by Paul Zahra
At the beginning of Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain-Fournier’s only published novel in his lifetime, Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school of Sainte-Agathe, a village in the heartland of the French countryside, in the last decade of the 19th century. The school is run by Monsieur Seurel, the narrator’s father, who accepts Madame Meaulnes’ request to take her son Augustin as a boarder for the scholastic year. The narrator François Seurel is younger than Augustin but he immediately takes to the new comer as this offers him a much longed for opportunity to end his loneliness on the school premises and to engage in adventures after school hours. From the very beginning François realises that Augustin was going to completely turn his life upside down. The adventure, however, triggers off with Meaulnes’ escape from school and the unauthorised borrowing of a mare harnessed to a cart to go and fetch François’ grandparents from the train station. Augustin loses his way to the train station and without knowing how he arrives at a domain in the open countryside where a strange feast is taking place. An uninvited intruder to the feast, he dares to participate in the events going on. There he meets Yvonne de Galais, who more or less matches perfectly the girl that Augustin had always dreamt of encountering. Then, because of unforeseen circumstances, the feast comes to a sudden end; Meaulnes has to return to Sainte-Agathe and life will never be the same for both himself and François his trusted friend. The whereabouts of the domain seem to be lost forever to the boys from Sainte-Agathe; finding them turns out to be for them next to impossible. Finally, they do find the domain but is it still the same wonderful place as it had been during the mysterious feast? …
Le Grand Meaulnes / Meaulnes it-Twil has the ingredients of a great novel. This is mainly due to its different levels of interpretation. One can read it simply for the story itself but then one can also read it as a semi-autobiography of the author, an allegory encrypted with symbols and imagery as well as a spiritual quest seeking the meaning of life. It also offers different emotions especially the surrealistic feeling that reality exists not just in the outside world but also elsewhere in our dreams. And the intersection between these two worlds as seen in the novel is a mystery in its own right.
Full of intertextuality taken from authors such a Victor Hugo, André Gide and Daniel Defoe the novel (published in 1913) becomes itself the source of intertextuality for other prominent authors amongst others Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby 1925), André Dhôtel (Le Pays où l’on n’arrive jamais 1955) and John Fowles (The Magus 1966). Thus, it leaves a lasting impact on succeeding literature at large.
Translating Le Grand Meaulnes / Meaulnes it-Twil was not an easy task. At the time of writing his novel Alain-Fournier was still experimenting with his style. Sentence structure at times is very difficult to render in Maltese as the author frequently inverts the logical sequence in French which normally is so similar to the Maltese sentence arrangement. This was challenging in itself. As I firmly believe that the skopos of literary translation should be literary equivalence, converting the structure of French sentences into Maltese was a major difficulty in attaining this goal. The translation process of this novel, which for reasons of space I have to gloss over in this contribution, evidently involved other difficulties. But there is one particular amongst them that I would like to mention as it is linked to what is written above regarding the interpretative levels of great literature. Constantly, aware of these different facets of the novel, I did my utmost to render in a valid way all the different levels of interpretation that can be attributed to it. As a particular example of this kind of difficulty I refer the reader to the symbolic interpretation spread throughout Le Grand Meaulnes / Meaulnes it-Twil. Words such as baħar/sea (mer) and omm/mother (mère) amongst others are symbolically loaded in the novel and I had to make sure to retain carefully such a symbolic element throughout the whole translated text. And this in spite of the fact, as can be seen from the example, that it is impossible to retain in translation the homonymic aspect of the source language for these two words in Maltese.
The reading of novels such as Le Grand Meaulnes / Meaulnes it-Twil offers not just the joy of reading but also moments of reflections on the meaning of our existence and the recurring cycle of life. The magic of Alain-Fournier’s novel is that readers come to understand the true effects of lost dreams in a world full of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the purity of youth. It undoubtedly offers a bright but bleak outlook of life. But above all it is about all that is irretrievable from the flow of time.
Paul Zahra is also the translator of Balzac’s novel La maison du chat-qui-pelote/Id-Dar tal-Qattus bir-Rakketta f’Idu (Kollezzjoni Traduzzjonijiet Letterarji) 2013.