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That Mad Ache, by Françoise Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter

Françoise Sagan is best, perhaps solely, known in English for her 1954 novel Bonjour, Tristesse, which she wrote when she was 18. She published a dozen more novels, among them this one, called La Chamade in French, written in 1965. It was first translated into English in 1966 by Robert Westhoff, who was briefly married to Sagan and remained friends with her after their divorce.

In his afterword to this new translation, Douglas Hofstadter refers to Sagan's works as "a smallish mountain range in the French literature of the 20th century" - compared, say, with Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, recently retranslated by Lydia Davis - and to La Chamade as one of the lesser peaks in that range.

  • That Mad Ache, by Françoise Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter. Published with Translator/Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation, by Douglas Hofstadter, Basic Books, 308 pages, $17.50

But it is a small, intense gem of a novel, the kind the French do so well, and confirms that Sagan was more than simply a one-shot literary prodigy.

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It is the story of Lucile, a young Parisian socialite who, while living with Charles, fiftysomething and rich, falls in love with Antoine, thirtysomething and poor. After a great deal of agonizing and deception - if Proust can spend 30 pages turning over in bed, Lucile can take 100 pages deciding to leave her lover - she moves in with Antoine.

The agony and the deceit go on, of course; both Lucile and Antoine are far too shallow to sustain anything more deeply emotional than a casual affair. But it is a measure of Sagan's skill as an observer and social analyst that the novel possesses a vitality that makes the reader actually interested in what happens to the couple, particularly to Lucile, through whose voice most of the novel is told.

For it is not just Lucile and Antoine we are getting to know, it is Parisian society in the 1950s: vapid, useless, self-absorbed and self-destructive. "Charles," Lucile asks at one point, "does a person really have to love someone ... really have to work, make their own money, accomplish things, in order to live life truly?"

"It is not an absolute necessity," Charles replies, "as long as one is happy."

Douglas Hofstadter's "afterword" (I read it first) runs to 100 pages, occupying one-third of the book, and is a close analysis of his own methodology in translating Sagan's novel. Hofstadter is a professor of cognitive science at the University of Indiana. He teaches comparative literature, computer science, psychology and philosophy, and has written such books as Metamagical Themas (1985) and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies (1995).

Hofstadter takes huge liberties with Sagan's style, which tends at times to the subdued and understated

In his massive 1997 book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, he plays with the idea of multiple, equally valid, translations of a single text and muses on life, death, language and loss. He finds significance in the observation that "translation" is an anagram of "lost in an art."

In his afterword to That Mad Ache, he compares the translator to a dog on a leash. Some translators, like Robert Westhoff, are happiest with a short leash, remaining slavishly faithful to the original text and never straying far from the master (or in this case, mistress); others, Hofstadter among them, prefer a long leash, or sometimes no leash at all: "I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or huge park. It's a marvellously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security."

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Hofstadter takes huge liberties with Sagan's style, which tends at times to the subdued and understated. Where Sagan writes "Bonne," meaning "Good," Hofstadter makes it: "Pretty nice." When Lucile replies to Charles "confusément," Hofstadter has her answering "in a flustered manner."

"It's not as if I were rewriting the plot of Sagan's novel," he writes, "or changing her characters' characters; I am just being myself." But whether a translator is allowed to be himself is a legitimate question, and many great translators have answered it in the negative; furthermore, Hofstadter does change the characters' characters. When Antoine is tempted to reveal something to Lucile, Sagan writes that "il faillit lui dire," which Westhoff renders faithfully as "he nearly told her." In Hofstadter's version, Antoine "nearly blurted out" the information, but "bit his tongue." Hofstadter's version is livelier, makes the scene more dramatic, but it is essentially a scene written by Hofstadter, not by Sagan.

Hofstadter makes two decisions that seem to me to be unfortunate. Sagan's characters often swing back and forth arbitrarily between addressing one another as "tu" and "vous." This is impossible to convey in English, as we have only one second-person pronoun, "you," to serve as both the intimate and the formal form of address (unless one reverts to the archaic "thou," which would be a different kind of disaster). Hofstadter uses capital letters to indicate the shift: "tu" is given as "you," and "vous" becomes "You." Thus we get clunky sentences like this: "I'm terribly fond of You" and "All You really care about is [sic]the things You Yourself like. Everything else is just in Your way."

I think this decision overlooks the reader's ability to discern an intimate from a formal way of speaking; we have been doing so in English novels for hundreds of years without special typographical prompts, which is why we dropped the "thou" form in the first place.

The second dubious decision is the title, That Mad Ache. It's true that Westhoff backed away from making any decision at all by simply leaving his translation with its French title: La Chamade, as had also been done earlier with the translation of Bonjour, Tristesse. It's not as though "la chamade" is untranslatable: Hofstadter finds only one usage of the term in his "huge Collins-Robert unabridged French-English dictionary," in the phrase "battir la chamade," which "basically suggests a wildly beating heart, a powerful throbbing of the heart, caused by intense emotions such as fear or anticipation or thrill." Hence "mad ache," which not only suggests a heart pounding with illicit love, but is moreover an anagram of "chamade."

But in my own huge Robert's dictionary, the French equivalent of the OED, "la chamade" is clearly defined as a drum-and-trumpet tattoo performed by the citizens of a besieged town to signal its surrender to the besieging army outside its gates. It is the equivalent to raising a white flag. This seems to me to suggest a wealth of possibility; Lucile and Antoine are forever surrendering to their own besieging passions. What is more, this deeper definition is specifically given by "some savant" in the last chapter of the novel. Sagan obviously intended this interpretation, which makes it doubly puzzling that both Westhoff and Hofstadter ignore it.

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These caveats are with Hofstadter's theory of translation, however; his actual translation of La Chamade is brilliant, highly readable, thoroughly engrossing and very nearly everything Françoise Sagan could have hoped for in an English version of her novel.

Sometimes a translator does have to rephrase or rewrite a passage in order to bring it closer to the author's original intention, to make the writing sound as the original writer might have written it had he or she been writing in English, just as non-fiction writers such as Farley Mowat have argued that sometimes a writer needs to lie to tell the truth.

Hofstadter calls this a translator's "poetic lie-sense," and in That Mad Ache it has given us a wonderful novel and, one can hope, a renewed interest in Sagan in the English-speaking world. What more can a translator wish?

Wayne Grady's translation of Dany Laferièrre's Heading South will be published this fall.

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