The Naming of Things
by Lara Vergnaud
A few years ago, I was reproached for the sake of a name. My translation of Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital, a cult novel set in repressive, post-colonial Morocco and written in French, had just been published. A reviewer for a prestigious publication, though crediting my translation as “generally graceful,” questioned my chosen nickname for a key protagonist. And yet, I had so painstakingly searched for the moniker, all too aware of the centrality of names in this author’s works. What’s more, I had pointedly addressed the crucial task of translating names in my afterword. Beyond semantics, I wrote, lies the question of sonority. What does a name mean—yes, of course—but also, how does it sound? And what about the elusive beast of “rightness”? The clicking-into-place of the instinctive, resonant equivalent.
The reviewer’s critique, surely innocuous, set me on the defensive. Had I gotten the character’s name wrong? Did my choice stray too far from the author’s? Accustomed to the shadow role of translator, I wanted to whisper-scream, “Wait, let me give you the context!”
It had taken me months to settle on English nicknames for the patients trapped inside The Hospital—Fartface, Guzzler, Smart-Ass—a task critical to capturing Bouanani’s crass, irreverent tone. Their names, like many names, mean something. Academically speaking, they are mono-referential but not mono-functional.
The name at issue is that of a vagabond, a young man from the Moroccan seaside town of Salé who aimlessly wanders through life, constantly ill, constantly lost. In the French text, his friends call him Le Corsaire—the corsair or privateer. I named him “Rover,” inspired by the Salé Rovers, a fierce band of Barbary pirates who established an autonomous city-state on the Moroccan coast in the seventeenth century.
“Rover” is an aural match: bi-syllabic, consonant-heavy, guttural. The name also struck me as one that rowdy young men would like, certainly preferable to the more formal “Corsair.” But there’s more to my choice. Le Corsaire was always my favorite of Bouanani’s band of misfits, conjuring images of my Algerian grandfather in his youth. Another perennial rover, he made a years-long trek from the south of Algeria to the tip of Tunisia.
Guided by that personal association, did I diverge too far from Bouanani’s authorial intent? Did I in fact overstep? After all, looking above, I didn’t write, “I translated him as Rover.” I wrote: “I named him.”
Thankfully, someone else has the answer. In her essay “Translators and Other Icons,” Lily Meyer, a translator from Spanish, describes translation as “an act of great hubris,” requiring “both talent and ego.” Referencing Douglas Robinson’s The Translator’s Turn, she adds, “Translators, like writers, should allow their experiences, desires, and preferences to inform and enrich their art.” Aha, permission…
In writing this essay, I discover there is a methodology to translating proper names. I was always a terrible academic, better at travaux pratiques than theory. But I venture a look anyway.
The literary translator must choose between two general strategies when translating proper names:
domestication, i.e., making a text more accessible to its readers by modifying or omitting cultural elements; and foreignization, intended to preserve those same elements.
It seems to me (and to most sensible literary translators, I assume) that neither approach is foolproof. Opt for the first strategy and you might smooth out a name so much that you eliminate essential cultural, historical, and geographical markers. Not to mention the aural and semantic resonance of a name—the poetry, if you will. Take Jean Giono’s 1934 novel Le Chant du monde, one of whose principal characters, named Matelot in the original French, was translated literally as “Sailor” in the first published English translation. The etymology of matelot, a word that incidentally also exists in English, implies companionship as well as seamanship; that nuance has been lost here, in favor of the less elegant “sailor.” And there’s something to be said for retaining a hint of the source language, however well-hidden, in a translation—in this case, the literal echo of l’eau, the French term for water, in the name Matelot, so fitting in a book that revolves around a river…
Opt for the second strategy listed above, however, and you run other risks, namely foreignizing a text to the point of caricature and distraction. Translator Jeremy Tiang breaks down that conundrum in his essay about the translation of Chinese proper names, “Naming Rights.” He warns of the dangers of veering past foreignization into exoticization, and straight into “orientalist fantasy, with women named Lotus Blossom and men named Jade Dragon—what I like to think of as Chinese restaurant names.”
