Navigation – Plan du site

"Pourquoi qu'on dit des choses et pas d'autres?"

Translating Queneau's Français parlé in Zazie dans le métro and le chiendent
Carol Sanders
p. 41-48


Cet article analyse les problèmes qui se posent quand on essaie de traduire un texte écrit dans un registre familier. Outre la difficulté de trouver des équivalents linguistiques, il faut tenir compte de la gamme des registres et de leurs fonctions dans chaque langue, ainsi que des connotations de certains éléments stéréotypés. Les exemples seront tirés de deux romans de Queneau, Zazie dans le métro et Le Chiendent.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Sociosituational (register) variation, involving the interplay of linguistic features that mark language use as more or less colloquial or more or less formal, is a highly complex phenomenon. Moreover, its realisation varies greatly from one language to another, even within the same language family. For this reason, the small amount of research done in this area in one linguistic tradition cannot easily be applied to another. Thus, within British and American linguistics, neither of the two main approaches to variation offers a satisfactory framework for the analysis of register in French. The Labovian approach, centering as it does on one-to-one correlations between social class and linguistic variables is too reductionist for our purposes (see Encreve's introduction to Labov 1976). The Hallidayan school makes a major attempt to take acount of variation and to set language in its social setting. However, it has constantly reduced register to "field", and has concentrated its recent analyses to certain types of text, largely written academic/scholastic texts. (For a recent overview, see Martin 1992). It is thus not surprising that we have no adequate theoretical framework with which to describe this all-pervasive phenomenon, still less one which will allow us to view it in a contrastive perspective. Those who read and compare contemporary writing in French, whether literary or journalistic, will have detected a certain tension around the translation of colloquial items. There is obviously a particular difficulty in the case of an author like Queneau, in whose writing an at once "authentic" and highly self-conscious use of colloquial French plays a part that is central not only to the form of the novels but also to their substance. It is hoped that an examination of a selection of translated passages may help to crystallise and conceptualise the nature of some of the phenomena involved.

2There exists some confusion about terminology: throughout this paper, I shall be using "register" and "sociosituational variation" interchangeably as the equivalents of French "niveau de langue". Let us review the differences that characterise sociosituational variation in French and English. There is first of all the well-known fact that, in any given text, colloquial markers may not occur in the same places in the two languages. It is assumed that the translator will use compensatory devices to solve the problem, although this is not always a straightforward matter. Thus, in the famous opening phrase of Zazie dans le métro, it would be very difficult to find English equivalents for the colloquial morphology and syntax that are present in the French. There can be compensation in the form of colloquial lexis, or idiomatic (exclamatory) expressions, but any attempt to convey the colloquial interrogative ("d'où que") and the dropping of the final consonant /1/ will not work. It is indeed frequent, when "compensation" occurs in this sort of text, that it is a choice of lexical item in English that compensates for a colloquialism at a different linguistic level in French. It is, though, far from easy to find equivalences even at the lexical level. Bilingual dictionaries have only recently attempted to indicate register ; that they should try to do so is of course a step in the right direction, but the equivalences are rarely satisfactory. Often no colloquial equivalent is given for English, as in the following entries in a recent dictionary that purports to pay special attention to register (Oxford/Hachette 1994): "costaud" = "sturdy" ; "se marrer" = "to have a good time". Equally common is the situation where the equivalent given is of a different "degree" of colloquiality. For example, Oxford/Hachette gives the equivalent of "tarin" (very informal) as "hooter" (informal) and that of "foireux" (very informal) as "chicken" (informal). In truth, there is not much to choose between "hooter", "boko" and "beak", which are all known, but probably would not be used: this is arguably an instance when it would have been more effective to have used a non-colloquial item and to have compensated elsewhere. Indeed, we shall see later that better use of compensation could perhaps have been made throughout these texts.

3That compensation is not always possible or easy, however, arises from the fact that colloquial markers are both more readily available and more widely used in French than in English. Thus a "neutral" register (for want of a better term) will be used in British English in a wide range of situations where French would differentiate and use either, at one end of the register spectrum, a more formal variant, or at the other end, a more colloquial one. The difference can be schematised as follows:

4A corollary of this wider usage is the greater range of alternative lexis and colloquial morpho-syntactic markers that are available in French. There is the additional fact that, in British English, where there is variation from the "standard", this will frequently be marked for social class or regional, rather than register, variation. We will discuss later whether the solution here might indeed have been to exploit this resource in English. To remain for the moment with the higher frequency of colloquial markers in French, it is enough to compare the first few lines from Le Chiendent and its translation, to see how much "less colloquial" the English is.

5The exuberance and richness of the source text are thus partly due to the fact that the greater number of naturally occurring colloquial markers in French are likely to sound stilted if matched in the English text. Where colloquial French has synonymy, English may have to resort to repetition. "Mouflette" and "gosse", which occur within a few lines in the Zazie extract, are only two of a string of synonyms in French for which there are few translations other than "kid". The word "kid" is indeed repeated in the American text ; the English text rings the changes with "chick" which, while passable, normally denotes an older female.

