Interview with the French translators of Sigurd and Gudrún (6.12.10 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

In April 2010 The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was released in France. The translation was done by Christine Laferrière and Vincent Ferré. For the release of La légende de Sigurd et Gudrun there was organized a chat event by Tolkiendil.

Now, almost the end of this year, I present you with the translation of this chat session and I'm certain you will find it interesting. The translation was done by Romain Paulino, for which I am very grateful.

There is so much 'Tolkien' going on in France, so many interesting articles published and the French Publishers Christian Bourgois Editeur have such a long relationship with publishing Tolkien books that I find it sad that the French Tolkien scene is not being followed by the whole world. If only some French Tolkien publications (like La Feuille de la Compagnie) could find translations in English, or we all learned a bit of French, then many Tolkien lovers would be very surprised of the quality and content of articles they manage to publish. So let us take one step in the right direction and read the interview Beren and Zelphalya did with the French translators of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun in April.

Source: Original interview in French on Tolkiendil
La légende de Sigurd et Gudrun
Zelphalya: Thanks to both of you for being here tonight.
Beren: Before getting down to the heart of the matter, Christine, could you introduce yourself to our readers, who may not know you very well?



Christine Laferrière: Of course. I am first an English teacher. Translating is one of my hobbies, and I am pleased to be able to thank Vincent Ferré before all of you for his trust in offering me the opportunity to work on The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. Apart from that, I am a translator from Czech (which is an exotic language both to my eyes and ears).
Vincent Ferre: Let me add to what Christine said - she is far too modest. In the early 2000s, I started looking for additional translators for the Éditions Bourgois, translators who would be capable of immersing themselves in Tolkien's fictional universe for a year to translate a volume of The History of Middle Earth, or who would be skilled, possessing advanced and diverse linguistic knowledge not be limited to English. It gradually became apparent that the first one would be Daniel Lauzon, and that the second one could only be Christine Laferrière. I don't know how closely you’ve looked at the footnotes of The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, her first translation, but you will realize that she shed light on numerous points that readers could find hard to catch. These footnotes, which are not in the English version, give a good indication among other things of the skills of Christine, whom I did not know before working with her (no more than I knew Daniel Lauzon).
Vincent Ferre


Beren: Christine, could you tell us how and when you discovered Tolkien? And what did this discovery mean to you at the time? Was it merely a book among others?

Christine Laferrière:
I discovered it by chance [The Lord of the Rings] when I was around seventeen, on the family bookshelf. It's as simple as that. Let's say that the idea of a mythology had been of interest to me since I discovered the ancient myths in the original Greek and Latin in high school.
Obviously, I was shocked by the feeling that I was reading the work of a genius who had succeeded, in a few years, I daresay, in creating a world almost as extensive as the ones that had developed in antiquity over centuries.

Beren:
Vincent was telling us earlier how he got to "hire" you; how did you personally end up translating Tolkien? Was that an obvious thing for you? Vincent was saying earlier that you were exactly the kind of translator he was then looking for ...

Christine Laferrière:
Let's say that it was an opportunity for me to use my knowledge in the area of the English Middle Ages, which was extremely satisfying for me. That said, it wasn't easy (but then every translation is an ongoing lesson in humility) and I think I had the opportunity to demand of myself an extraordinary level of precision, as much in terms of content as of a style that is by nature highly diverse, if only from a linguistic perspective. I felt I really blossomed, and the different texts I have translated to this very day are all rather difficult, but I like it that way!

Beren:
Following up on that point, what genre of literature did you use to translate before Tolkien, and what genre are you currently translating, aside from Tolkien?

Christine Laferrière:
Before Tolkien, I translated texts for various reviews (for the Centre National de la Danse, legal texts, sometimes philosophical ones . . .) and apart from that, two Czech novels - contemporary fiction. I am currently working on a few new projects, but nothing official yet.

Beren:
Back to translating Tolkien: have you already had the opportunity to collaborate with the other translators from Vincent's team?

Christine Laferrière:
Even though it was possible, not really, because, in my greediness, I wanted to keep the texts entirely for myself!
Vincent Ferre: All jokes aside, we have been in contact with Daniel Lauzon for this text also. Because everything that has to do with Tolkien is Daniel’s turf - he’s a living encyclopedia and remembers absolutely each and every one of our discussions ...
Christine Laferrière: But I would readily call "collaboration" what Vincent modestly refers to as "translation supervision": I thank him for sometimes guiding me to ensure consistency with Tolkien's previously translated work, which is now supplemented by the texts I have done.

