The Mystery and Romance of a Foreign Language

LISE McCLENDON is the author of fourteen novels of suspense, mystery, crime, and wise-crackery. She writes the Bennett Sisters Mystery series, as well as series set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and WW2-era Kansas City. As Rory Tate she’s written two thrillers, Plan X and Jump Cut. She co-wrote the dark comic thriller, Beat Slay Love, with four other mystery writers calling themselves Thalia Filbert. Her short story is included in the new anthology edited by Gary Phillips, The Obama Inheritance. Lise served on the national boards of Mystery Writers of America and the North American chapter of International Crime Writers. She lives in Montana and at lisemcclendon.com

Some years ago I started writing a novel set partially in a foreign country. I had traveled to this country but writing a novel set there is another matter. It requires detail, nuance, and someone on the ground to answer questions and send the occasional photo. I found some American ex-pats in France, my foreign land, did my own reconnaissance, and wrote my novel.

Fast forward to 2018. That novel, Blackbird Fly, was originally set to be the first in a series about five sisters but with the upheaval in publishing I sent it out into the world as a stand-alone in 2009. Five years later I realized I not only missed these sisters but readers did too. I revived the series and now have six books featuring the Bennett sisters, all lawyers, and their adventures in suspense, crime, and romance.

One of my marketing contacts features books set in France, or by French authors, on her blog, France Book Tours. I noticed she was now translating books into French and was intrigued. I had long wished for a way to get my books into the French market, especially ones set there.  When I discovered the translator’s fees were reasonable—often a barrier to labor-intensive translation—I jumped on the opportunity.

Emma Cazabonne, the translator, is a native French speaker, a must for translation. Although she lives in the US now, she has a proofreader, Gaelle Davis, who lives in France. Because the author herself (i.e., moi) is not fluent in the language, especially one so prickly and with as many verb tenses as French, I must trust my translators to get it all right.

As the author you don’t do much during the translation process. There may be errors found in your original manuscript (yes, even more) but as you are not the expert here, you sit back and let the translators work their magic. I find French, even when I don’t completely comprehend it, to be musical, a joy to the ear. The only input I had was on the title. Blackbird Fly is a song title, a Beatles tune, and works in the plot as well. Merle, the main character’s name, is also the French word for blackbird. And the sisters have a love of the Beatles in the story.

But a literal translation is rarely the answer to a title of a novel. The idioms of a foreign language, the nuance of phrases, are crucial. We threw around ideas: using bits of the poem from the foreword, various takes on flying, something literary or esoteric. In the end Gaelle came up with the title, À Vol de Merle, which means ‘As the Blackbird flies’ like ‘As the crow flies’ in English. Capitalizing ‘Merle’ emphasized that it has a double meaning in the book as the character’s name. But that was only the start of the capitalization debate.

My translators told me that although we were capitalizing ‘Merle’ for emphasis, words in a French title beyond the first word are rarely capitalized. Unlike English titles where every word outside minor ones like ‘and’ or ‘the’ are capitalized, it is bad form in French. Because the title is short however, it looked strange to me. ‘À’ is a small word in French, ‘of’ or ‘as.’ Then to leave the word ‘vol,’ meaning flight or flying, in lower case seemed strange.

I did some internet sleuthing. My translators are correct. Only the first word of a French title is generally capitalized. But it is not universal. For instance, the new Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury, is titled in French: Le Feu et la Fureur (which has the unfortunate connotation of Führer but that’s another language.) Another translation, the novel, Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay, is titled in French: Fausses Promesses. Translations are possibly more likely to use the capitalization of the original title, although this is often sidestepped on the cover by using all caps.

I also found an obscure rule about capitalizing the first important noun in a title, in this case ‘vol.’ So I overruled my translators and got À Vol de Merle. Which looks right to me at least.

So my mystery is ‘partout dans le monde français.’ I gave it a new cover, a little darker and more mysterious in line with a darker French view of the world. Americans seem sunnier, more optimistic to me, at least until recently. My American in France, Merle Bennett, finds the French people in her little village at turns helpful, friendly, then annoying, snooty, intriguing yet hard-to-know, but in the end they come to understand each other. Merle’s French, like mine, is of the high school variety, causing misunderstandings and judgment on both sides.

A big part of setting a book in a foreign country is using the language barrier as plot device. When a character travels to another land, they are the classic ‘fish out of water’ in a story, trying to understand how things work and what people mean. Will Merle still be an ‘étranger,’ a stranger, when she apparently speaks perfect French in the translation? Bien sûr. Of course. At least I hope so.