While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.