Beren:
Vincent, maybe you could talk a little bit about the relationship between the members of your team regarding the various translations of Tolkien.

Vincent Ferre: Let's say that every one of the "main" translators of Tolkien - Christine, Daniel, and Delphine Martin (let's not forget that Christian Bourgois entrusted Delphine with the translation of the Letters and The Children of Húrin without my having anything to do with it) - they each work in their own way, with their own style. It is thus necessary to harmonize everything, to have a view of the whole, to be sure that the work is consistent. That said, I am not the only one fulfilling this role: since my work is very diverse (I work on various authors at the university) I cannot keep everything in mind.
It is in fact Daniel Lauzon who is the key figure of the translators' team: he was consulted by Delphine Martin about The Children of Húrin, and I asked him some questions for this translation. In a nutshell, we all get along great; we have the same aim: making as many of Tolkien's texts as we can accessible to French and French-speaking readers. Within a ten-year span, between unpublished books and new editions (reviewed, amended, enhanced), this must amount to around ten volumes.
Christine Laferrière: Exactly. And I know that while I have been in contact mostly with Vincent, I nonetheless benefited from the collaboration of other people.

Beren: To stay on this subject, Christine, what do you think of the work of the team's other translators?

Christine Laferrière:
Mind-blowing. The Children of Húrin, for instance, is truly wonderful.

Beren:
Let's talk about the translation of Sigurd and Gudrún. To start with, what kind of issues have you encountered?

Christine Laferrière:
Most of all, how do you translate poetry as poetry, knowing that the Anglo-Saxon poetry has nothing to do with ours? Hence, my choice of six-syllable lines, like half an alexandrine, in order to create a poetic effect. Because of that, I found myself limited in vocabulary, needing to use the shortest words possible. But sometimes I also had to make some additions, to get to those six syllables. This may look simple, but it is not always easy to add something without changing the
meaning at all.
Vincent Ferre: No, Christine, the additions you made are negligible! We can see that from the original version, which faces the translation. Let us emphasize Christine’s extraordinary achievements in this regard. In this kind of situation, most translators would give up on using the poetic form. Christine managed to remain faithful to the original version while offering us a very beautiful French text, easy to understand despite its form.
Christine Laferrière: True, Vincent, but in that case, one always has doubts! The vocabulary in the original version is purely Anglo-Saxon. Thus, I have tried to use exclusively French words attested no later than the eighteenth century, to avoid terms that would be too modern and would disrupt this legend of old.

Beren: As a matter of fact, why did you use six- rather than eight-syllable lines, the "heroic/epic" meter?

Christine Laferrière: Good question! I admit that I hesitated at first, but the eight-syllable line would have been too long. In fact, it would have required too many additions, and the translation would have become a rewriting ... The choice of six-syllable lines often led me to get rid of articles and pronouns, among other things, which gave an archaic touch that I thought to be rather appropriate. And I was personally trying to imagine how rigid were the constraints that the author had wanted to impose on himself by choosing the Anglo-Saxon meter.
Vincent Ferre: Imagine how much work that represents! And we as readers cannot see the scaffolding, but only the effect that it has on us!

Beren:
That is indeed impressive. We are far from being able to picture what's going on "behind the curtain." For this translation, did you need any specific knowledge of Nordic mythology?

Christine Laferrière:
Yes. I didn't hesitate to reread some of the sagas before starting to work, so that I would be immersed in the atmosphere, surrounded by Scandinavian mist and flame, but also to be sure to have the appropriate vocabulary. When Régis Boyer states that drakkar is totally wrong and that one should say dreki, that's important. Had I had to translate this term, I would have chosen dreki, thinking that that was what Tolkien would have done!

Beren:
Then you have used existing translations of the Eddas?

Christine Laferrière: Used, no. Let's say that it seemed indispensable for me to know well what was readily accessible to today's readers, but I also wanted to be able to read, if only for my own pleasure, all the sources from which Tolkien took inspiration, and to rediscover the weave of the fabric that he made. In the very extensive notes that follow the poems, one can see clearly how the sources were treated. I couldn't resist reading those sources.

Beren:
In what way were Tolkien’s own writings about his work useful in order to translate the poems?

Christine Laferrière: Tolkien's commentaries shed a brilliant light on his conception and on the logic that underlies his ideas. Reading them can only make you more confident, because it is true (admittedly, only in a few places) that the poems have some obscure points.

Beren:
Still on the subject of Nordic mythology, what about a translation of Finn and Hengest, Vincent?

