Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Translating "Les bonnes sœur"

Benjamin Ivry, who has translated many books from the French by authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus, wrote a review of a new translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary by Lydia Davis. Mr. Ivry's review was very interesting and full of insight. However, I strongly disagree with one of his comments.

He stated that "most bizarrely, a French term for nuns (les bonnes sœur) is repeatedly Englished as 'the good sisters.'"

A translation needs to be faithful and also need to convey not only the apparent meaning of the original language, but the cultural and historical subtleties as well. Therefore, "the good sisters" are far preferable here to "nuns" which failed to convey that in that period in France, people referred to nuns as the good sisters. Telling modern day English readers this piece of information can be helpful but it belongs to the footnotes. A translator is different from annotator.

Young Man, Book and Flowers / 青年,圖書和花卉 /  Junger Mann, Buch und Blumen
Young Man, Book and Flowers © Matthew Felix Sun

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