Trainspotting in translation


Twenty years after its publication, Neil Stewart revisits Irvine Welsh’s quintessentially Scottish Trainspotting, in French, to see what was lost, or perhaps gained

Irvine Welsh Trainspotting in French

What’s the French for “glaikit”? Or “dreich”? Is there a direct translation, or even approximation, of “radge gadge” (that’s “an angry and/or violent young man” to you)? It was a slow day when I started wondering how a French translation of Trainspotting would cope with Irvine Welsh’s coruscating Doric Scots prose – especially when I remembered hearing that the 1996 film adaptation had needed subtitles before it could be comprehended by English audiences, never mind overseas ones.

Welsh’s highly textured Scots lingo would have proven, I supposed, a headache for translators as much as for readers unfamiliar with Scots speech patterns; perhaps, I thought, a translator would opt for a non-standard French to match Welsh’s non-RP English? A linguistics enthusiast friend even suggested that the solution might be to employ a dialect, like Marseillaise: recognisable, yet distinctly difference from “the Président’s French”, and with even a hint of the working-class tone evoked by Welsh’s Scots patter.

How disappointing, then, to source a copy of Trainspotting, and discover that the – well, let’s say “colourful” – vocabulary and turns of phrase employed by Begbie, Renton et al have been rendered by translator Jean-René Etiènne, as… something close to standard French. “Gadge” becomes “mec”, the standard colloquialism you might use for the English “guy” or even “fellow”, so that in this version the psychotic Begbie is in danger of sounding oddly jocular. Spud’s “likesay” and “ken” have been elided into a nicely slurred “tsais”, the equivalent of “y’know”. “Dreich”, that emotive word that covers the range of very Scottish weather conditions, from overcast to lashing rain, is rendered as the pleasing “temps du chien”, “dog weather”, a happy cousin to “raining cats and dogs”. Something so easy it’s “a piece of pish” becomes “comme dans du beurre” – “like [a knife] in butter”. Begbie’s frequently invoked “radges”, however, are “des baltringues”, an appropriately untranslateable bit of French argot which implies the person being referred to it is incapable of speaking for himself – whether through imbecility or inebriation.

Part of the appeal of Welsh’s prose in Trainspotting is the juxtaposition between the cheerfully expletive-ridden, scabrous and scatological way his characters express themselves – the C-word is translated, aptly, with the French equivalent of the word “git”, capturing the casual, almost friendly way it’s deployed – and the rather meticulous way the story is told. (This is not an impermeable division; characters’ inner monologues mix slang and standard English in varying proportions, to a pithily political end: these people are no less articulate for employing a form of language whose speakers are frequently dismissed as unworthy of attention. “Ah cannae even endorse these sentiments”, a character laments, “as they are at best peripheral tae the moment”.)

“Le trainspotting” is the loanword that must, I imagine, have caused the translator a headache: the novel’s title is obliquely explained when Begbie and Renton are accosted by an old man as they’re urinating onto a defunct railway track at Edinburgh’s Leith station. “‘What yis up tae lads? Trainspottin eh?’” In the French, the pun dries up: Begbie and Rents are merely “counting” or “watching” the trains.

I’m no translator, and a translation can’t be definitive, a fact explored by David Bellos’s excellent book on the act and art of translation Is That a Fish in Your Ear? It’s possible that future variants will go some way to melding Welsh’s linguistic fireworks with the demands of literary French. For now, dipping into Etiènne’s version has brought me back to the English-language version of Trainspotting with new respect. C


Neil Stewart is the Arts Editor of Civilian and the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale, published by Corsair, summer 2014