French with a safety net
By J. C.
Bilingual editions of literary works, with facing-page translation, are largely the province of poetry, and are generally unsatisfactory. If your French / German / Russian is good enough to have a go, you don’t want a contrived imitation distracting your other eye. The literal summary at the foot of the page, a method pioneered by Penguin in the 1960s, is a better solution. Anvil Press has reissued Rimbaud’s Poems (£14.95) and The Complete Verse by Baudelaire (£10.95), with accurate prose versions by Oliver Bernard and Francis Scarfe, respectively. The aim is “to help readers negotiate poems without constant recourse to a dictionary”. Both collections originated in Penguin in the 1960s.
Bingual editions of prose works are rarer, but perhaps more justifiable. Julian Green’s Paris is a series of short meditations on the city in which Green was born to American parents in 1900. The facing-page translation is by J. A. Underwood. If you fancy testing your French with a safety net, or seeing how English recoils from the subjunctive, Paris, first published in 1991, offers a pleasant way of going about it. “Quoi qu’il en soit, le vieillard en question a une barbe blanche”, Green writes, to which Underwood responds, “Anyway, the old man in question had a white beard”. A few pages later, the introductory phrase is repeated: “Quoi qu’il en soit, je demeurerai toujours à ma place invisible”. This time the translator opts for “Be that as it may . . .”.
So all-absorbing is Paris that Green finds it hard to write about it while he’s there. “Sitting in the lap of the model you intend to paint has never seemed to me to be the ideal position . . . . Here, in Copenhagen, I see Paris very clearly.” The city smiles warmly on those who “flânent dans ses rues” – for which Underwood gives us “loaf in its streets”. Put away your notebook, get out a map (noting the city’s “resemblance to the human brain”) and be flâneur for a day.
The book comes with a bizarre introduction by Lila Azam Zanganeh: “Unfortunately, Mr Green, I believe you died in 1998, so you might have just missed it, but the director Woody Allen made a film . . .”. Adorned with a portfolio of Green’s photographs, Paris, published by Penguin, is priced at £11.99.