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French Pop Song of the Week: “En tête à tête” by M

posted June 23, 2010

Posted by Thomas Riggs in music translation world literature


Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be at a French rock concert? Well, here you go: Matthieu Chedid, better known by his stage name M, singing “En tête à tête” (about five years ago in Paris). One of France’s most extravagant and innovative rock stars, M combines the driving, rhythmic motion of rock with the elegant evenness of the French language.

Below are the lyrics and a translation.

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Translating Catcher in the Rye à la française

posted February 12, 2010

Posted by Thomas Riggs in authors books marketing translation world literature


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.

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Serge Gainsbourg, French Songwriter Lost in Translation

posted January 28, 2010

Posted by Thomas Riggs in music poetry world literature


Like many people in France last week, I went to the opening of Gainsbourg (vie héroïque), a film about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91), the French songwriter, provocateur, and cultural icon. It’s hard to imagine the American equivalent of Gainsbourg, who is as famous in his own country as Elvis Presley is in the United States. To describe his personality and public presence, I thought about combining Bob Dylan, Abby Hoffman, and Charles Bukowski, but any mélange of American personalities would lack the French sensibility of Gainsbourg and the French culture that he both embodied and challenged.

That Gainsbourg, an inventive and disturbing cultural force, was virtually unknown in the United States even during his lifetime reflects the cocooning effect of language. Gainsbourg sang literary and sometimes shocking lyrics and provoked traditional French citizens into a fury, but Americans, deaf to the French language, were left undisturbed and unaffected.

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An American and a Vegetable Walk into a Bookstore

posted November 4, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in Bookselling books world literature

Living in France, I hear a lot about how Americans are . . . from a French perspective. In general, despite reports to the contrary, Americans seem to be well enough liked, with some exceptions, at least in the south. The election of Obama has helped the reputation of the United States. There also seems to be a deep-seated love here for Starsky and Hutch.

Curiously “Starsky et Hutch” speak French.

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Books in the Wild. It’s Hunting Season!

posted August 20, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in books

The message was simple and soft and alluring. And since I was in France, it was also in French.

Allons voir plus loin, veux-tu? Voir la mer, la baie des anges et ses palmiers . . . un peu plus loin, de l’autre coté du Musée Masséna.

Translated into our more accented English, it said,

Let’s go see farther. Do you want to? See the sea, the Bay of Angels and its palm trees . . . a little farther, on the other side of the Masséna Museum.

Nice, Musee Massena

Musée Masséna by DrOMM via Flickr

Musée Masséna? That’s in Nice, where I live, so how could I say no?

I had never met the person who wrote the note. In fact, I read the message on, a website that promotes “free range books.” The idea is simple: read a book, and afterward, instead of putting it to rest on your bookshelf, set it free. The site gives suggestions.

Leave it on a park bench, a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation. Share it with a friend or tuck it onto a bookshelf at the gym – anywhere it might find a new reader!

When I found the listing for Allons voir plus loin, veux-tu? by Anny Duperey, I saw there were almost 800 books “in the wild” in France, all waiting for someone to find them. In the United States there were some 10,000 books left in parks, coffee shops, and other random places.

The site also lets readers post notes about books before passing them on to someone else. This copy of Allons voir plus loin, veux-tu? began in Feins, Bretagne, in the north of France. It then traveled to nearby Pléneuf-Val-André before heading south to Lyon and finally Nice in southeastern France, where a reader left a rather uninspired recommendation: “Enfin je ne sais pas pourquoi j’avais envie de lire ce livre! . . . mais j’ai passé un bon moment” (”In fact, I don’t know why I felt like reading this book! . . . but I had a good time”).

After reading the note, I decided it was my turn to “passer un bon moment.” Fortunately there was one more clue: “Livre laissé côté rue de France, sur les grilles du Musée” (”book left on the side of rue de France, on the gate of the museum”). As I was going to a concert that evening not far from the museum, I decided to “go hunting,” as the site says.

The museum is a stone’s throw from the sea and next to the famous Hotel Negresco, where, as one site claims, Claudia Schiffer, Orson Welles, and Michael Jackson all stayed. But rue de France is one street in from the sea, and at night, when I arrived, it seemed desolate. A light breeze was pushing around a plastic sack. I was wearing headphones, listening to the French pop singer Bénabar, and reached my hand through the gate to search through a thick stretch of shrubbery. I must have seemed like a thief or a homeless person.

After a while, something didn’t seem right.

I looked around and across the street. Two prostitutes stood waiting for tourists. A flic, as cops are called here, sped by on a motorcycle. Great, I thought. This is all fine, and I don’t mind the weirdness, but someone already took the book.

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