Don’t Quote Me On That

Un débauché de profession est rarement un homme pitoyable. Which I am sure is a guide of the utmost use to us all in modern life. If we fully understand the nuances.

This morning I came across a writing challenge based on starting a story with the first line of your favourite book. I would have the greatest difficulty choosing ten books to be my favourites, let alone choosing a single book. So I decided to instead to use a book to which I return again and again: John Fowles’ The Magus. Ignoring the preface to the revised edition, it begins with the De Sade quotation at the start of this post.

My French is not terrible but I have not read either literature or poetry in it since school, so I decided to seek a translation rather than rely on my patchy and dis-euphonious comprehension. While it did not take long to confirm my direct translation was valid or to discover a more melodious and nuanced version, by the time I had so done my mind had begun to wonder about the use of quotations in fiction (or even non-fiction) without a translation.

By now I suspect the readers of this posts are split into three groups: people who have translated the it with no difficulty; people who are either relying on a basic understanding or a search engine; and people who skimmed it and might be waiting for a translation.

I have embedded the quote into the text, and referred to it in the next sentence, so I anticipate the last group is reasonably small. However, when reading a book I often fall into it myself. I still read most books on paper, sitting on a sofa, and the ebooks I read are almost always read with the wi-fi turned off on my Kindle to save battery. Putting down a book to either go to my computer or turn on the wi-fi, so I can search for a translation is almost always more effort and distraction than I wish to incur for the potential reward. If I, with an almost obsession to read everything and consume new knowledge set them aside for later, are these quotations really adding to the work?

Indeed, if the author has succeeded in immersing me in the story, or even in creating an engaging blurb, I might not even remember to seek a translation later. The effectiveness of these quotations is thus inversely proportional to the attractiveness of the book as a whole.

When books were the preserve of the wealthy (and thus educated man) it perhaps made sense to assume the reader would speak French, German, Latin, Greek, and other languages well enough to quote without a translation. But is that still a valid assumption? If having studied Latin and Greek at school is the exception not the rule, and becoming more so for each generation, then is omitting the translation moving from erudition to obfuscation?

Or is an air of exclusivity the goal? If many literary classics begin sections or even chapters with an untranslated quotation from a foreign classic, then is having untranslated quotations a message that this is serious fiction rather than whatever the author least wishes it mistaken for? Would Margaret Atwood’s protestations that The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction be unnecessary if she added “Ventosa viri restabit” before the first paragraph?

I have no objection to quotations; however, if they truly add to the story then would they not add more if a translation were provided as well? In such spirit, the initial quotation could be translated as the professional philanderer is seldom worthy of pity.

Do you take time to translate quotes if you do not recognise them? Do you find their inclusion annoying, even if you can translate them?

8 thoughts on “Don’t Quote Me On That

    1. Touché, Monsieur Skele!

      There are many studies on which languages best convey which emotions/themes/&c. Possibly French is among the more poetic sounds to the European ear?

      Or maybe it is one of the most familiar to Anglophones; both the UK and USA (especially parts of the South) have historical links to France in a way we do not with, say, Germany. The way to tell would be to see which foreign quotations are used when in other countries.


  1. Reading The Magus for the first time, searched the internet for translations of the DeSade quotes, found your excellent article. It appears I initially was part of the third group you mention, then became part of the second.

    To answer the question you pose, I find it irritating and jarring to have to “exit” immersion in a good read in order to go seek a translation that is not provided. This is especially true when the nuance or tone are of utmost importance to the effectiveness of the quote.

    The inclusion of such untranslated quotes seem almost an affectation of the authors, as if to say “Look how very educated and clever I am — indeed, how much more so than you, dear reader.”

    Thank you for translating the first quote. Now I’m off to continue Googling the others.


  2. I know this is a very old thread but if you should happen to still read comments, well, here’s my two cents!

    Personally, I really enjoy these quotes. I love trying to figure out the authors intention and what the deeper meaning is (if there is one) and how it applies to the subsequent story. I get just as excited when I see it’s in a language I don’t understand and have to translate. I don’t see it as a pompous act on behalf of the author, nor do I think it creates the idea of an exclusive, more intellectual club that others should feel left out of. I know, it’s a very subjective thing and you could argue (well, you kind of already did) of how it’s annoying to you in many ways. But, let me just add that there is another important element you didn’t address…..When you have to translate something, not everyone is going to translate it the same exact way. There are a myriad of reasons people would translate a phrase quite differently- words have changed and have different meanings than they once had, some words don’t translate well into other languages, some words carry multiple connotations (which one is correct?-we are just guessing) and also the country or culture you come from could affect the way you interpret a certain phrase. This just fascinates me. I wonder if anyone else feels the same way.

    Anyways, if you’re still reading this, I wanted to tell you that I stumbled across your post because I just discovered John Fowles and The Magus. I’m re-reading it again. It’s just superb on so many levels! I find myself re-reading the forward over and over again, wishing I could have discovered him sooner. I also am an artist-not a writer, a visual artist, and I think what he says about his craft spans time and all artistic medium. Just beautiful:)

    Thank you for writing this, I really enjoyed it!!


    1. Glad you enjoyed my thoughts.

      I utterly agree that each person might translate the same phrase differently. To address that, the same potential drift in meaning applies whether that person is the reader or the author. As the risk of drift cannot be avoided, the question becomes whether the choice of translator affects the way any drift will occur. One major difference between the author and the reader in this is that the author had a reason for choosing the quotation: thus, their translation will be flavoured by that; whereas, especially in the case of a reader encountering an epigraph for the first time, the reader must choose between possible meanings without that context.

      If—as I incline toward—one accepts Barthes is correct about the “death of the author”, then the author’s intent does not privilege their translation over any other; however, neither does that make the author’s translation less correct. Therefore, I still favour the author providing a translation.

      Perhaps, the ideal solution would be to—as some texts do—provide both the original quote and the author’s translation; thus, readers may choose whether they accept the author’s version or research further. In the case of those wishing to consider the author’s choice this might even assist as they would then know which translation the author favoured if several exist.


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