Vincent Ferre: This leads to the question of the more "scholarly" editions of Tolkien. For instance, the new English editions of Farmer Giles, or the volume we’re discussing today, which weren’t published while Tolkien was alive. I think that the priority of the Éditions Bourgois is to continue, as much as it can, to publish The History of Middle Earth, all the while accommodating newly published texts, such as The Children of Húrin (2007, translated in 2008!) or Sigurd and Gudrún (2009, translated in 2010!).

Beren:
Did you get some help from Christopher and Adam Tolkien while translating Sigurd and Gudrún?

Vincent Ferre: I'm going to answer that: Christopher and Adam Tolkien have closely followed this translation, and have supported and helped the translator and the editor a lot. They know how much we owe them ... but that was already true for the preceding volumes. We have been regularly in touch since at least 2003 about translations. We are very lucky in that respect.

Beren:
What is the place of Sigurd and Gudrún among Tolkien's books? How is it related to the other works that have been already published?

Vincent Ferre:
I think that Christine already defined Sigurd and Gudrún's place within the general context of "Nordic literature" and the interest Tolkien had for this area. But it seems to me that the publication of this book, only two years after The Children of Húrin, has nothing to do with chance. As I wrote before, Sigurd and Gudrún is profoundly revealing. This book clearly shows everything that Tolkien owes to the Nordic legends, sources from which he borrows again, but in a completely different form, in The Children of Húrin or in The Lord of the Rings. Here, we are dealing with a rewriting, a frank, direct homage. We can relate this text to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarilion as well as to Christine and the Letters. Sigurd and Gudrún sheds lights on them, in its own way.

Beren:
Then, is a translation of Beowulf by Tolkien and of his poem on Arthur to come in the near future?

Vincent Ferre:
The Fall of Arthur… I asked Christopher Tolkien about this a few years ago, but he was very discreet. We have to respect his discretion and his work.

Beren:
Back on Sigurd, could you tell us how you feel personally about that work, Christine, and on the other hand about the structure chosen by Christopher Tolkien, with the inclusion of Tolkien’s commentaries and the appendices?

Christine Laferrière:
My feelings . . . I felt a deep respect for the sources drawn from here . . . Vincent talked about an "a frank, direct homage." To me, it is a unique piece of work, like no other, and also an attempt to reconcile some of the mysteries that persist in the old texts, in particular because they are incomplete. It is a moving text, one in which I think I found at the same time a great selflessness and the master's touch. It is also moving to think that this text remained virtually secret for so long, even though it is of the utmost importance.
As for the presentation of the text, I think Christopher couldn't have done better: it was utterly essential to remind everyone of the prosodic rules involved as well as of the fact that the poems had been the subject of various essays (On Translating Beowulf comes to mind), and also to allow the reader to understand the steps in Tolkien’s thought process and its foundations. The notes are really illuminating and the appendices, which include other poems, are a nice way to conclude this book. The appendix including the historical context comes after the poems, which avoids having comparisons throughout the text.

Beren:
In your opinion, what kind of readership is this book aimed at?

Christine Laferrière:
Anyone who is fond of poetry, and all Tolkien readers - who will inevitably be very demanding and who thus couldn't help but enjoy the rigor of this book.
Vincent Ferre: Anyone who is attracted to the Nordic legends and/or Tolkien! And who doesn’t mind reading him in poetic form, which is less expected than a novel. But don't tell me that The Lord of the Rings is an easy read! Or that The Children of Húrin is easy to get into, with all the names in the first chapter. Anyway, I think that this book is less "for all ages" than The Children of Húrin, but no less so than The Lord of the Rings.
Christine Laferrière: Absolutely. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Children of Húrin, you shouldn't miss Sigurd and Gudrún!

Beren:
To go back a bit, Christine, how did you feel when translating The Monsters and the Critics?

Christine Laferrière:
I was obviously amazed by the diversity of the themes that are dealt with in the book, and I was also pleased to apply, I daresay, what I knew of Old English. I sensed a great logic; for those essays, most of which were in fact originally papers delivered at conferences, are strongly coherent. And I appreciated likewise the coherence of the author’s thought very much, sometimes applied to very old texts, sometimes to texts from the fourteenth century. What I liked best: translating texts that deal with language and languages, with translation issues, in such an acute fashion, but also of the never-ending relationship between language and literature. These texts shed light on the subject in general - that could never be said enough.

Beren:
Christine, what does your Tolkienian future look like? Do you have any Tolkien translation projects?

