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Translating Catcher in the Rye à la française

Posted by Thomas Riggs in authors books marketing translation world literature on February 12, 2010


Translation is a funny business. With a novel it’s important not only to maintain the meaning of the original text but to express that meaning in a way that can be understood and appreciated by people conditioned in another culture. For commercial publishers there’s another concern: how best to attract potential buyers.

In 1951 Catcher in the Rye became an instant best seller in the United States. Soon it started to spread across the globe, contorting itself into different languages. Although in some countries the title kept its literal referents (catcher, rye), elsewhere publishers chose titles that presumably better expressed the intended meaning, or would be more interesting or understandable to their readers, than a literal translation. In Swedish it became Raddaren i noden (”Savior in a Crisis”); in Hungarian, Zabhegyezõ (“A Sharpener of Oats”); and in Polish, Buszujący w zbożu (”Rummage Around in the Corn”).

In France J.D. Salinger’s classic became L’attrape-coeurs (”The Catcher of Hearts”). Why didn’t the French choose a more literal translation? I’ve read several explanations.

The English and French titles are both taken from a scene with Holden and his younger sister, Phoebe, with Holden starting off.

“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”

“What? Stop swearing.”

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like —”

It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”

Holden then says he imagines a field of rye next to a cliff, and in the field thousands of kids are running around. He is the only big person there to protect them from falling off the edge.

I mean if they’re running and don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

In the French version of the book, Holden says something different.

Tu connais la chanson « Si un cœur attrape un cœur qui vient à travers les seigles » ? Je voudrais . . . (”You know the song ‘If a heart catches a heart coming through the rye’? I’d like . . .”)

When Phoebe corrects him, she uses the word “body” (corps), not “heart” (coeur), and the French is a literal translation from the English.

C’est « Si un corps rencontre un corps qui vient à travers les seigles ». C’est un poème de Robert Burns.

But when Holden continues his thought, he goes to back to using “heart.”

C’est ce que je ferais toute la journée. Je serais juste l’attrape-cœurs et tout. (”That’s what I would do all day. I would just be the catcher of hearts and all.”)

Why did the translator choose the French word for “heart” and not “body” here? One theory I read is that for an adolescent the body is often confused with the heart and with hormones energizing the body. For Holden, then, it would be normal for a teenager to mix up the two words.

But another idea is that a well-known book, Boris Vian’s L’arrache-coeur (English title: Heartsnatcher), was published not long before the French version of Catcher in the Rye and that the publisher wanted to make the connection. In fact, at a dinner in Nice recently, I asked people at the table why the book was called L’attrape-coeurs, and someone immediately thought of Vian.

So my best guess is that, while the translator and the publisher remained faithful to the original meaning in the scene of Holden and Phoebe, the use of coeur (”heart”)—and especially the turn of phrase “L’attrape-coeurs”—was at least in part a marketing strategy.


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