Ann Weisgarber

The French Rachel DuPree

Three months before The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was released in England, I got the news that Editions Belfond had bought the rights from Pan Macmillan. The book was going to be published in France. I was thrilled.

At the same time, I didn’t know what to expect. During the year leading up to the publication in the UK, I had worked with my editor and with the copyeditor to fine-tune the manuscript. I had been involved in decisions about the title and about the cover art. But my relationship with Belfond was different. Most of the communication was between the two publishing houses, Belfond and Pan Macmillan. Then, there was one other small detail. I didn’t speak a word of French.

Fortunately, other people were bilingual.

The Translation Process

Aline Azoulay was one of those bilingual people. She was responsible for translating my novel from English to French. I heard from her early on during the translation process when she sent an e-mail introducing herself. An experienced professional, Aline had translated Andre Dubus’ and Ian Rankin’s novels as well as many other books. Just as important, Aline had spent time in the American West and had a feel for the landscape and for the people there.

I was relieved. My book was in capable hands.

I heard from Aline several more times. Once, via e-mail, she asked me to describe a sod dugout, Rachel and Isaac’s first home in the Badlands. I sent her a brief description as well as photographs. She thanked me and continued to press forward with the translation.

A few months before the release of the French edition, I decided to have my website translated so I could reach French readers. I hired Brigitte Benbrahim, who had been born and raised in Paris, France, but now lived in Houston. She began work immediately, and it was then that I realized just how difficult it was to translate fiction. It was not a word-by-word process. Rather, it called for finesse and creativity on the part of the translator.

Brigitte explained that some phrases found throughout The Personal History of Rachel DuPree didn’t easily translate. Sod dugout, the concept that Aline had asked about, was just one of many. Homesteading and the notion of a government selling large amounts of land for a nominal fee was a foreign concept for many French readers. Cow chips, the dried cow dung that Rachel burned for fuel, was a confusing phrase. Brigitte thought Buffalo Soldier was another term that might baffle French readers. The name of an Indian character, Mrs. Fills the Pipe, was a possible point of confusion. Should her name be translated? Or left in the English form? Even the spelling of DuPree was open to debate. Brigitte explained that French readers would expect it to have an accent mark, and without one, it might look like an error. Yet, Rachel and Isaac, Americans, would never imagine their name with an accent mark.

There was more, Brigitte told me. In Chapter 4, a housemaid spoke with less than perfect grammar. Rachel read one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems in Chapter 10 and recalled poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar in Chapter 17. In Chapter 13, Rachel and her daughter, Mary, sang a spiritual, a song that originated with the slaves. There were common American phrases such as “raining cats and dogs,” that would confuse French readers.

On my website, Brigitte solved some of the problems by referring French readers to the French Wikipedia. In other cases, she created phrases that would be understood by French readers. Aline Azoulay, the translator for the novel, didn’t have the luxury of referring readers to Wikipedia. I had no idea how she’d handle the challenge of explaining historical events or confusing phrases.

The Title

Close to the release date, I learned that the title of the book was L’histoire très ordinaire de Rachel DuPree. I wasn’t all that crazy about it. Ordinaire sounded rather dull, but the more I thought about the title, the more I liked it. American settlers routinely coped with challenges that today would bring many of us to our knees. Rachel’s story – as personal as it was to her – was common to many women in the West. Eventually, I decided the title worked. It captured the essence of a story about an ordinary woman who made extraordinary decisions.

The Presentation

I can’t begin to describe how I felt when a box with several copies of L’histoire très ordinaire de Rachel DuPree arrived at my door here in Texas. I couldn’t read the book, but the words were elegant and graceful on the page. The cover art was beautiful, and the pages felt good. I was delighted that DuPree did not have an accent mark. I sent on a copy to Brigitte, my website translator, who read it and then sent comments.

Mme. Fills the Pipe was footnoted with a literal translation. A footnote for Buffalo Soldiers explained that this was a term for black army troops prior to integration. Trudy, the housemaid, spoke as a French maid might, and the Dunbar poem was handled well. Ten-year-old John’s phrase “raining cats and dogs” was translated as “il pleuvait comme vache qui pisse,” (like a cow peeing).

The French Edition

Aline Azoulay did a good job, Brigitte told me. Aline went beyond the words on the page. In spite of the many challenges, she captured the nuances and the spirit of the novel. Rachel’s personal history might be ordinaire but the team at Belfond made her story extraordinaire.

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