Translating a first-person narrative: What I learned in the process

The work of a literary translator is not limited to fiction. Over the course of the past few months, I have worked on a short story and a novel told in the first person, as well as memoirs and a non-fiction book in which the author uses “I”, instead of the more academic and general “we”.

But who is this “I”? It has struck me that I, as the French voice of that imaginary or real person, have been affected in my work as well as personally by the permanent use of a first-person pronoun I needed to distance myself from.

Here are a few points that I learned:

1- Translating a fictional “I” is easier. It may be psychological, but it was easier to separate myself from a fictional I, even when I worked on a short story in which the narrator was an alienated artist. This first-person narrator is not omniscient and the text is coloured by their inability to control all aspects of the plot. Even if the character is not particularly likeable, it’s easier to see them as a “vehicle” to travel through the story. Of course, those who have translated books like Les Bienveillantes into other languages will tell me that it’s not that easy, and I can understand how working on translating the (fictional) confessions of a horrible character has affected them.
And this bring me to my second point.

2- You will judge that narrator, or operate a transfer and become them. You may not always agree with the author. Translating literature is also having to write political opinions contrary to yours in the first person, transmitting advice you may differ with. You may think the narrator brags, or embellishes the truth. Of course, should your personal opinions differ too much from the message the text wants to convey, this is a matter of deontology. As a personal example, I often browse the platform Elance, and I see job offers for translation of religious based books. Not a problem in itself, but, after having leafed through some of them, I discovered homophobic opinions confidently expressed by an “I” I could not differentiate myself with. As far as non-fiction goes, there are personal opinions I simply could not bear to translate.

On the other hand, I have often fallen prey to becoming too attached to the character. Translating A Good Day to Die, by David Danish, was sometimes difficult, as I liked the first-person narrator, for his naïveté and openness, and I felt I was living through him the turmoils Iran knew at the beginning of the 1980s. Okay, it was based on real-life events, but it was still a fiction, or even a catharsis for the veteran writer who fought in the war and needed to communicate something about it.

But translating Outcry, a Holocaust memoir by Manny Steinberg, proved extremely taxing emotionally. How many times had I had to read, translate, edit and proofread a sentence that began with “I” and ended in horrors, tortures and beatings?

I realised I was becoming too involved when I started putting adjectives in the feminine form in the French version, as if it was me, Angélique, who was talking: I had lost myself.

3- To avoid this, keep your concentration and find the narrator’s voice. Try to write all you know about the character. How would they speak in French? When and where were they born? Who are they talking to?

For the memoir From the streets to Wall Street, written in English by a French native, I was lucky to have him correct the street slang I had tried to use. After having done some research, I had got most of it right, but his help proved invaluable during the copyright process, in giving his character the adequate voice, the one the author had when he was younger.

And you, have you had any experience working with first-person narratives?

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