TamTam Books News

Sunday, January 04, 2004:

Review of Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian, translated by Brian Harper
(TamTam Books, 2003)

by Alistair Rolls, Intercultural-Studies

Both Tosh Berman (editor and publisher) and Brian Harper (translator) are to be congratulated for this new translation of Boris Vian’s seminal French novel of 1947, L’Écume des jours. Perhaps the most important fact to mention for the non-French-speaking fan of Vian’s work is that Foam of the Daze is a translation of the 1994 edition of the French text, which was reworked and annotated by the two leading scholars in the field at that time, Michel Rybalka and the late Gilbert Pestureau. Harper translates the notes with some supplementary explanation for his predominantly American audience. I use the word ‘predominantly’ advisedly since this translation supersedes the existing British-English translation, Froth on the Daydream (translated by Stanley Chapman and published by Rapp and Carroll Ltd in 1967), which has been the reference point for the Vian audience outside France until now. For Foam of the Daze achieves a readability that had previously escaped both Froth on the Daydream and the previous American-English version Mood Indigo (translated by John Sturrock and first published in 1968).
Any reader would be quick to point out that the question of readability is obviously crucial; this is true but it is also equally true that readability is a factor that has become lost in previous attempts to render L’Écume des jours in English. The reason for this is not that Vian’s writing is any more difficult to understand than that of Marcel Proust or Louis-Ferdinand Céline – it clearly is not; the difficulty of translating Vian lies in the text’s constant shifting of mood. It is a bi-polar novel, lying at the intersection of ludic wordplay and heart-rending romance. As Harper translates on page 108:

Where the rivers empty into the ocean, there forms a bar that is difficult to pass, and large foamy eddies where shipwrecks dance.

This is the locus of the novel, and it is a tumultuous synthesis that both Sturrock and Chapman failed to achieve in English. Indeed, L’Écume des jours is as untranslatable – in terms of producing a perfect rendering of tone and mood in English, without sacrificing the text’s ostensible meaning – as any novel gets. An interesting parallel may be drawn with the translations into English of Raymond Queneau’s incredibly rich Zazie dans le métro and Exercices de style; Barbara Wright’s Zazie in the Metro and Exercises in Style are arguably among the greatest French-English translations of all time. Wright has an uncanny knack of producing readable translations of the difficult French puns – for both texts are based on intricate and, at times deliberately elusive, wordplay. If Wright could manage what was considered untranslatable in a way that Vian translators have been unable to, it is largely because Queneau’s charm lay precisely in his use of French; Vian’s novels have wordplay but are not about language. This is the precise reason why so many academic theses have failed to capture the essence of Vian’s work: it is, as Queneau himself points out (on the back-cover of Foam of the Daze), "the most poignant love story of our time".
There is a master’s thesis (Sophie de Nodrest – ‘Re-Creation of a Recreation: A Comparative Study of Two English Translations of L’Écume des jours’) that assesses the virtues of Froth on the Daydream and Mood Indigo in terms of the accuracy with which they render Vian’s puns. Chapman’s text, in particular, offers some highly skilful linguistic acrobatics, and is a ‘good translation’ throughout. It is not, however, a romance; it is not a good read.
From the outset, Harper captures something of Vian’s tone; the reading experience can be compared to that of reading the French version (Froth on the Daydream and Mood Indigo, despite their considerable academic value, bear little relation to L’Écume des jours). And he manages this in spite of his own frailties as a translator of French. He effaces the wordplay, putting his emphasis on the characters’ emotions. That is not to say that he cuts out the puns; indeed, he deals with them in a way that makes them as palatable as can be expected. But generally he deals with them by putting them onto the second row.
It must be pointed out that there is an inevitable price to pay for what James Sallis calls "this new hip, fluid translation"; there are some clumsy sentences at times and some mistranslations, which could have been avoided – ironically – by making fuller use of Froth on the Daydream (Chapman’s text does display an excellent command of the original French at the level of the surface text). The most jarring feature of Foam of the Daze lies in its word-for-word submission to French syntax in those calm patches between difficult puns. Harper’s translation of certain passages of dialogue, for example, read as noticeably French sentences with their words replaced by English ones. As any student of French knows, modal verbs are particularly ‘hard to translate’. The following line (page 158 of the original French) shows this problem:

Cela peut revenir, dit l’antiquitaire, encourageant.

Chapman translates as follows:

‘It will come back,’ said the junctiquarian, encouragingly.

This use of the future is stronger than the French (peut here translates best as ‘may’) but does ring true. Harper’ offers the following:

It can come back, said the antiquiter, encouraging.

The modal ‘can’ clearly does not work; neither does the use of the adjective ‘encouraging’, a French usage best rendered in English – as by Chapman – with an adverb. And yet the use of the more self-effacing ‘antiquiter’ may be seen as an improvement over Chapman’s clever but heavy ‘junctiquarian’. Dialogue is not the strong point of Foam of the Daze but, then again, L’Écume des jours itself is a slightly stilted and off-key novel. Harper’s success, as has been mentioned, lies in his strategy of moving away from words and going with a certain flow of the text. What he produces, imperfections aside, is a novel - with all its tension and pathos - and not a mere exercise in translation.
Passing from matter of the text to the hypertext, Tom Recchion’s work, as designer and illustrator, should be mentioned. This is by far the most attractive version of the book to be published (including the French versions): the four girls playing with the coloured bubbles of froth on the cover not only recall the opening credits of James Bond films and the TV-version of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected; they also tap into the importance of mermaids in Vian’s work, a factor that has often gone understated (there is a strong intertextual link between L’Écume des jours and Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid). The cover prompts the reader to question the provenance of Vian’s characters and the magical properties of the text, which their actions gradually tarnish and destroy.
In short, Foam of the Daze is an important addition to Vian scholarship in the anglophone world, and an excellent new title in TamTam’s growing range of French classics.

Tosh // 7:52 PM

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