NB: If you read the essay, it’s clear Tiang isn’t arguing for one method over another; neither am I. We’re literary translators, we dwell in (on?) ambiguity.
In another essay about names in literary translation, Robert Chandler stresses that the point is to capture the tone of a work. Chandler describes his translation of a Russian-language novel populated with at least 137 characters, each with a name and a nickname, the latter written in Uzbek—in other words, he’s earned his stripes. He maintains that departures from the original are acceptable as long as proper names “fulfil what is required of them by the novel as a whole.” More permission?
Another name, in a novel I recently translated, gave me pause to the very last page. The Ardent Swarm, written in French by Yamen Manai, is a parable for post-Arab Spring Tunisia. In the book, an elderly Tunisian beekeeper finds himself battling an invasion of hornets intent on destroying his hives—the apian flock represent the country’s homogenous Sunni Muslim population; the hornet foes, the wave of Islamists infiltrating the country following the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. There is also a strong ecological meditation at play.
In the French, the beekeeper is called Le Don, which translates literally to “the gift.” In three letters, author Manai performs a literary hat trick: the name evokes the gifts of God and nature, and therefore, the ecological and religious themes underpinning the novel; the article “le” conveys that the character has status, as does the play off the Italian and Spanish honorific; and finally, the moniker hints at the character’s own gift, the ability to commune with his beloved bees.
But I couldn’t name the character “the Don,” now could I?
Politics aside, I risked creating an incongruent Godfather-esque character. Any Italian undertones would be all the more confusing as The Ardent Swarm takes place in an unnamed country, which readers attuned to the Arab world will readily recognize, but others may not.
Early on in my translation, I settled on “Sidi,” which means “master” or “saint” in Tunisian Arabic. (Per Google Translate, Sidi equates to a succinct, three-lettered “sir.”) The solution isn’t perfect. As with every translation, there’s loss and gain.
My choice leaves no trace of the book’s ecological reverence, or the foreshadowing of a “gift” revealed later in the narrative. And by selecting a title that implies hierarchy and possibly superiority, I’ve lost the benevolence of the French “don.” I have, however, gained a geographical marker, in my mind more essential to Anglophone readers than Francophone ones: the Arabic honorific helps to situate the reader in the fictionalized Tunisian village where the novel is set. Finally, “Sidi” retains the book’s religious overtone, as well as the wisdom and seniority of the beekeeper.
If you were to consider my translation from a methodological standpoint—which I did, as a precautionary measure, perhaps?—you could argue that I erred in both directions: overly-domesticating the character’s original name by smoothing out critical semantic connotations and overly-foreignizing it by substituting an Arabic title.
Still, I want to whisper-scream, how does it sound?!
The theoretical texts about names in literary translation that I find fail to mention that when renaming a thing, you really ought to check with its progenitor, in my case, the author. (This is the nice thing about translating contemporary literature; in other cases, say, when translating the long-deceased Giono, the translator is on their own.) Manai had hesitations about “Sidi” and the introduction of a hierarchical overtone absent from his original text. A Tunisian friend of mine echoed his sentiments: “If you’re called ‘Sidi,’ then you’re in charge. You’re not giving out gifts.” I begrudgingly concurred.
I didn’t admit that my choice hadn’t been prompted by a Google search or a dictionary. I knew “Sidi” not as four characters on a page, but as a name with shape and texture. In my Tunisian family, the honorific has long been assigned to my father, the patriarch, older now but still sharp, stern yet generous—like Le Don. The choice was instinctual; it clicked into place.
Nonetheless, I fully intended to use Sidi as a placeholder until I found an alternative. But the thing about nicknames is that they tend to stick. In my mind and, as it happened, in Manai’s. A month before my deadline, we discussed a few lingering translation issues over WhatsApp. At the end of our conversation, he added, “I want you to know: I like Sidi. I don’t know why. . . but it just works.”
Lara Vergnaud is a translator of prose, creative nonfiction, and scholarly works from the French. She is the recipient of two PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and a French Voices Grand Prize, and has been nominated for the National Translation Award. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 26, 2021