Rachel Cooke in this Guardian article The subtle art of translation reflects on the importance of the right translation and relates her memory of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse.
Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart.
She decides to splash out and buy a new copy to read and chooses the Penguin Modern Classics version translated by Heather Lloyd.
Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it.
For a while she continued to read it, telling herself it was stupid to cling to one version, as if it were a sacred thing, however she gave up, it may have been an accurate translation but it lacked the magic of that fist reading experience. She ends by saying that if you tried this story and hated it, to please have another go and entrust yourself to Irene Ash’s gorgeous 1955 translation.
Having read the article, I had no hesitation in going straight for the Irene Ash translation and was transfixed from the very first pages, totally put under the spell of this charming little novella.
Cecile is looking back and recalling the summer she was seventeen, when she and her father spent 2 months on the French Riveria near St Raphael, having a blissful holiday. He is a widower who doesn’t lack for female company and she has just finished school and lives a life of privilege and indulgence, her father imposing few if any limits on her, they are in a sense like children both of them in adult bodies.
He had rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean, for which we had been longing since the spring.It was remote and beautiful, and stood on a promontory dominating the sea, hidden from the road by a pine wood; a mule path led down to a tiny creek where the sea lapped against rust-coloured rocks.
She is surprised to enjoy the company of a young man Cyril, preferring the company of more mature men and her father’s friends, and discovers she quite likes the attentions of this young man who is falling in love with her and she with him.
It should have been perfect, but things change when an old friend of her mother’s Anne arrives and she and her father announce their intention to marry. Although it is actually something Cecile feels is right for them and she adores Anne, part of her resents what signifies to her the end to the playful era she and her father have indulged, for Anne’s presence in their lives will certainly bring order and sensibility.
Yes, it was for this I reproached Anne: she prevented me from liking myself. I, who was so naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced by her into a world of self-criticism and guilty conscience, where, unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what did she bring me? I took stock: She wanted my father, she had got him. She would gradually make of us the husband and step-daughter of Anne Larsen; that is to say, she would turn us into two civilised, well-behaved and happy people.
She embarks on a plan to provoke a change in this happy little situation, instantly regretting it, but unable to halt the progress of a development she has initiated.
Tears came into my eyes at the thought of the jokes we used to have together, our laughter as we drove home at dawn through the empty streets of Paris. All that was over. In my turn I would be influenced, re-oriented, remodelled by Anne. I would not even mind it, she would act with intelligence, irony and sweetness, and I would be incapable of resistance; in six months I should no longer even wish to resist.
It is a simple storyline, but what makes it incredible are the adept insights Cecile has into herself and her behaviour and to all those around her. She acts irresponsibly as if she is unable to help herself, but with a certain equanimity, it is as if she stands outside of herself and narrates events and what is driving each character to act their part in her little drama, which will escalate into tragedy.
Utterly engaging, I was riveted, loved that ability her character had to understand the personalities around her and her own flaws, despite being unable to stop the mischief she provoked, not to mention that this was written when the author was only 18 years old.