6This lexical proliferation and general richness of colloquial French are sometimes attributed to the more polarised attitude to language in France: a greater degree of linguistic prescriptivisation and centralisation, it is argued, are compensated for by the creativity (or anarchy, depending on your point of view) of the non-standard. Certainly, another difficulty for the translator is the different status that the colloquial language has in France, which means that its very use can sometimes imbue the utterance with a satirical or iconoclastic force that it is hard to convey in English. In this respect, a short phrase can encapsulate a wider issue, such as the narrator's debunking of a heroical historical past in a number of Queneau's novels ("Napoleon, cet enfle avec son chapeau a la con", as Zazie says). Thus, in the Chiendent extract, while the more prurient English-speaking reader may baulk at the vulgarity, he/she will not fully appreciate the degree to which the incongruous juxtaposition of religious discussion and colloquial language challenges established ideas. The very use of the "spoken" language here adds force to the idea that Ernestine is as well placed to philosophise as is the "gent in black", giving an additional layer in French which is missing in the English version.

7Because social and linguistic reform are linked for Queneau, his novels are pan of a wider "défense de la langue parlée", and in his early novels, such as Le Chiendent, part also of a campaign for orthographic reform. He is thus deliberately drawing the reader's attention to certain features of French, in a way for which it would be hard to find a parallel in English writing, except perhaps in the defence by some "colonial" writers of their own variety of English. Since the point is to draw attention to certain specificities of French, this is bound to cause difficulties for the English translator. An example of the features to which Queneau wishes to draw attention would be the dubious claim of the word to be the basic unit in French. In English, where the relative lack of elision, and the stress on each word make it more reasonable to take the word as the basic linguistic unit, it is difficult to make the point which Queneau makes through the use of humorous and striking "agglutinations". Normally, English would not "agglutinate" in the same places or as much, but because in the opening pages of Zazie the statement made is a metalinguistic one, some attempt must be made to render this in the English version. Of course, "skeutadittaleur" does not translate at all naturally into an utterance that is "monophasée". The most natural translation would probably be "wotcher jussaid", the elision and phonological assimilation of what + yer (London, working-class) often being stereotypically represented in this way. But this is two breath groups and only four syllables, hence the two translators having opted for something closer to "wotchersaidjusnow". Equally, the (British English) translation into a single utterance of the opening phrase of the novel is not an authentic representation of spoken English. However, it does succeed in matching the stylistic effect of the original, by forcing a close reading and a rethink about the nature of language and the novel, thereby partially reflecting the defamiliarisation that is so striking in the French text.

8This effect of defamiliarisation and of foregrounding certain aspects of the language would of course be lost if it were not for the variety of registers used. Translations have sometimes concentrated on the colloquial to the detriment of this variety. Colloquial language being a stylistic device in Queneau's novels, it is set in relief both by standard usage, and by more formal, sometimes archaic, usage. The reader's expectations are constantly shattered, and a frequent resetting of the parametres of reading is required. Thus, in the French text of Zazie, part of the humour of the exchange between Gabriel and the "ptit type" comes from a mixture of the pompous and the slapstick. In the passage of free indirect style beginning "Gabriel soupira", Gabriel's musings are by turn colloquial ("C'était pas sa faute á lui Gabriel") and pedantic ("depuis l'hominisation première"). The latter sets the tone for the pseudo-learned metalinguistic comments that follow and highlights the incongruity of the mixture of colloquial language and alexandrine, making it imperative for the English version either to contain an alexandrine or something equivalent from the English literary tradition. As so often, it is not merely spoken language that Queneau is trying to represent, but oral communication in its entirety, hence his attempts throughout Zazie to find a graphical representation for gesture. In this opening scene, this is comically foreshadowed by the way in which the burlesque nature of the linguistic exchange is later mirrored in a farcical physical exchange. This shifting of levels is lost unless the ironically formal and humourously learned lexical items are adequately translated. Thus the ironic foray into archaism with "tout faraud", which would have been better translated as "the braggard", is lost when archaism is simply rendered by colloquialism.

9The explosively creative nature of the text, which does not entirely come over in the English version, is in part due to the fact that the spoken language is for Queneau a springboard for word-play, neologism and a variety of literary devices. In the extracts given, the joke inherent in calling a perfume "Barbouze" is lost when the same name is retained in French. Also lost are the assonance in "Répète un peu voir/quoi?" and the hilarious combination of assonance, alliteration and reduplication in "C'est bien moi, répond Gabriel en anoblissant son ton. Oui, je suis ton tonton". Such linguistic humour which finds its point of departure in colloquial language is rarely gratuitous in Queneau. Thus, a theme of the novel will be gender identity, and the French reader will recall that Gabriel was a "tonton" in the early stages of the novel, when he/she appears transformed into a "tata" ; such a point of reference for one of the serious themes of the novel, made possible by the use of the colloquial language, is absent for the reader of the English translations.

