Following a rapid introduction to the world of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and in particular to the characters of its two protagonists, Mme de Merteuil and Viscomte Valmont, we homed in on a key early scene, recounted through letters 4 and 5 in the novel. Having critiqued a contemporary translation of letter 5, students were encouraged first to conceive and then to conduct their own updated translation of the letter. Concept was key: the updates ranged around the world, and settings and characters took in all ages, nationalities, professions and backgrounds. Students started to see translation as a capacious art, able to encompass centuries of change and still make sense of classic texts today.
This workshop was developed for use in monolingual and bilingual classrooms, so students had a range of levels of French and English competence. First we discussed what makes poetry poetry, and we established a ‘poetry translation toolkit’ to apply in all circumstances. Then we experimented with whole-group translation of a poem from by French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq. Discussions included Houellebecq’s gloomy, anti-religious outlook and what duck-feet might have to do with his worldview. Finally, having gained confidence, students or pairs of students ventured their own translations of another of Houellebecq’s poems, ‘Un moment de pur innocence’. The results were inspiring. Students are already finding their voice as poets and translators.