Vincent Ferre:
I can answer that! For now, the project of the Editions Bourgois is a new edition of The Hobbit; more precisely the translation of The Annotated Hobbit, in the Anderson edition. Daniel Lauzon (who else?) has translated all the new elements included in this edition, and has begun a rigorous revision of the translation itself. But this project will not be finished before the end of the year.
So, we don't have any other projects starting yet . . . But we will pick up any new book published by Christopher Tolkien!

Beren:
Speaking of future publications, what about the progress on the CNRS [National Center for Scientific Research] dictionary, and on the revision of The Lord of the Rings?

Vincent Ferre:
The dictionary is going forward: out of the four hundred entries, more than three hundred have arrived, and are currently being proofread. We may be a little late, but the deadline was extremely short, and there were a lot of hitches (when sixty people work together, things that delay the whole team often occur). But there is no problem really. The proceedings of the Rambures symposium (in June 2008) will come out in the next few weeks: we are reading the proofs before printing. As for the revision of The Lord of the Rings . . . as I was saying during the last chat session, it is from that revision that all of our work started. We often think about it, and each and every one of the new publications is preparing the ground for this project - it is obvious in the case of The Hobbit, for instance. I also have to work on a lot of other files, at the university, and on other authors. But we're seeing the light at the end on the tunnel, and if there are not too many unpublished books to come in the next few years . . .

Beren:
Will this translation include the one of the The History of Middle-earth? And sorry to ask again, but what about Christine's role in future projects?

Vincent Ferre:
Of course, volumes six to nine of the The History of Middle-earth and the revision of the The Lord of the Rings are absolutely linked! Which explains how complex the work can get. As for Christine's role, it's always the editor who chooses. But you now know my opinion of her work.

Beren:
I think we can now proceed to the participants' questions.
Beren: From Turb: With these new publications, how has the perception of Tolkien in the scholarly world evolved over the last few years?


Vincent Ferre:
In a nutshell: it has improved a great deal. For instance, the hesitancy that we might have encountered ten years ago in now gone; as I explain in the little text that will come out along with the Rambures papers, Tolkien is now perceived almost as an author like any other. An author, true, less read by scholars than canonical authors; but everyone is now aware of the extent and diversity of his work, which means that people no longer reduce him to a single book (and even less to the films).

Beren:
From Ælfwine: Is Sigurd and Gudrún currently successful? Is there a financial risk concerning the translation project?

Vincent Ferre:
The book has come out last Thursday; it’s too early to tell.
Christine Laferrière: Sigurd has just been born!
Vincent Ferre: On the other hand, I know that the last publications - apart from The Children of Húrin - have had little success, while translating the Letters, three volumes of The History of Middleearth, The Monsters and The Critics . . . all of this represents a major financial investment on the part of the editor. Even the publication of the Etymologies as a separate volume, as requested by lots of readers, hasn't had much success. I'll keep my fingers crossed for the next volumes . . . because nothing is certain.

Beren:
From Ælfwine: What are the narrative choices that Tolkien made while writing his poems (in relation to the originals)?

Christine Laferrière:
That is a complex question . . . We can say that he analyzed the sources and drew conclusions from which he got his inspiration. But the sources are diverse, and it was his personal choice to opt for poetry, even though the original texts also include passages in prose. Moreover, he also wished to restore to certain characters the importance that he believed they originally had.

Beren:
From Ingwiel: I would like to know if you chose to base your translation on Tolkien's text itself, or if you went into it in great depth and got closer to the symbolism that Tolkien incorporates in his work?

Christine Laferrière: I followed the text exclusively. Once again, Vincent in fact helped me to make a decision in some cases regarding the symbolism; but since the text is an essential element of the work in general, it was also normal, in my opinion, that it could indeed be considered separately. Let's say that the necessary harmonization was achieved subsequently.

Beren:
From Druss: Please allow me to address the issues of Sigurd and Gudrún's delay. I had a chance to see a copy of the version that came out last week and noted that it is bilingual, which was not the case with the review copy. Does this mean that in the meantime you negotiated the rights to print the original version?

Vincent Ferre:
I have to say that the matter of the rights is not at all our responsibility - Christine translates, I work on her translation . . . I’d let the publishers speak for themselves about the rest. And you see that the publishers haven’t done so: in some sense, a few months from now, we will have forgotten about this few weeks' delay. In the end, isn’t it a good thing that the poems are presented in both English and French?

Beren:
From Ælfwine: Did Tolkien draw his inspiration from later sources like the Niebelungenlied at all?

Christine Laferrière:
Yes and no! In fact, he examined all possible sources and tried to see how the later sources had been corrupted or obscured. It is above all the two Eddas (in prose and verse) that should be considered first.

