France: a fine line

I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.

The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?

Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.

Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.

The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:

‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’

The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.

Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.

Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)

18 responses

  1. Translations can definitely be tricky. I was rather suspicious when I saw a reference to Coldplay in a Spanish book I recently read (‘Dublinesque’) – I’m still not sure whether it was a liberty taken by the translator or proof that the writer really has his finger on the pulse of modern culture…

  2. Thanks for finding this book; it sounds intriguing… I think I am going to try to read it in the original French, although if it has a lot of current French slang, I might need the English version to help translate… Despite being a native French speaker, I am not Parisian, and the last time I read a current French book set in Paris, I needed a French slang dictionary!

    • Thanks Chantal. That’s great that you want to read it. A dictionary or the English version by your side might be a wise move – from what I hear the French version is full of slang. I hope you enjoy it.

  3. Having read Kiffe Kiffe Demain in French I’d love to read the translation to see how it holds up, because it certainly does rely on her specific use of language.
    I’ve also found interesting changes in pop culture references in the subtitles of movies. For example La Haine changes the character nicknamed Astérix to Snoopy for English audiences.
    Great post!

    • Thanks very much. The Asterix to Snoopy change is interesting – I’d guess more UK kids know Asterix than Snoopy these days. But then maybe I’m not very down with the kids 🙂

  4. Great review! If you are interested in North African culture in Paris, Alex Miller (an Australian author) has written a book about an Australian meeting Tunisian woman who runs a cafe in Paris, and the story of what happens to them. It’s beautifully written, and Alex Miller has won several awards. The book is called ‘Lovesong’.

  5. Merci for your great book Ann about world literature, I got it straight after reading a review about it in the metro newspaper:) As I am French I thought the best way to check your list was to start by a French book. It was good but I am not sure how representative it is of French literature. “L’elegance du herisson” from Muriel Barbery (translated the Elegance of the Hedghog) is a real gem, in case anyone is looking for another option of French contemporary book…
    Best wishes,
    Sophie G-L

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