Using slang in literary translations, or telling a story in words that I would never use

My current translation is taking me to extraordinary places… namely the suburbs of Paris in the 1990s, before the infamous riots, right during the rise of rap, hip-hop and black feminism.
A word of explanation: the narrator of the book is a French guy of African origin, who grew up in France before making his way up from the streets and their gangs to the offices of Wall Street. He wrote his book in English and I now have to translate back into our mother tongue the savoury dialogues he exchanged with his gangsta friends or his bandmates.

But, ”our” mother tongue? As I started working, I realised that the voice could be quite playful and familiar and that this manner of speaking should carry into my translation. I went back on some of the text I had already translated and I started using contractions, stock phrases that were a little bit more visual (ok, graphic) as well as some words that only people who have grown up in France in the 1990s (preferably in the projects) use, sometimes on a daily basis… our particular form of slang: the verlan.

Now, the verlan is a special form of slang that basically means ”backwards”’, but à l’envers, ”wardsback”. Femme meuf; choper pécho; cité téci. Get it? You simply have to switch the order of the syllables in order to create a new noun, adjective, verb, or even name. Some letters might be omitted and the spelling can change a little, but that’s basically it and it became the language young people used to communicate and recognize each other.

Wait? Did you notice what I just wrote? ”Language”, not slang. At one point in the book, the narrator admits that when he and his friends (most of whom are of foreign extraction) are in a public place surrounded by white people, they would only talk verlan among themselves, as if to re-emphasize their own differences and their feeling of exclusion. Verlan has also become the official language of rap and hip-hop but is not limited to non-white users. A popular singer like Renaud (and by popular, I mean in touch with the workers and the poorest classes of society) often uses verlan in his songs.

As we discussed with the author using a verlan word in the title of the book, my first reaction was to think that it would seem unnatural to me and that some readers might not really understand it… And then it hit me that the work I had done listening to old rap videos and researching some ”suburb speech” was actually honest and that I could not have translated accurately the struggle of growing up in the suburbs if I had point blank avoided to use verlan. And if the readership the book will attract has gone through the same story as the narrator, then it will not seem like a few words of slang thrown here and there, but like a language as close to their heart as any mother tongue would be.

So, to slang or not to slang? In that particular case, it’s not like I had to translate a story that takes place in the Bronx or in a Londonian suburb, and phrases will have to be transcreated into French or point-blank invented. Those are real words I’ve heard in the street, on the radio, in the bus, and some of them reactivate quite unpleasant memories. The funny thing is that French, my native language, is the only one that I speak without a regional accent and I very seldom use slang or dialect words. But I needed to overcome that affective block and… let it go. I managed to sound like a gangsta hanging out in the streets with his bros, and it was worth the sacrifice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s