Translating asyndeton from French literary texts into English

Fiona Rossette
Université Paris 10

While asyndeton between finite clauses within the sentence may be considered a marginal construction, compared for example to coordination or subordination, it is more frequent in French than in English, in which it is limited with respect to genre. Particularly interesting examples, both quantitively and qualitively, can be found in French literature, notably in the fiction of Marguerite Duras, who made asyndeton her hallmark. This study documents the choices made by English translators of Duras, and of three other French writers who exploit asyndeton. Literature aside, asyndeton in French texts is not carried over into English, in what can be qualified as norm-governed translation. However, asyndeton in literary texts is carried over into English in up to fifty percent of cases, reflecting a certain compromise between norms in the source language and those in the target language. Apart from describing Duras’ specific use of asyndeton, and illustrating the difficulty of translating any element that is an essential ingredient of a writer’s style, which, by definition, represents a departure from an accepted norm, this study brings to light certain aspects governing clause combining in English. Certain linguistic parameters that favour the exploitation of asyndeton in English are systematised, specifically concision, rhythm and isotopy. Semantic, temporal and/or aspectual constraints are also highlighted.

Table of contents

My interest in clause-combining stems from my contact with French as a foreign language. In this area, French and English differ greatly. The study of “connectives” has received considerable attention in second-language education, and in France, [ p. 99 ]students’ misuse and overuse of these elements in their writing in English lead to major problems in understanding their texts. It is often claimed that French requires connectives in order to be more explicit, which may explain why French students overuse them in English. The main “offenders” are adverbials (e.g. therefore, indeed, moreover) which are used in sentence-initial position and therefore realise relations between sentences. In a quantitative study (Rossette 2003), I noted that sentence-initial connectives are more common in French than English. At the other end of the scale, however, French offers the possibility of foregoing connectives within the sentence, combining finite clauses simply via the use of a comma, in constructions which parallel the famous veni, vidi, vici.

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