This page was created by Anne-Julia Price.  The last update was by David Squires.

Keys to the Archive: Miss Jane Pittman


By Anne-Julia Price

In his influential essay "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation," linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson concludes, "poetry is by definition untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible" (131). The surprising claim works to remind readers that creative expression finds value in particular forms and readers' experience of those forms. If changing an expression from one language to another necessarily changes its form, creative translation has to consider how different languages create different contexts for expression. Those differences require the movement of an idea—or, more accurately, a system of ideas—from one place to another.

In other words, Jakobson reminds us that translating a text is not about changing word for word from one language into another; it’s about motion, a dynamism within its own genre. A translator has an ethical obligation to preserve the structure of the source language (SL) as faithfully as possible, but not so much that it misrepresents the structure or meaning of the target language (TL). There must exist a balance of formal semantics and aesthetic features, keeping both words and sense in mind in addition to the target audience. Literary translations have a little more freedom than technical translations. However, they also struggle in the tug-of-war between where, and to what extent, their responsibilities, loyalties, and interests lie. They must transfer the feelings and cultural nuances, puns, humor, colloquialisms, even social implications of the SL, remaining truthful and honest to the original source, while also making it legible to the target audience.

Translating English to French

There may be several inescapable barriers in translating directly from English to French, including converting words from the Germanic roots of English to the Romance roots of French. Trying to replicate dialect is apparently one of the most difficult challenges for a translator (Berthele 588-613). There is the French hegemony of language, but nevertheless, it is often the case that translators in general have swayed from repetition, predominately in French, and from translating dialect directly. The dialect of the characters, especially with the use of repetition, is a prominent feature of Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in English, but is not as frequent in the French translation.

Michelle Herpe-Voslinsky: French Translator of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

Around 1983, at the Salon du Livre de Paris (Paris Book Fair), Ms. Michelle Herpe-Voslinsky, the translator of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, met the publisher of Éditions Liana Levi, an independent publishing house founded in 1982. And in the late 1980s, that publishing house became acquainted with Ernest J. Gaines’ works thanks to Michel Fabre, author, specialist in American literature in Paris, professor emeritus at the Université de Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle, and the husband of Geneviève Fabre, one of Ms. Herpe-Voslinsky’s professors.

As a translator for Liana Levi, Ms. Herpe-Voslinsky first began work on A Gathering of Old Men (Colère en Louisiane), which was published in France in 1989 and already a television movie by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff in 1987. She would go on to translate other books by Gaines including Catherine Carmier, A Long Day in November (Une longue journée de novembre), Of Love and Dust (D’amour et de poussière), Bloodline (Par la petite porte), The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Autobiographie de Miss Jane Pittman), In My Father’s House (Le nom du fils), A Lesson Before Dying (Dites-leur que je suis un homme), and The Tragedy of Brady Sims (L’homme qui fouettait les enfants). And in 1994, in honor of her translations of Gaines’ books, Ms. Herpe-Voslinsky received the Prix Maurice Edgar Coindreau, an award named after the French translator, literary critic, and presenter of major twentieth-century American writers to France.

French Translation of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

For Ms. Herpe-Voslinsky, one of the biggest challenges in the novel was indeed finding a way to translate the dialect, because, as she mentions in an online interview, the conversational use of words that may be natural for English-speaking writers to produce is not necessarily customary in French, especially in 1971 or 1989 (Herpe-Voslinsky). In French, the phrases tend to be longer, while the English is more flexible, something often difficult to carry across. She also noted that this hesitation of the French translation tradition was specifically due to postcolonial guilt; it was frowned upon to imitate native speech patterns. Instead of emulating the dialect, which might have been seen as offensive, she employed a more standard French syntax, peppered with rural language or that inspired by French from the Antilles, used for example by Caribbean author Patrick Chamoiseau. She did not want to dismiss the expectations of the French readership, but did want to retain Gaines’s voice and ideas and those of his characters. She aimed to remain in sync with the rhythm of the sentences, with the “music,” a term reminiscent of the musical influence of Ernest Gaines, which she also derived from author Colum McCann, whom she worked with on Fishing the Sloe-Black River: Stories (La Rivière de l’exil).

It is within the dialect of the novel where the most variations from English to French can be seen. The dialect Miss Jane and other black characters use is an authentic folkloric vernacular based on Southern, black, and Louisiana patterns.

Here are several examples where the French either offers variations of the same term or is more standard, rather than colloquial:  

Page #English VersionPage #French Version
22Secesh Army/Secesh Soldiers/Secesh34armée de Sécession/soldats sudistes/soldats
viiieverything slowed up to an almost complete halt8J’ai bien cru que tout allait s’arrêter
11game roosters22cabris (young goats/kids in English)
12rough as ‘cuda legs23dure comme de la peau d’alligator
13witch doctor24sorcier (instead of guérisseur?)
16side the barrel27à côté
24I reckoned37après moi
22/32poor white trash34/45tits Blancs
115munks y’all139parmi vous
213tea cakes (a distinctive type of cake/cookie in Louisiana)248petits gateaux (a more general type of pastry)

The French version does follow the repetition found in the English version in several occurrences. However, it is not consistent with all accounts, and again swings, so to speak, more toward what is considered standard French: 

Page #English VersionPage #French Version
3dusty dusty13plein de poussière
13black black24noir noir
22/23quiet quiet34/36tranquille/tout calme
22jumping jumping jumping35battait battait
23screaming begging (3X)35des hurlements des supplications (2X)
26deep deep and wide39profond profound, et large large
26listened listened40écouté écouté
29ravishing and more ravishing/Ravishing, ravishing, ravishing42des ravages et des pillages/des ravages, des pillages
30-31child, child (several instances)44mon enfant, mon enfant (two instances, one is not repeated)
169soft soft/sweet sweet200toute rebondie/bon comme tout
190red red223toute rouge


Despite not including all accounts of repetition or more precise translations, Herpe-Voslinsky succeeded in transferring the feelings and cultural nuances, humor, and other particularities of the SL, while remaining truthful and honest to the original source and being understood by the target audience (see above reference). The Autobiographie de Miss Jane Pittman received shining French reviews: “Reading this major writer is a pure narrative delight” (Levi) and “an author I’m discovering and can’t wait to meet again” (mimi40). And during the 1990s, it became required reading for students in France.

After having spent time in Angers and Paris and teaching a creative writing course during the 1996 Spring semester at the University of Rennes, France in 2000, Ernest Gaines received the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters) from France. It was also during this time that Gaines and Herpe-Voslinsky enjoyed several public readings together—he in English, and she in French—a time Ms. Herpe-Voslinsky remembers fondly.

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