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SAILING ON THE TERROR, PART ONE

Catchy title, that. Of course, if you’re a regular visitor to this site and have read the novel’s first chapter, you know that HMS TERROR doesn’t sail any more, thanks to Captain Dan Simmons. But, even though I considered titles like FREEZING MY ASS ON THE TERROR for five seconds or so, I decided against it.

Onward, then.

As you probably know if you follow this column, I’m going to translate Dan’s latest novel for Editions Robert Laffont, with a May ’07 deadline. I’ve only done five chapters to this day, but I’ve gone quite far in researching this monster.

Not a lot of quotes to track down, here. Besides, Dan was kind enough to identify them in the text.

No, if I do some hair-pulling over the job, it’ll be thanks to that blamed Navy terminology–all these decks with funny names like orlop deck (sounds like the name of an East European villain)–plus these fershlugginer nuances about ice–serac, pressure ridges and sastrugi–plus all the varieties of ice–pancake ice, anyone?

And let’s not forget the various ranks. French Navy is funny that way. The English word “captain” translates as “capitaine”, but when you talk to a “capitaine”, you have to call him “commandant”. Same for a “lieutenant” (“lieutenant”, of course), whom you’ve got to call “capitaine”. Whom do you call “lieutenant”, then? Simple: a sub-lieutenant, a second lieutenant, an ensign–you got it: any officer under the rank of lieutenant.

Excedrin, anyone?

Anyway, I soon realized I would need some reference works. A quick search on the web, a visit at the local bookstore–well, several visits, as it turned out, but I don’t mind–and I’ve started to acquire a small collection.

First and foremost, Jules Verne’s VOYAGES ET AVENTURES DU CAPITAINE HATTERAS. This novel, admittedly one of Verne’s best straight adventure stories, tells of a polar expedition at the time of the Search for Franklin. A gold mine for nautical terms, as well as that darn ice terminology. (How did Jules Verne render the term “ice master”, for instance? Well, as “ice-master”–but he added “pilote des glaces” in a footnote) For a look at the wonderful illustrations of Jules Verne’s novels, go there: http://jv.gilead.org.il/rpaul/

Next, two contemporary books: Jennifer Niven’s PRIS DANS LES GLACES (THE ICE-MASTER, a book Dan mentions in the acknowledgments–one of the few that got a French translation), and William Vollmann’ LES FUSILS (THE RIFLES), which I picked up simply because it had just been released here. I intend to study closely the work of my esteemed colleagues, translators Claro and Jacques Martinache.

The following find is a virtual one. In 1848, French historian Auguste Jal (1795-1873) published his magnum opus, the GLOSSAIRE NAUTIQUE, a compendium of nautical terms from several languages–mostly French, of course, but also English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and even ancient Greek! Monsieur Jal’s book is 1600 pages long and–will wonders never cease?–available on the web, thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Then there is Melville’s MOBY DICK, and herein lies a tale.

I already owned the 1941 French translation by Jean Giono and friends–not the only one available, but the more accessible– but I learnt that a new one had just been published, as volume 3 of the complete works of Melville. The publisher was Gallimard, in their prestigious Pléiade line– think Library of America, only more highbrow–, and the translator’s name was Philippe Jaworski, who had already overseen volumes 1 and 2, as well as written several essays about Melville.

Yesterday, December 14, 2007, Monsieur Jaworski was visiting my hometown and meeting interested readers at the Ombres Blanches (“White Shadows”) bookstore. I spent a fascinating 90 minutes listening to him as he talked about his work: finding the exact terms used by French whalers in the 19th century (French whalers had it easy: they took the English terms and changed the spelling), looking up how French writers of the time wrote dialogue for Black characters, in order to translate the cook’s speech (French writers had it easy: their Black character spoke perfect French, as long as they were freed slaves), agonizing over Melville’s puns–Queequeg/Quohog/Hedgehog, the candidate for archbishoprick–and finding acceptable translations…

An eye-opener for yours truly: the gentleman worked exactly as I did.

Now it’s back to work, but with a vengeance: while analyzing Melville’s masterpiece, Monsieur Jaworski gave me new insights on THE TERROR, and on the ILIUM/OLYMPOS diptych, to boot. But that’s another story.

Now, back to those pesky ranks: anybody here know the difference between a first mate and a second mate? And how do I translate this into French?

Best,

PS 1: Remember my last column about James Tiptree, Jr.? Well, writer Clare B. Dunkle, a regular on the Dan Simmons Forum, has decided to play the game and ordered HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER before she finished reading my prose. I can’t wait to see how she reacted to this wonderful writer. I’ll keep you posted.

PS 2: A few months ago, I mentioned that French paperback publisher Pocket would issue a new edition of the Hyperion Cantos. Well, this has been cancelled: they’ll keep on reprinting the books, of course, but each of the four novels will still be split into two volumes.

PS 3: While looking for the spelling of archbishoprick, I found this Tennyson quote I wanted to share with you: “Shall I forget my new archbishoprick/And smite thee with my crozier on the skull?” (BECKET, Act I, Scene I)

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