Starlings, Little Stars and Omission in Translation: Denise Van Moppès

Denise Van Moppès in the newspaper L’Intransigeant, 1932
Photo from RetroNews, BNF, France (see here).

As our database begins to come together, one of the most exciting prospects is to see the prominence and visibility of translators. Some names recur again and again, across journals and languages and I have been exploring some of these in recent weeks. Looking closely at their biography and work can help us bring to light the often-neglected role of the translator in enabling intercultural exchange. One interesting example is that of Denise Van Moppès.

Born in 1902, Van Moppès features prominently in the magazines La Nouvelle équipe française as well as Preuves. During her lifetime, she wrote three novels: Dormeuse (1929), Mercredi (1932), and later Une fée dans la ville (1956). Her work seems to have mixed success and shortly after her second novel, she took up translation and would go on to translate well over 50 texts (the BNF lists 239 entries, but this includes repeated entries). Her first translation, from German, was published in 1933 (Klaus Mehnert), but she would increasingly translate English, eventually becoming the authorised translator of Daphne du Maurier, but also translating Henry James, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Arthur Koeslter, and Ernest Hemmingway among others. Indeed, she also translated Jolán Földes from Hungarian, as well as Maria Dermoût from Dutch (though in both cases potentially via the English translation).  

As a translator, Van Moppès is of interest for several reasons. She was a widely respected and regarded translator at the time and represents an important example of the prominent role of women in translation. Yet, somewhat surprisingly given the range of her translations, her failures are perhaps more interesting than her successes. Her translations of du Maurier help illustrate this. 

As Tatiana de Rosnay’s archival work has discovered, in 1954 du Maurier was deeply unhappy with the translation of Mary Anne and was concerned in particular about a mistranslation of “starling” (the bird) as “little stars” (petites étoiles). Du Maurier wrote:

I do wonder how a translator of Mrs. Butler’s [Van Moppès used her maiden’s name in translation] professional reputation could have allowed such a gross error, particularly as the scene in question takes place in broad daylight. (cited in Tatiana de Rosnay, Mandeley for ever)

This was far from the only objection that du Maurier had. And, indeed, these – alongside others raised by her Francophone readers – have only been corrected in France in recent years with new translations (for more on this, see here).

This issue of incorrect translation can cause us to reflect even further on the “mischief” that a translator can get up to. And if we dig further we find that Van Moppès actively omitted and adapted parts of du Maurier’s work. Using her reputational clout, it appears that Van Moppès convinced Albin Michel, her publisher, to exclude two short stories from a collection of works by du Maurier (‘The Old Man’, ‘Monte Verità’), in part because she felt these would not interest French readers. Similarly, Rosnay demonstrates that Van Moppès was given the go ahead by Albin Michel to adapt I’ll Never Be Young Again to the tastes of a French audience.

These omissions and modifications raise important and challenging questions for our project, not least in thinking about translation as an act of cultural exchange within Europe. Though we might tend to think of the translator as an enabler of intercultural exchange, Van Moppès demonstrates the way in which they can, at the same time, represent a barrier to such exchange. Aside from the potential accuracy errors, omissions and adjustments based on an imagined French readership limit the transnational dimension of translation and can also serve to reenforce the national (the very model of ‘fluency’ that Venuti has challenged in The Invisible Translator). Yet they could also be said to encourage readership, increasing the popularity and commercial success of these translations: though limiting the degree of the exposure to cultural difference, this would thus increase its spread.

It is perilous to come down on either side of this question, rather we might ask instead what we can learn from Van Moppès’s interventionist style of translation? The first is that it can nicely demonstrate the risks of assuming that translation is inherently transnational, making plain that it can still carry national limitations and censorship within it. Similarly, though this might seem in conflict with a conception of periodicals as truly ‘European spaces’, her approach can offer a way of nuancing this idea: providing a window through which to see the competing conceptions of national European audiences, their different imagined and projected tastes, and the diverse forms of translation that this may have generated. In this case, the exclusions become as interesting as the inclusions. Finally, Van Moppès translation practice testifies once again of the importance of a greater awareness of translation and mediation in thinking about the transnational and the wide range of negotiations of the national and international that come with this.

Cillian Ó Fathaigh

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