10Given the difficulties for the translator that we have outlined, is there anything that could have been done to alleviate the problem? It begins to look as if, in the case of a text that highlights the creative resources specific to a particular language, a fundamental recasting and a very free translation is needed if any sort of comparable effect is to be achieved. This is the sort of exercise that Queneau himself undertook when he attempted to translate some of Finnegans Wake, a task which inspired the beginning of Saint-Glinglin.

11Secondly, there is one specific solution which it would have been easy to implement. The underlying reason for Queneau's representation of the spoken language sounding authentic, even though only limited examples are given, is because Queneau selects what we now term stereotypical instances of the linguistic variety in question. The dropping of the "e muet", for example, or of the final liquid "vot"', "i'" at the phonological level, and the absence of "ne" at the morphosyntactic level, can immediately conjure up a way of speaking and situate the speaker socially. A greater use could have been made of judiciously chosen stereotypical items in English. Instead, the translators sometimes succumb to the temptation of replicating in English the features of colloquial French. In the extract from Le Chiendent, Ernestine's bewilderment is expressed in two poignant sentences which are full of colloquial markers:

I reste du pourri, mais la p'tite voix qui parle dans la tête quand on est tout seul, i n'en reste rien. La mienne quand è s'taira, è r'parlera pas ailleurs.

The decay will be left, but the little voice that talks in your head when you're by yourself, there won't be anything left of that. Mine, when it stops talking, it won't be talking anywhere else.

12The English translation is devoid of colloquialism. "Tisn't", as "toughtn't" elsewhere, has inappropriate age and regional connotations. The replication of the word-order of "français familier" ("mine, when it stops talking, it..."), does not denote a particular register in English and sounds stilted. In the same extract, there are other traces of the features of "français parlé" being imposed on English: "cept" for "except", "essplain" for "explain". It is less that these items cannot appear in English than that they do not occur as frequently, and do not have stereotypical status, which other items would have.

13In places, the translator does make an attempt to use stereotypical features. For "spa", she opts for an attempt at transcribing spoken English "doncha", and throughout this extract the playful "snot" is used for "c'est pas". Inventive though he undoubtedly can be, Queneau is here using the most commonly agreed features of the colloquial French. Why do the English translators not do something similar? Of course, given what we have said earlier about the nature of variation in English, any attempt to represent an informal register would entail a social class and/or regional dimension. But why not, since Zazie can barely be said to belong to a bourgeois milieu, and very definitely belongs to Paris? For British English, a sprinkling of working-class, London colloquialisms would correspond well to Zazie's pertness: the equivalent of the stereotypical elision and assimilation of "chsuis" is to be found in the cockney "ain't", which is totally absent from any of the translations, and the equivalent of "t'" is "yer", only used occasionally. The American text uses the stereotypical "in'", but the British one does not exploit the different but widespread usage of this feature in the spoken language. Of course, there are in the original also less stereotypical examples more sparingly used, such as the nasalised first vowel of "manman", for instance, which is well dealt with in the American version as "Cmon, Mama".

14To conclude, a proper theoretical contrastive framework for register would show how register operates as a macro-function. That the whole scope and conceptualisation of register usage varies from one culture to another, and not merely from one language to another, is demonstrated by the differences between, for example, American and British English. Because of this, the translator of a colloquial text needs to engage in a radical recasting, rather than attempting to find equivalents for individual lexical or syntactic items. I have indicated some ways in which improvements could be made to these translations ; however, a really radical solution, corresponding to the sort of task that Queneau was attempting, might be, for the British English translator, to try to find a way of transcribing contemporary suburban southern English — the frequently mentioned Thames English, in which nothing has been written, but which would correspond well to what we would expect from Zazie. Perhaps it is time for some new translations and someone will rise to the bait!

Haut de page


LABOV, W. (1976) Sociolinguistique. 1972. Trad. P. Encrevé. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1976.

MARTIN, J.R. English Text: System and Structure. Philadelphia ; Amsterdan: John Benjamins, 1992.

QUENEAU, R. Le Chiendent. Paris: Gallimard, 1933. Trad. Barbara Wright. The Bark-tree. Londres: Calder, 1968.

QUENEAU, R. Zazie dans le métro. Paris: Gallimard, 1959. Trad. Akbar del Piombo and Eric Kahane. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959 ; trad. Barbara Wright. Londres: Calder, 1960 ; 1982.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Carol Sanders, « "Pourquoi qu'on dit des choses et pas d'autres?" », Palimpsestes, 10 | 1996, 41-48.

Référence électronique

Carol Sanders, « "Pourquoi qu'on dit des choses et pas d'autres?" », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 10 | 1996, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2013, consulté le 25 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.1506

Haut de page


Carol Sanders

University of Surrey

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle
  • OpenEdition Journals