How do you translate a book which counts ‘Frenchness’ as one of its key charms? Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce had the difficult task of co-translating Antoine Laurain’s 2012 best-seller Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat), about five lives forever changed by François Mitterrand’s hat.
Gallic books, the Aitken-founded publisher that specialises in bringing French literature to English-speaking markets, picked three professionals because the tale relies on its switch from one character to the next to deploy its magic. Aitken, who did the overall editing, explains that the decision came after she noticed, “how even the best translators have difficulty make the speech of different characters sound distinctive”.
The text was split based on each translator’s personal character affinities and previous work. Boyce and Aitken for instance respectively wrote Fanny and Pierre, who they were closest to in age. Lalaurie was tasked with translating Daniel, a continuation of the work she started for Fiction France, a magazine aimed at publishing professionals abroad interested in French literature.
To guarantee consistency, the co-translators were in regular contact to ensure they always chose the right word. According to Aitken, “there were a handful of areas where we had treated the same thing differently, but surprisingly few”. For instance, Lalaurie remembers discussing the best way to translate “what an oyster does when it’s squirted with lemon juice? Squirm, wince, retract? I chose ‘retract’ to start with but ultimately, we chose ‘squirm’: much more direct!” Daniel is the novel’s hook, the first character you meet, the one who steals the hat from Mitterrand at a brasserie dinner. Getting him right was therefore key to engrossing the reader in the story.
Aside from their work with the particular characters they translated, each woman developed affinities with other figures from the book. For Lalaurie, it was Bernard because of a common interest in art. For Boyce, it was Pierre (a perfumer and the third owner of the hat) thanks to an interest for the profession developed while touring the Fragonard factory as a child. She had even gone as far as considering the career path but was put off by hearing that noses don’t drink alcohol - imagine her surprise when she read Pierre enjoyed bubbly!
Knowing that Le Chapeau had recently been published in English, I kept wondering, while reading it, how it could work for a British or American audience (Laurain has just completed a tour of the US). My worries were twofold: how can the new audience relate to the feeling of nostalgia threaded through the book when they have never lived in France and how can they understand the French-focused references?
Lalaurie acknowledged that “some British readers may be surprised by a feel-good book about personal empowerment in the Eighties” but all believe that the charm will equally operate. None of the translators lived in France until the latter part of Mitterrand’s 14-year-long presidency so in a way, they were faced with a challenge almost equal to their readers.
As for the possible cultural barriers, Aitken explains that they got around the issue, “on a few occasions slipping in an explanatory word or two yet generally we steering clear of explanations that would have interrupted the flow of the writing”. For instance, to translate ”l’heure du journal télévisé d’Yves Mourousi”, which as a French person I know to mean 1pm, Aitken specified that it was the lunchtime TV news.
I also asked Lalaurie, Aitken and Boyce what they thought a British version of The President’s Hat would be? The Prime Minister’s handbag? As Lalaurie pointed out, “Mrs. T. was unlikely to have left her handbag behind in a restaurant”. Boyce suggested a more current alternative with Boris Johnson: ”perhaps someone might steal a Boris bike and end up with mad hair, but whether it would change their lives”. My favourite option though is her alternative proposal, Winston Churchill’s cigar – it probably encapsulates a nostalgia that’s akin to Mitterrand’s hat. How exactly a cigar would move from person to person is up to the author’s imagination (I’m thinking about a cigar box with each character smoking one before losing or forgetting the box).