I was barely fourteen when I was packed off to France for the first time. I said goodbye to my parents in Dover, heaved my suitcase on to the ferry, and steeled myself for the journey ahead, rehearsing my rudimentary French phrases in my head in readiness for the two week stay with a family I had never met in a remote corner of Brittany. In those days, it was not unusual for a youngster of such a tender age to be sent alone into the wilderness in this way. For it did indeed seem like a wilderness to me. I had never been to France, knew nothing of French toilets, of croissants and café au lait, of the correct way to eat a peach. Nor did I have any experience of using a public phone in France, or of navigating the Paris Metro.
I did manage to drag my suitcase (no wheels in those days) from the Gare du Nord, into the Metro, across Paris and eventually to the correct platform of the Gare de Montparnasse for my train to Brest. I remained stoic as I failed to negotiate the phone for the planned call home, calmly accepted the reality of my first French toilet (walk through the pissoir to get to the squat toilet) and only gave in to despair when I arrived at the platform and boldly ordered a cup of tea from the kiosque. Only then, when I beheld the emaciated teabag floating in lukewarm water did I fully appreciate the disorientation brought on by my first experience of culture shock. The French have a wonderful word for the feeling of isolation and confusion it can engender – déboussolé – literally, uncompassed. Not knowing where north lies, we flounder, we thrash around helplessly, reaching for a familiar hand-hold. We grieve for what we have lost and fight against the inevitability of being changed by our new environment.
I felt all this in those first few weeks in France, and as I worked on my first full-length translation, it all came back to me. What Became of the White Savage by François Garde is a tale of cultural isolation, confusion and misunderstanding. The novel’s main character, a young sailor only a few years older than I was when I was dispatched to France, finds himself abandoned on the coast of Australia almost two centuries ago. He endures privations much harsher than merely being deprived of a good cup of tea, but the novel points to many of the questions I’ve had cause to ask myself at many points in my life. Who are we when we are removed from all that is familiar to us? What happens to us when no one speaks our language and we are forced to learn a new tongue? And once we have made the journey to becoming a new person, can we go back again to our old persona? What kind of reception can we expect from our original world once we have learned to enjoy the pleasures of an alien way of life? You don’t have to go too far from home to be confronted with some of these questions, even in our contemporary super hi-tech interconnected world.
Needless to say, I did learn to love France and the French way of life, toilets and all. I’ve spent much of my life delving deeper and deeper into the French language and all that goes with it. And the memory of that first shock of being déboussolée in Paris stayed with me as I worked on my translation of What Became of the White Savage, teasing out the strands of Garde’s language and striving to render his tale in an anglophone voice that is authentically his, but also, inevitably mine. This is the challenge for translators, a tightrope walk that is both daunting and enthralling: we strive to remain hidden within the texts that we inhabit. Like a ghost in the machine, the translator must navigate between two linguistic worlds, putting the reader at ease and opening doors onto an unfamiliar world. You hope that the reader will emerge changed, nudged a little further towards a greater understanding of another way of looking at the world. Déboussolé perhaps, along the way, but just enough to understand a little better what it means to be cast adrift in an alien land.