Allez ! Over the cultural fence . . .

Not too long after the publication of my second book about the N.Y.P.D., I felt the emotional pull of Paris catch up with me, strong as ever. Soon I was right back in the France habit. Gratefully, I retrieved treasured friendships in both Paris and Brussels, just as if I’d never made such a lengthy, unusual detour into New York cop city.

Queasy about the quality of my French, I resolved to brush up. The FIAF (French Institute-Alliance Française) catalog was there where I’d left it, online. I discovered the joys of the shorter, more lighthearted summer classes, and really did a double-take when I spotted a course in French detective literature, the “policier” (or “polar” for short) genre.

Izzo's Marseille trilogy hero is Fabio Montale.

Izzo’s Marseille trilogy hero is Fabio Montale.

My FIAF teacher at the time, Pierre Mesnard, was willing to respect the genre and chose superb examples of the polar for our class to study. I fell hardest for author Jean-Claude Izzo, and for the Marseille of Izzo’s classic trilogy whose hero, Fabio Montale, is an irresistibly disillusioned, retired detective.

Toward the end of our eight week venture, the prof’ assigned us to write a character sketch in French. I chose to translate from Cop Talk, my ownnonfiction book, an appreciation of a veteran Homicide investigator by one of the many detectives I’d interviewed. Detective Dennis Roberts had sketched his mentor like this:

Freddy came up. First time I ever met him. He didn’t take the credit; he could’ve said, Well, I went up to The Bronx and got this Martinez guy. . . .

He introduced me to his boss. As a result, they brought me downtown to meet the police commissioner — Mike Codd, at the time. Between that and a couple of other arrests, I was able to get into Plain Clothes.

Freddy wrote a letter for me, helped me a lot. He was in the Homicide Squad apprehension team; very, very well known detective in Manhattan North. He had many, many informants, had a great rapport with the community. I wound up working with him as a detective in the Barrio, East Harlem. Any homicnypd det shieldide I ever worked on was solved when I was with Freddy. People could call him up, and we’d know half an hour after the homicide who did it.

As it happened, conveniently for me, a detective I’d met in France brought his family to New York for vacation. I’d been introduced to André, the chief of detectives in his city, when I was visiting his turf. We’d been in touch by email, and now he was visiting my home ground. Over tea with him, his congenial wife and their two civilized teens, I confessed what the FIAF class was up to. I even produced a hard copy of my draft — to show I wasn’t writing a thesis, just needed a seasoning of real French cop argot. By email, André promptly sent me the spice for this fast sketch:

Freddy est arrivé à notre bureau. C’est la première fois que je le rencontrais. Il n’a pas réclamé l’affaire pour lui-même. Il aurait pu dire, c’est moi qui ai serré  Martinez pour le meurtre. Il aurait pu dire, je suis allé dans le Bronx, moi — crever ce salaud.

Il m’a présenté à son chef. Plus tard, on m’a présenté au directeur, à lhôtel de police. C’était Michael Codd, à ce moment-là. Grâce à ce crâne et quelques autres — finie la roupane. Je bosse en civil.

Freddy m’a écrit une lettre pour me pistonner. Il était de Manhattan Nord Homicide, l’équipe de pointe. Il avait un tas d’indics et était implanté dans ces quartiers. J’ai fini par bosser avec lui, comme inspecteur, dans El Barrio — Harlem Est. N’importe quelle enquête pour meurtre était rapidement pliée quand je bossais avec Freddy. Les gens l’appelaient et nous savions une demie-heure après, qui avait fait le coup.

When Pierre Mesnard handed back my mini-sketch, it was marked “bien.” But when I bit the bullet and shared the piece with my French writer friends, they were less indulgent. My French cop talk was too special, they complained, I’d seasoned with a heavy hand. The language was distracting.

As much as I’d loved getting an inside view of New York detectives’ investigations, I also loved hearing their unique slang and I eagerly shared both with my readers. Authenticity was vital; context offered readers enough clues to decipher the cop talk. Shouldn’t the same principle work for a French version?

For my literary Frenchies, it didn’t. Or the principle, I realized, was beside the cultural point. The cop argot rattled in literary French ears. (Even if it rang nice and true to French police officer ears). Debating such a point over the cultural fence, I also realized, is the fun for me; call it the French +. More fun than winning the debate (not that, from my rookie side of the fence, I’d be likely to win.) When in France, I concluded, explore French minds.


Read French? Enjoy some authentic cop argot:

c’est moi qui ai serré Martinez – I collared (arrested) Martinez . . . crever ce salaud – take down the bastard. . . ce crâne – this punk. . . finie la roupane – out of the bag (uniform). . . me pistonner – hook me up (get me promoted). . . l’équipe de pointe – the cool squad. . . indics – informants. . . enquête pour meurtre était rapidement pliée – murder case closed.

2 thoughts on “Allez ! Over the cultural fence . . .

  1. How strange to think about how using the authentic language of the French policemen here actually was distracting to the French reader.
    It seems bizarre that in trying to use colloquial language in order to make stories more realistic-sounding, this in fact disengages the reader who doesn’t know these familiar terms!

    Really points the interesting balance between making a story sound realistic in the world in which it is set and ring ‘true’, whilst also writing for a reader who doesn’t have knowledge of the world described and may even be alienated by it.

  2. Your thoughtful comment gets to the essence of an author’s translation dilemma. Coincidentally, I just attended a débat (panel discussion) occasioned by the new translation into English of “Dictionary of Untranslatables.” The overflow audience at NYU Institute for Public Knowledge heard philosophers/authors/ translators ponder the translator’s struggle with the cultural essence and even political reverberations of language. The evening reinforced my choice to read French literature in the original. Of course, some of my French friends claim to be frustrated because they can’t read my books about the NYPD — since my books are untranslated. (I did say ‘dilemma.’)

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