‘Well, bab, tha’s wha’ ‘appens up town!’’
When I started my MA in Literary Translation at UEA in 2020, I had no inkling that it would involve using memories of my Grandad’s Gloucestershire dialect words to translate a 1947 French text by Raymond Queneau; Exercices de Style. ‘Bab’, short for ‘babby’, ie ‘baby’, is a term of endearment my Grandad sometimes called my Grandma, and is still used today by Gloucestershire residents of all ages. This phrase is my rendering of “bin, c’est des choses qu’arrivent comme ça que dans une grande ville” [well, these are the kinds of things that happen in a city] which appears in ‘Paysan’ (meaning farmer or peasant), one of the 99 versions of the same story told in Queneau’s text.
The story itself is very simple; a person travelling on a crowded bus sees a young male passenger become annoyed by a man who treads on his toes. Two hours later the narrator sees the young man again in front of the Saint-Lazare railway station, with a friend who is telling him he needs an extra button at the neck of his coat.
What’s fascinating for the reader and translator is that Queneau relates this insignificant event using 99 different styles, genres, and registers; these are literally a writer’s exercises in style. The versions include a sonnet, haiku, alexandrine, a telegram, a dialogue, phonetic English, and Italianisms. Exercices is an extreme example of the idea that the same text can be translated in myriad ways; it is therefore a metaphor for the art of translation.
Only one of the 99 versions is narrated by the young man whose toes were trodden on. The other 98 are told from the perspective of the other passenger who witnessed this incident, and in these versions the young man is variously described as “ridiculous” “stupid” “arrogant” and even a “bastard”. The reader sees this young man from the perspectives of the narrators of the different versions; noteworthy because of his neck, which is “too long”, his “grotesque” hat, and his “angry” reaction to being jostled. The formal register and vain tone “Je n’étais pas mécontent de ma vêture, ce jour’dhui”, ‘[I was not displeased with my attire that day] of the single version the young man narrates, portray him as posh and arrogant. I wanted to respond to the Exercices’ negative portrayal of the young man by giving him a voice, and explore his different potential voices as a character and narrator, using a range of forms, styles and registers, as a way of improving my creative writing and translating skills.
Exercices was translated into English in 1958 by Barbara Wright. I felt that the ‘Paysan’ (peasant or farmer) version could particularly do with an update because Wright’s translation appears at best dated, and at worst, offensive. Rather than creating a stereotypically ‘country-bumpkin’ voice in English (which of course could also be considered offensive!), Wright, a white British woman, translated it into ‘West Indian’ dialect.
I wanted to write a contemporary version of ‘Paysan’ which removes connotations of colonialism and restores the spirit of Queneau’s French text, in which someone from the countryside talks about the strange sights he has seen in the city. I chose the Gloucestershire dialect because I now live in the county and my family has lived here for generations. My intention was to use dialect and accent to write a richly sonorous account of the incident on the bus. My mother’s father, a wonderful storyteller, spent much of his life in Gloucestershire, so I decided to use the dialect of someone born in the 1920s and wrote much of this version from my memories of the way he spoke.
Oi got ahn this zweltrin’ old buzz, we wus all packed-in-loike, and oi wus zweltrin’.
The conduc’or axed oi t’ pay fer a tickut, and ahfter oi paid, oi took a look roun’, and oi thought to moiself wha’ ‘ave we yere? A ger’ oaf wi’ a neck tha’ wur too lahng and a dead strange ‘at as ‘ad a streng roun’. An’ sudden-loike ‘ee starts showtin’ to a bloke nex’ to ‘im “Oi cahn’t aboide et no more! I’ll thank ‘ee to stahp dreadin’ on oi vut. Tent roight!” an’ then ahfter tha’ ‘ee sa’ down, the ger’ oaf.
Well, bab, tha’s wha’ ‘appens up town! Stroike me if oi yent seed ‘ee again, this ger’ oaf. No more’n two hours ahfter, in front o’ a ger’ building as looked loike the palace for the bishop of Paree. There ‘ee wur, walkin’ all roun’ the place wi’ another reg’lar layabout joost loike ‘im. ‘Ee wur sayin to the ger’ oaf “thes yere bu’on, pu’ ‘im ‘oigher.”
Crafting this piece was a great exercise in translator’s research. Gloucester library’s only book about Gloucestershire dialect, dating from the 1800s, described many traits still in evidence today, such as the dropped ‘h’ and ‘g’, ‘v’ substituted for ‘f’, ‘d’ instead of ‘t’ when followed by an ‘r’ as in ‘dreadin’ for ‘treading’, ‘z’ instead of ‘s’ and H replaced with a ‘y’ as in ‘yere’ for ‘here’.
It struck me as tragic and ironic that so many of the words in the dialect book originated from German. Like hundreds of others during World War 2 (and 1), my Grandad left Gloucestershire to fight the ‘Germans’ – yet here was proof that to some extent they spoke the same language.
To research more contemporary Gloucestershire voices I listened to recordings on the British Library’s website, and also posted some questions on the ‘Gloucester: A Trip Back in Time’ Facebook Group. One man replied with an extended comment, all written in Gloucestershire dialect, which coincidentally included many of the words I needed to ‘translate’.
I have included dialect words and written phonetically to reproduce the Gloucestershire accent, for example ‘oi’ instead of ‘I’ and ‘buzz’ instead of ‘bus’. ‘Ger’ is ‘gert’ with a dropped t, which means big, great, ‘me’ and ‘my’ are rendered as ‘I’. ‘Dead’ means ‘really’, and ‘tent roight’ ‘it isn’t right’. My 1940s English and French bilingual dictionary defines “flandrin”, the word used in ‘Paysan’ to describe the young man, as ‘lanky fellow; overgrown booby’, so I felt ‘gert oaf’ was a good translation.
This translation was part of a project I began believing in the concept of a writer ‘finding their voice.’ I now know that with practice it is possible to write using different voices. I have learned that for a writer and a translator to create a convincing voice for a character or narrator requires a great deal of research and thought; an authentic voice not only incorporates a particular register, lexis, dialect and sentence length, but also conveys personality, social background, and also world view – if you’re from the countryside, all kinds of strange things go on in cities.
(MA in Literary Translation Student 2020-2021)