When Allison Charette accepted the offer to translate “Return to Erfurt”, a French book about a Holocaust survivor whose family moved across Europe to evade death, she asked, “Is the editor available to be contacted if I have any questions?”
She commonly asks this question before she signs contracts with publishing houses. If the author is alive and willing to talk, she can ask them questions about the manuscript rather than guessing or inferring from the text. Centro Primo Levi, the nonprofit organization that requested the translation, told her that the original author Olga Tarcali had died, but that Marianne Spier-Donati, the subject of the memoir, was still alive and would most likely be available to answer her questions.
Charette, 25, had been translating French since she was an undergraduate, but started translating professionally a little over two years earlier. She had studied French since junior high, and wanted to keep exploring the language. When Charette first read “Return to Erfurt”, she said, she “absolutely fell in love with the book.”
“I was more than happy to do the work and had I come across it on my own, it’s something I would have considered doing.”
She started to translate the book in January. When Charette translates, she reads the original text from start to finish at least once. Then, when she sets out to do the actual translation, she reads the entire text out loud.
“One of the perks of working in my house is that I can read anything out loud to myself,” she said. “I read the French out loud. I read what I’ve written out loud. Reading out loud really helps, because you can figure out the rhythm, the pacing.”
A translated sentence may look fine at first glance on the computer screen, but it might not sound natural to the language when you listen to it.
But translating “Return to Erfurt” became more for Charette than merely rendering a text into English. It meant an unexpected journey into a vanished world.
But first there was a conflict to resolve with her editor about the direction of the translation, specifically the tone of the story. Her editor, Alessandro Cassin, wanted a more literal word-for-word translation of the novel. Charette wanted to focus more on delivering the idea of the book to English.
Charette placed great importance on keeping the idea of the story alive rather than adhering to word-for-word accuracy. Her work had won her accolades, including the SAND Journal Found in Translation Competition prize with her translation of an excerpt of “Big” by Isabelle Rivoal. Katy Derbyshire, the competition judge, chose her work “for its fully-formed, naturally fluent feel and well-rendered dialogue.”
A translator who translates legal or technical documents from French to English may need to focus on using exact words and phrases, but in literature there is more leeway, as long as the translated words carry the factual content of the original text. “There is a misconception that there is a one to one equivalence between languages; that is not the case,” Charette said. Even when trying to translate word for word, she continued, there would always be limits due to cultures expressing ideas differently or languages having grammatical structures not present in others. Keeping the idea of the story alive, she believed, was paramount.
“When I’m dealing with literature,” she said. “My philosophy is much more idea for idea.”
Alessandro Cassin said he agreed that translation needs to be precise both in content and tone and realized the challenge to get both the words and the tone right.
“Any two languages are really different, so you have to find the equivalent. It’s not so much question of really translating each word, but finding the equivalence of tone of the original,” he said.
However, he thought that Charette sometimes went overboard in bringing the spirit of the book to life.
“I think she’s a good translator, but sometimes either the original French was a little more straightforward, she was making it too elaborate, or also the other way around, adding tone that was not in the original book.”
He said that initially, Charette had a tendency to add things that were not there because she thought it would improve the tone of the book, which he did not agree with.
“The tone is an important thing, but if you add things not in the text, it’s intolerable, it’s a disservice to the text. It’s a very thin line.” he said.
“I think the challenge is that it’s a compromise between being faithful to the original language and to make it really work in the new language.”
Charette said that she intended to draw out the subdued emotions of the original French text when translating “Return to Erfurt”. French culture, she believed, has a more stoic, even cynical tone when it comes to dealing with negative emotions, while in English, especially in the United States, people are more openly expressive when writing about the difficult times in their lives. Charette wanted to emphasize the more emotional tones in the translation.
There was, for instance, this paragraph:
“I believe that all of my wanderings, all those moves which shunted me around in my early years, all those inconsolable traumas which had caused my tragic separation from my parents, they had certainly imprinted very deep within me a faint yet fundamental insecurity, of which there still remain traces inside of me today.”
“Most of the adjectives in this section are more extreme in the English translation than they were in the original French,” Charette explained. Although the French expressions were more subdued in the original text, she read the emotions behind the restrained vocabulary and opted to present it in a more English manner.
“There’s so much emotion that is an undercurrent in the French book that I was trying to bring more into the surface because it would be more effective in English,” she said.
Yet even with her understanding of how feelings are expressed in French and English, she struggled to decipher Spier-Donati’s emotions. The book was a memoir written in the first person, and when Charette read the original French text, she felt that the overall voice of the book was overly emotional and reflective. She was especially struck by the parts where Spier-Donati remembers her mother:
“I loved my mother passionately, immensely, intensely. She was the love of my life, the never-forgotten dearly departed, whose absence has burnt me continually throughout my entire existence. The love that I had for her, and that she showed towards me, has guided my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions. I’ve built my life around the void of her loss, which I could never mourn.”
But when Charette translated the passage based on how she felt when reading, she thought it sounded reverent rather than affectionate, which she thought was an odd way to talk about one’s mother.
“I felt like,” she said, “I was being too heavy-handed.”
She finished her first draft four months later. By then she had returned to France for a three month-long residence in Lyon with a family she knew.
“I try to go back to France every possibility I get because it really helps me to keep up with the language,” she said, “keep up with the culture, and how it’s changing, talk to different people.”
