29 January, 2011

Some Days, It's Just One Word

Truly, the things a historical novelist has to go through.

I have a character who needs to get from one part of Paris to the next. My map of Paris circa 1800 shows that these points are separated by a few kilometers. And so he can't go on foot--he'll have to hire a taxi.

And what does one call a 'taxi' in 1804?


Fig. 1: Regardez-vous a moi?





One recourse is to simply call it by its modern name, so that the modern reader will understand completely. This is often done in historical novels and the reader understands that the work he is reading about, say, the siege of Troy is effectively 'in translation' anyway because all the people in it should be speaking ancient Greek.

But in my case, the setting is 1804 and my French narrator is writing down the events in 1816 or so, in English (Monsieur le Docteur has his reasons). And so I seek Just The Right Word.

Fortunately I have near at hand a novel written about 1830 by Balzac, the delightful Colonel Chabert. Ah! le colonel hires a vehicle, which Balzac's translator calls a 'hackney cab'.  That sounds oldey-timey, right?

Maybe not.  A few minutes on Wikipedia calls all that into question. 'Hackney' refers specifically to an English conveyance, and 'cab' is of course short for 'cabriolet'.  Would a Frenchman in 1816, despite his fluency en Anglais, use that word? 

On we go to www.wikipedia.fr, ou je cherche sur le mot 'hackney'... and i find that to the French mind, the 'Hackney-cab' is imported to Paris in about 1830.  Not old enough for the good docteur.

And now we return to Balzac. What word did he use, which the translator transformed to 'hackney-cab'?  Je cherche encore une fois le 'web' en fran├žais, and I find a public domain copy of Le Colonel Chabert. It's only in .prc format, which my PC can't read, but I do have a Kindle! I plug it in as a USB device, transfer the file, open it up, and the word is...

Cabriolet. Of course. And thus, le Docteur will spend his last sous to hire a cabriolet that takes him across Paris to call on Madame.

The average historical novel has over a hundred thousand words. But some days, it's just one of them that matters.