Remembrance day

Yesterday was this blog’s fourth anniversary, but more importantly, it was Remembrance Day. This is a day that unites my birth country and my adoptive country through shared history, and it always reminds me of a passage in Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, which I find incredibly powerful and evocative of the slaughter that the First World War was. I thought I’d share it with you and have a go at translating it, which I really enjoyed. The main character, Elizabeth, is a British woman who goes to the North of France looking for the battlefield where her grandfather died. As she drives across empty fields, she notices a great arch in a field and decides to go and have a closer look at it.

As she came up to the arch, Elizabeth saw with a start that it was written on. She went closer. She peered at the stone. There were names on it. Every grain of the surface had been carved with British names; their chiselled capitals rose from the level of her ankles to the height of the great arch itself; on every surface of every column as as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundred of yards, over furlongs of stone.

She moved through the space beneath the arch where the man was sweeping. She found the other pillars identically marked, their faces obliterated on all sides by the names that were carved on them.

"Who are those, these…?" She gestured with her hand.

"These?" The man with the brush sounded surprised. "The lost."

"Men who died in this battle?"

"No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the cemeteries.

"These are just the… unfound?"

She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes.

When she could speak again, she said, "From the whole war?"

The man shook his head. "Just these fields." He gestured with his arm.

Elizabeth went and sat on the steps on the other side of the monument. Beneath her was a formal garden with some rows of white headstones, each with a tended plant or flower at its base, each cleaned and beautiful in the weak winter sunlight.

"Nobody told me." She ran her fingers with their red-painted nails back through her thick dark hair. "My God, nobody told me."

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:37+00:00 November 12th, 2007|Culture|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Bela November 16, 2007 at 12:44 am

    Céline, I think you are wasted on waste management.

  2. céline November 16, 2007 at 8:16 am

    If you’re referring to my translation of this passage, that’s a lovely comment, thanks. But however much I LOVED fiddling with it to try and do it justice in French, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it knowing I was working for a client, on a deadline. For me, literary translation, which I find incredibly fulfilling and soul-nourishing, has to remain a hobby if it is to be enjoyed. I think it is due to my insecurities and my fear of being told I betrayed a work of art.

  3. Funnypants November 16, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    I thought that was a fine translation, Céline. Very nicely done.
    Has Birdsong never been released in French? I checked, and it doesn’t look that way, but I find that hard to believe given the book’s success in the UK and elsewhere.
    Wikipedia claims a movie is in the works:
    Perhaps that will tip the translation scales.

  4. céline November 17, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    No, I don’t think it’s been translated into French, which suprises me. Shall I send a CV to Sebastian Faulks?

  5. Funnypants November 20, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Yes. Seriously.
    I know what you mean about the literary translation fear factor, though. I always worry I’ll mangle a beautiful thing. That, and I worry I won’t make enough money to pay the rent. Sigh.

  6. Martin November 26, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Céline, you’ve reminded me of just how much reading Birdsong moved me. If there really is no French translation it’s a shame, particularly in the light of the shared history which you rightly mention. On the other hand, I can see that the power of the work would be daunting for both publisher and translator: it would require real conviction and emotional commitment to carry it off.

  7. Bela November 27, 2007 at 2:49 am

    Sorry for the delay. Yes, I was referring to your brilliant translation. I didn’t really want to read it because other people’s work always (well, a lot of the time) makes me feel inadequate and I am currently translating a novel for a rather famous French publisher and cannot afford to feel that way. (I haven’t translated a novel since 1979.)
    I wish I could find the work ‘incredibly fulfilling and soul-nourishing’. I can’t remember the last time I translated anything just for the fun of it. However, I’m not afraid of betraying anyone. Back in the ’70s I translated Isaac Bashevis Singer and Peter Ustinov, and the best writers are always the easiest to translate. Also, no one reads a book as closely as the translator and not everything published authors produce is of masterpiece quality. Once you’ve come across an infelicitous phrase (there’s always at least one) you can relax. Anyway, I never had time to get scared, and I still don’t.
    I have a problem with amateurs (not with you, Céline: you are a proper translator): you know, academics, for instance, who decide they might like to do a bit of translating in the long vacation. I know a French woman who was made redundant from her job as Managing Editor of a London publishing house recently. She’s aware that getting another similar position is very unlikely; she said to me, ‘Oh, well, I can always become a translator.’ Can you, indeed? Anyone can do my job at the drop of a hat? I don’t think so. Those people perpetuate the idea that translating is easy. Hate them.
    Re. sending a CV to an author. I’m afraid that’s not the way it works. Even famous authors don’t own the translation rights of their books and cannot choose their translators (I have first-hand experience of this). Their publishers do. It’s publishers you need to cultivate.
    Oh, I could talk about that subject for hours.

  8. Bela November 28, 2007 at 12:53 am

    If I may comment on your post, Martin: Birdsong is certainly a good book, but it’s hardly the greatest novel of the 20th century. If there can be a new translation (or two) of War and Peace there can be a translation of Sebastian Faulks’s book. I don’t think being ‘daunted’ goes into it. In France, where masses of foreign books are being translated and published, the fact that a novel hasn’t been translated usually means that it hasn’t found a publisher who believes he can make money with it. Or there could copyright problems. That’s all.
    Instead of the book I’m currently translating, I could have done a new translation of Mrs Miniver. I turned it down only because my editor said she herself would be a bit scared of tackling it (she has been a translator non-stop for nigh on 35 years, whereas I have only just resumed my career, after a long hiatus). Someone else will do it – and very well too, I’m sure. Everyone relishes a challenge, I think.

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