The trip would offer something more – the chance to meet and talk with Spier-Donati, who was now 83 and living in Paris. To her relief, Spier-Donati was welcoming and thrilled to meet her. She boarded the TGV train in Lyon and arrived in Paris two hours later. She was greeted by a cocker spaniel that started jumping all over her.
“So the first words out of her mouth to me were not, ‘Hi, nice to meet you!’ it was, this adorable little cocker spaniel is attacking me, and ‘Don’t worry, it’s an adorable dog!’ She was so, so sweet,” Charette said.
“She is this tiny, petite little French woman, uh, well, she’s not even French, she’s German. But she looks like this tiny, petite little French woman. Maybe because she lived in France in so long and adopted all of those styles and the demeanors.”
Spier-Donati offered tea and cookies, and made small talk about gardens as she led Charette in.
Charette noticed that the apartment Spier-Donati lived in was unlike so many others in Paris. French apartments are usually arranged in rows of buildings on each street, with a common courtyard between the rows of apartments. But instead of a courtyard, this particular apartment had a giant garden.
“I’ve never seen a larger garden in a Paris apartment in my entire life,” she said.
She soon learned that this unusual housing was one of the ways Spier-Donati had coped with the horrors of her past.
Spier-Donati told Charette about her childhood. The two of them started to talk about the book and Spier-Donati’s story. She was born Marianne Spier in Erfurt, Germany in 1930. Her family fled to Belgium in 1935 to escape persecution, but was forced into Northern France when Belgium was invaded in 1940. They eventually moved south to Vichy-controlled France, where in 1942 her parents were captured and taken to concentration camps. Marianne and her brother were then taken in by a relative named Angelo Donati – from whom she received the other part of her last name – who moved them to Florence, Italy. When Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, German incursions in Northern Italy forced them into hiding in an Italian village in the Alps until the end of the war. Spier-Donati and her brother moved to Paris after the war, where they have lived since.
Her earliest memories were of the flight to Belgium in 1935 when she was five. While her parents were worried about their family’s fate, Spier-Donati and her brother recall those years as a happy time. They lived in a duplex apartment with a balcony, a patio, with a garden in the back.
Long afterward, when Spier-Donati went looking for an apartment in Paris in 1970s, she could not find anything that she liked. Even though she had lived in Paris since the age of 15, none of the locations really felt like home to her until she came across the current apartment. The apartment was a duplex with a balcony, a patio, and had a garden in the back. She instantly fell in love with it. Spier-Donati recalled how she described her new place to her brother and he replied, “Well, that sounds like the apartment in Belgium.”
For Charette it was an illuminating moment. “So I was able to see the apartment she described in the book as the one she lives in now being so happy in, reminding her of where she lived in her childhood when during the years she was happiest in her childhood, and I got to see it in person.”
Charette was also taken by how calm Spier-Donati was as she told her story. Charette asked why she appeared so composed; she was obviously affected by it, but she wasn’t taking time out of the conversation to compose herself or breaking down in tears, the way she had expected Holocaust survivors would do.
“And she explained that that’s just how she deals with everything,” Charette said.
Spier-Donati explained that because she still remembers everything vividly with such detail, her only coping mechanism is to accept what happened to her and remember it and try to keep that story alive. But not everybody copes like her. Her younger brother tries to blot out the past, and instead focusing intensely on tracing the family history of his Indonesian wife, filling the void of his story with hers.
As they talked, Charette found that the emotions that she initially thought were “over the top” and “kitschy” were Spier-Donati’s true emotions after all. She had worried that her translation made Spier-Donati sound overly reverent towards her lost mother, but it was a reflection of the depth of her love, as seen in her dedication of the book to her mother:
“She is here, close to me, looking over my shoulder as I write these lines. Fifty-seven years after she left for Auschwitz, where she was most likely gassed on arrival, I can’t help but think that wherever she is, she is pleased with this story that I’m dedicating to her. She is the primary inspiration for it, her and her intense love. By talking about her, I feel that I am bringing her closer to me, pulling her from this nothingness where she doesn’t even exist, or doesn’t exist anymore, that I am creating an almost tactile shadow of her beside me. Almost like it was before.”
Charette now understood that her decision to bring out the underlying emotions in the English translation was the right choice.
“As I was having a conversation with her,” she said, “I realized, she told me, this is how she wants her story told, this is what she feels about it. She does have that very severely emotional quality to it and so she was okay with it.
Charette went back to Cassin and explained about bringing the emotional aspects into life and how Spier-Donati approved of her choice.
Cassin agreed that Charette’s meeting with Spier-Donati helped to bring out the tone and the significance of the book.
“I believe that when possible, translator benefit from direct contact with authors.” he said. “They gain new insight into their specific mode of expression on and off the page.”
Cassin believed that his constant exchange with Charette on the direction of the translation also helped, saying that the translation improved by having another pair of eyes look over it.
“Translating is not a perfect science, it involves more than one person,” he said.
“I think it’s a good translation. I think that translation is a group effort always, so I think that it has improved a lot.”
Cassin approved the new interpretations, and Charette completed her translation.
According to Cassin, the book is expected to be published around March.
“A lot of it is being able to write, knowing the author’s voice and transferring it into English,” Charette said of translation. “You’re trying to portray the work of an author in a new language and show a new audience how you appreciate that work.”
(Note: Italicized portions are copyrighted by Allison M. Charette.)