes himself, but by a younger boy who was enchanted by “le grand Meaulnes” when he entered the country school run by his father. As he tells the story sometimes in his own voice, sometimes by piecing together his friend’s journals, letters, or narratives, he stands as the reader’s surrogate, trying to comprehend events that he cannot fully participate in, and make a whole out of fragments of experience.
The translation I read was by Frank Davison; a more recent one by Robin Buss exists, but I didn’t have access to it in full. I found a couple of examples, however, which provided some instructive contrasts. The Davison translation struck me as rather stiff and formal; the Buss translation appears to dispense with some of the elaborate language but in the process becomes more pedestrian and everyday. Which of these is more true to the French original I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that they are two different attempts at solving an impossible problem.
The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life. (Davison
The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life. (Buss translation)
* * *
Meaulnes was in haste to find someone to give him a lift, in haste to be off. He had now a deep-seated dread of being left alone in the domain and shown up for a fraud. (Davison translation)
He was in a hurry to leave. Deep inside him, he was worried that he might find himself alone on the estate and his deception be revealed. (Buss translation)
I confess to not finding either of these treatments very artistically satisfying. With more evocative language, I might have been more easily captivated by the story of Meaulnes and his strange, restless journeying; as it was, I often felt a bit baffled. It was hard for me to become interested in the romantic yearning of Meaulnes and Yvonne, who exchange fewer than a dozen sentences from the time they meet to the time they marry, and the complicated mystification which parts them in the last section seemed to me unnecessary, when with some logic and patience the problem could be solved without all the agony. It’s all very French, I suppose — which is why if it were in French it might make more sense.
It seemed to me as I read that a cinematic “translation” might actually be more appropriate. (At least two films have been made of the novel, that I know of, though I have not seen either of them.) The heart-stopping beauty of the landscape, the relationships forged more through glance and gesture than through speech, the dreamlike nature of the lost domain and of the quest to find it again, all seem good candidates for a visual treatment. If the author had been born a bit later, or had not been killed so young in the First World War, he might even have found an artistic affinity to film-making himself.
On the other hand, at times the emotional fervor of the author breaks through the clumsiness of the English words, and one can catch a glimpse of what has become lost in translation.
She was asleep, so still and silent that she seemed not to be breathing. He thought: that’s how birds must sleep. For some time he stood looking at her sleeping, childlike face, so perfectly tranquil that it seemed a pity it should ever be disturbed.
* * *
At each step, with this burden on my breast, I find it more difficult to breathe. Holding close the inert, heavy body, I bend over her head and take a deep breath, drawing into my mouth some strands of golden hair; dead hair that has a taste of earth. This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure …
“But how can a man who has once strayed into heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth?” Meaulnes cries at one point. Le Grand Meaulnes is an attempt to express something almost inexpressible, to give us a picture of the deepest longings of the human heart. Even though translation may dim its full radiance, its scenes and images still resonate.
It has been suggested that The Great Gatsby owes something of its genesis to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its parallel, pitch-perfect title construction (the French could not be literally translated without sounding like “The Great Moan”) and the use of a passive narrator on the sidelines of a great love story. Perhaps this is an instance of what I mentioned at the beginning, a “translation” that takes some of the essence of a work but re-creates it anew for a new language, culture, and sensibility. There’s no direct evidence of this — no record of Fitzgerald having read or spoke of Alain-Fournier — but now that I’ve met Meaulnes, I’ll be very interested to take another look at Gatsby.
Classics Club List #39
An appreciation by David Mitchell