Beren:
From Turb: This is surely explained by Christopher Tolkien, but was Sigurd and Gudrún originally planned by Tolkien for publication? To be read aloud to friends? For his own pleasure?

Christine Laferrière:
That is in fact a mystery. The manuscripts are almost fair copies, sometimes with corrections, but Tolkien never talked of them and mentioned them only twice, including once in a letter to C. S. Lewis, according to Christopher. He must have read parts of them to a few friends, and that's it.

Beren:
From Ingwiel: Although the text is one of the mainstays and fundamental elements of the book, don't you think that it would have been interesting to be able to examine the symbolism that Tolkien incorporates in every one of his works and his references to the Scandinavian myths in order to reveal a deeper dimension of his texts, even if it would have sometimes meant diverging from the exact phrasing?

Christine Laferrière:
I understand this point of view well, but I believe that translating a work written in the 1930s meant not adding any later developments in the thought or symbolism that Tolkien explored later on. In fact, the symbolism was probably developing in his mind while he was writing Sigurd and Gudrún. I have translated the text as it was, because I think that a work is inscribed in its own time.
Incorporating into it an elaborate symbolism that was developed later would have meant rewriting it retrospectively. A little as if I had incorporated terms from the 1950s because those terms existed when I was actually doing the translation. Well, this is how I see things anyway . . .

Beren:
From Ingwiel: Don't you think that you thus let some elements pass you by, elements that could have been interesting and that represent a notion that Tolkien surely incorporated in this writing? [No doubt this relates to Ingwiel's former question.]

Christine Laferrière:
I think (but maybe I'm wrong, who knows?) that the notions that you are talking about are the ones that he develops in the lectures and the notes that Christopher reproduces in the introduction. I perceive them first as linked to the sources and not to what he was going to do with them later in his novels. I hope I haven’t prejudiced the reader in this way! And to speak to the point that Sigurd and Gudrún makes a whole, I think that it can also be read by people who don't necessarily know everything.

Beren:
From Ælfwine: Does Tolkien stylistically mark the border between a poem that is essentially mythological (Sigurd) and one that mostly deals with human plots (Gudrún)?

Christine Laferrière:
Excellent question! Yes, he does, in the way that in Gudrún the subdivisions are gone, and the rhythm is faster, following the rhythm of the battles. But apart from that, I observed that there is a certain consistency between both poems considered together. Perhaps there are more compound words, which are more difficult to translate, in Gudrún?

Beren:
From Bertrand: The oral aspect of the text is very well preserved in the translation. How did you manage to do that? Were you declaiming your translation while you were writing it, to find the right rhythm?

Christine Laferrière:
Yes, I sometimes translated out loud, to count the syllables correctly, but also, as a matter of fact, to see how a speech would sound and what its effect would be. If I have managed to reproduce this effect, as you just said, then I am very pleased. This oral side is indeed essential in the translation.

Beren:
From Ingwiel: On a completely different subject, how do you define or know that a translation is good, that it is complete? Are there several different steps in addition to all the proofreading to make sure?


Christine Laferrière:
I consider a translation as good if I am at heart convinced that I have served two masters equally: the original text and the future reader. A translation is never complete, because translating is choosing, and to choose means to lose. Apart from that, you need to get a lot of information on the subject, to know perfectly the terms that are used, as well as to love and respect the French language enough, in this case, to judge how much the combination of these terms is appropriate. A translation also requires you to stand back - it is normal to leave the dough to rise! You obviously always have to wonder what the author would have written in French, without ever thinking that you are the writer . . . or a writer at all. I think that the criterion of a successful translation can be a heartfelt conviction, if you are able to defend all of your choices.

F: I would like to congratulate you on the very beautiful and accurate expression that you just used to describe a translator's hard work!

Christine Laferrière:
Thank you, Forfirith!

Beren:
Well, Christine, I think we’ll stop there. This has been a captivating interview, and thanks again for your enthusiastic participation.

Christine Laferrière:
Once again, I was very pleased and moved to have been invited. I also want you to know how much I admire everything that you do around Tolkien's work, which will never cease to fascinate us.

Beren:
I hope that we’ll soon have the opportunity to meet up, and that we'll see your work on Tolkien again many times.

Christine Laferrière:
With pleasure!

Beren:
Good-bye then! And thanks again!

Zelphalya:
Thanks to everyone for joining Tolkiendil's chat session.

Title: La légende de Sigurd et Gudrun
Author:
J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher:
Christian Bourgois Editeur

Publication Date:

15 Apr 2010

Type:
paperback, 295 pages

ISBN-10:
2267021064
ISBN-13: 978-2267021066

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