Cette traduction surprendra peut-être d’abord le lecteur par certaines curiosités du vocabulaire.

This translation will perhaps at first surprise the reader due to certain oddities of vocabulary

You have to love the understatement with which Georges Belmont and Hortense Chabrier start their translators’ note which prefaces the French translation of A Clockwork Orange (our translation).

The Belmont/Chabrier translation is an astonishing piece of writing, and the fact that it has remained in print since first publication almost fifty years ago bears evidence to that. We have looked closely at what they have achieved, and how their “French-Nadsat” compares with Burgess’s original, in a new peer-reviewed article in Meta journal, volume 65 (3).

Those who had seen the film version (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released in France in May 1972, the same year as the translation) would have had an idea about the ‘curiosités du vocabulaire’ from the subtitling, but probably not the extent to which Nadsat pervades the book. Film viewers can’t be expected to have the same patience for odd words as book readers, nor do they have the same amount of time to work out the meaning of strange words, so Nadsat was toned down a bit for the film (we’ll have to leave this subject for a future post). In fact, the French subtitling of Kubrick’s film was carried out independently of Belmont’s and Chabrier’s translation and thus differs in some important respects. For example, English Nadsat horrorshow (‘good’), becomes horrorcho in the subtitles, rather than Belmont/Chabrier’s rather more meaningful and certainly more creative tzarrible (a portmanteau of tzar and terrible).

It is also interesting that the translators’ note draws our attention to surprise generated by the translation rather than the novel. In so doing, Belmont and Chabrier emphasise the role the translator plays in choosing how a book turns out. They were rightly pleased with the work they had done in creating their version of French Nadsat.

It’s worth considering here the challenge set by Burgess in creating Nadsat in the first place. Although a lot of the vocabulary is based on Russian, Burgess wasn’t happy with simply transliterating Russian words, but instead often had them change in interesting ways on contact with English. Thus a number of Nadsat words work on several different levels. Horrorshow itself is a good example: it’s based on a transliteration of ‘хopoшo’, a Russian word meaning ‘good/well’, which would normally be written khorosho, but in changing this to horrorshow, Burgess introduces other connotations. If we consider the task of (literary) translation to be that of creating an equivalent effect in the target language, then this creates almost insuperable difficulties for a translator. Never mind that there are other categories of Nadsat creating further challenges, such as the rhyming slang element seen in words like pretty polly (= ‘lolly’, i.e. slang for ‘money’).

We can get an idea of the gusto with which Belmont and Chabrier approached their task by looking at a translation of an extract taken from the first page of the book which is particularly rich in Nadsat argot (in highlighted):

Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.

Here is the French translation, with the Belmont/Chabrier Nadsat equivalents also highlighted:

On avait les poches pleines de mouizka si bien qu’on n’avait vraiment pas besoin, histoire de craster encore un peu de joli lollypop, de toltchocker un vieux veck au fond d’une impasse et de le relucher baigner dans son sang tout en comptant la recette et la divisant par quatre ni de faire des ultra-violents à une viokcha ptitsa, toute grisaille et tremblante dans sa boutique, pour vider le tiroir-caisse jusqu’aux tripes et filer en se bidonskant.

As we can see, in each case, Nadsat terms from the original find equivalents in the translation. This may not seem particularly noteworthy except for the effects seen in translations of ACO into other languages, where, typically, fewer Nadsat items survive in the translation (this phenomenon of reduction of distinctiveness of language is fairly well-known in works of translation).

What is not so obvious from the two extracts but is clearer from comparison in terms of categories of words (see Table below) is that Belmont and Chabrier were not content merely to transfer Russianisms from English Nadsat to French Nadsat. Instead, where they felt it necessary, they mined the French lexicon for words to Russify by adapting their spelling (e.g. se bidonner, a word meaning ‘laugh’, becomes se bidonsker, with the addition of sk adding Russian flavour – the link here is to the rather brilliant Trésor de la Langue Française). This strategy leads to a greater number of words appearing in the ‘creative morphology’ category (we’ll deal with actual numbers in a future post). The three words here that don’t survive are starry (‘old’ – viokcha/a, from vioc), viddy (‘see’ – relucher, from reluquer) and smeck (‘laugh/smile/grin’ – bidonsker), and also deng (‘money’) becomes the non-Russian mouizka (indeterminate etymology). The issue of how to translate rhyming slang pretty polly is managed with aplomb by the use of internal rhyming (joli lollypop) while still making reference to the original English referent lolly.


We can also see from the extract that Belmont and Chabrier made every effort to maintain the flavour of the source text.  As experienced translators with links to so many important literary figures (see our earlier post), they were not just equipped to address this task but also inclined to agree with Burgess that forcing the reader to learn a new idiom was an important part of the process of seeing the world from Alex’s viewpoint. This meant helping readers understand this anti-language artificially went against the grain. We’ll leave you with their comment on the glossary, which no doubt was forced upon them (Burgess never agreed with the inclusion of a glossary, first added to the American edition of the book in 1962).

pour amuser plutôt que pour éclairer, l’on trouvera a la fin du livre un Glossaire des principaux termes clefs.

a glossary of the principal terms is provided at the end of the book for the purposes of entertainment rather than clarification

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