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French Senator Visits BYU

French senator Stéphane Demilly visits BYU to meet with the students who are translating his book from French to English.

French Senator Stéphane Demilly talking to BYU students.
Photo by David John Arnett

BYU students studying French had the unique opportunity recently to help foster diplomatic relationships between the US and France. On Thursday, March 30, 2023, French senator Stéphane Demilly visited BYU campus. During his visit, Senator Demilly talked about the ongoing translation of his book, L'alchimie des singularités, into English that BYU faculty and students have been working on.

The project began when BYU professors Corry Cropper (French) and Yvon LeBras (French Language and Culture) visited the French Senate during the summer of 2022. They met with Senator Demilly, who proposed that they have students translate his book from French into English as part of a university course. Senator Demilly was teaching classes on business to large companies and using his book as a resource. Having it translated by students would not only provide a great experiential learning opportunity, but it would also help Senator Demilly in his work. The three of them agreed that the project could help students learn about business, French, and diplomacy all at the same time.

Students taking Business French (Marriott School of Business 596R) and French Translation (French 414) have spent the last year translating Senator Demilly’s book. Gretchen Picklesimer Kinney (English ’24), a student in the French Translation class, explains that there are many factors that go into translation, including translation programs. “The use of technology in translation has been interesting. In high school I was always told, ‘Don’t touch Google Translate; it’s the enemy.’ And now, the sentiment is that translation software can actually be really helpful, and we can use it to make our jobs easier.”

The students began translating by having the raw text translated through a program called DeepL. They then compare that text to the original French manuscript in a process called postediting. Kinney says a lot of their work involves checking for words or phrases that don’t make sense when directly translated. The students will then seek to find an English word or phrase that captures the spirit of the original French. For example, the phrase “sauter du coq à l’âne” directly means “jump from the rooster to the donkey,” but it is interpreted to mean changing subjects suddenly.

Translators also have to adjust references to famous people, songs, etc., so they are recognizable to an English-speaking audience. For example, French playwright Molière’s character Harpagon is the epitome of grumpy, greedy old man, but American audiences aren’t likely to know about him. So translating his reference into Scrooge, from A Christmas Carol, immediately brings up the idea of being a miser to American audiences, even if that’s not the original reference.

Because of this, the translators struggle between either creating a more heavily edited translation (but more understandable to the new audience) or being more faithful to the original text. Through this process, Kinney says she has come to “a better understanding of what each community values, that language is not just words, but there’s a lot of culture behind it and a lot of values. It’s not just translating a direct translation of the word but translating it so it hits the ears in the same way, so it’s understood in the same way. So that as I’m reading it in English, as an American, I’d get the same understanding as a French person reading it in France.”

French Senator Stéphane Demilly smiling at BYU students.
Photo by David John Arnett

Many of the students working on the translation were able to meet Senator Demilly while he was on campus last month. During their conversations, students asked him about some of the tricky translation issues with his book. One of those had to do with the puns and wordplay he used in a number of his chapter titles and headings. Demilly described the intended meaning so the students could find the appropriate English equivalent. Regarding their conversation, Megan Hamilton (Editing and Publishing, French Studies ’24), president of the French National Honor Society, noted how sociable and passionate the senator was. The conversation was lively and genial, and Senator Demilly even invited a few students to come visit him in France and tour the Senate building over the summer.

The translation of Senator Demilly’s book will likely take at least another year, so students will continue to have the opportunity to learn from the process of translating it. In the meantime, his book is currently available on Amazon in French. BYU faculty look forward to hosting Senator Demilly again in the future and continuing to strengthen their diplomatic ties with France.