Lust in translation 

Études françaises gets fresh with rewording erotic text

By Russ Cooper

Études françaises professor Pier-Pascale Boulanger takes notes during the Translating Erotica conference on April 24. Magnifying glass

Études françaises professor Pier-Pascale Boulanger takes notes during the Translating Erotica conference on April 24.

Love is a universal language. But, does its meaning change depending on the language we speak?

On April 24, the Département d'études françaises hosted the Translating Erotica conference, bringing together academics and the public to consider the intricacies of converting the erotic text from one language to another.

"There are specificities of text that travel successfully across language and some that don't," said Études françaises professor and conference organizer Pier-Pascale Boulanger. "You could ask the same questions about humour; it's a cultural, historical and generational thing. We wanted to explore how erotic literature works in translation."

For example, she explains the word for 'hairy' in English may often have off-putting connotations, but the German term behaart merely means 'the presence of follicles on a man’s skin' – in directly translating the word, the effect on the reader may be counterproductive.

"The point of erotica is to, well, turn on the reader or at least catch their attention. If there's any text that isn't clear and slows the reader down, it needs to be taken out," Boulanger said. "It's like the instructions for Ikea furniture; you read them, build, and you have a result at the end."

However disparate the comparison erotica and Swedish furniture, the conference's guest speakers travelled from just as far away as that Flärke bookshelf in your office.

Coming from Brazil, Israel, Morocco and all points in between, 10 experts attended the one-day conference to present their translation research of erotica in English, French, Finnish, German, Portuguese and Polish. Included on the docket was Yannick Pierrisnard from the Université Paris-Sorbonne in France, Andrew Branch from Reed College in New Jersey and Philippe DiFolco, the renowned author of Dictionnaire de la pornographie.

Boulanger was also pleased to welcome her colleague, Études françaises professor Jean-Marc Gouanvic to deliver his presentation, “L'érotique en série noire; sexualité masculine et non-violence” which explored traditional male roles in detective and police drama literature.

The conference also attracted attention from Radio-Canada's Christiane Charette, who welcomed Boulanger on April 23 as a guest on her show to speak of the conference. (Listen to the interview online).

For Montreal-native Boulanger, who has been at Concordia since 2005, the idea for the conference stemmed from teaching literary translation here at Concordia – a class she's taught for four sessions.

"Generally, students translate the classics, such as Shakespeare, but we don't really get to work on anything that's not considered literary." In an attempt to shake things up, she began her students translating dialogue from authors such as Dan Brown or Nick Hornby to gain practical experience. "But it got me thinking, how would you translate erotica? What would be the problems? Especially regarding with the masculine-feminine designation of objects in French."

This marked the first time Boulanger had coordinated a conference of this magnitude. While many topics remained unaddressed, she feels the daylong event was a complete success. She thanks Associate Dean Graham Carr and Lori Dupuis of the Research and Graduate Studies office of the Faculty of Arts and Science, as well the Centre de recherche sur le texte et l’imaginaire Figura for all their help in funding and carrying out the event.


Concordia University