Translating the Books of the Living, an Amateur Experiment – An Exchange with L’Academie Française.

I have had a bit of a hiatus translating  while in rehearsal for a play. However, the translation project has not been far from my mind.

A couple of developments:

I couldn’t resist ordering the published French translation of Parable of the Sower. Although I have not started reading it, I did dip into it to find its translator’s choice for “Earthseed”:

Drum roll please, the pro chose….Semence de la Terre,

And I don’t like it.

The reason being : Earthseed is a neologism in which Earth is both adjective and noun, and punningly, a command (Seed the earth! : Earth seed! – see the discussion of verses 3 & 4 for my alternate ideas about translating “Earthseed”). 


It’s beyond my ken to achieve all that in a French translation – but the least I could do was find a neologism. The pro translation merely takes the usual route of translating the adjective/noun constructions of English, that make it less wordy than your average French, and renders it as “the x of the y”, which is often un-avoidable in French. Semence de la Terre reduces earth to an adjective, is more wordy, and is not neologistic.

So: I consulted the guardians of the French language – the ultimate shapers and resisters of change in French – L’Academie Française.

Turns out this venerable institution (in the neighborhood of 4 centuries old), has a website which allows you to ask questions of its various departments. So, I asked for guidance, telling them what I was up to, asking about my first choice translation, Semence-Terre and my wife’s suggestion Semence-Terrestre. The prompt and cordial monsieur Patrick Vannier, of the dictionary department, responded to my queries. He informed me that there’s a great deal of latitude in forming neologisms (I thought there might be a pattern to forming mots valises, in French, or as we say, portmanteau words.)  And he noted that Semence-Terre is interesting because, phonetically, it evokes ce mystere , in French – this mystery .

If this were a sport, I would say: Ignorant American: 1, Pro Translator: 0.

But it’s not a sport, and M. Vannier’s comment was rewarding for reasons beyond my vanity – because it suggests something about Earthseed that I hadn’t observed before. While Earthseed is an embrace of science, it is also mysterious.

Earthseed contains the idea of opening up constantly to novelty: new ideas, new words, new notions,  new worlds…the multiplication of mysteries, in a sense. But it is the  mystery of inquiry over mysticism and obscurantism. A mystery with bottomless potential. Semence-Terre! 

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