A Lesson in French from the Mother: An Unpublished Correspondence with Amal Kiran apropos of a Translation

Dear Friends,

Anatole France (16 April 1844—12 October 1924) was a famous French poet, journalist, and novelist. A recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921, he is remembered for his works like Jocaste et le chat maigre (Jocasta and the Famished Cat), Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard), Les Désirs de Jean Servien (The Aspirations of Jean Servien), Abeille (Honey-Bee), Balthasar, Thaïs, L’Étui de nacre (Mother of Pearl), La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque (At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque), Les Opinions de Jérôme Coignard (The Opinions of Jerome Coignard), Le Lys rouge (The Red Lily), Le Puits de Sainte Claire (The Well of Saint Clare), L’Histoire contemporaine (A Chronicle of Our Own Times), L’Orme du mail (The Elm-Tree on the Mall), L’Anneau d’améthyste (The Amethyst Ring), Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (Monsieur Bergeret in Paris), Sur la pierre blanche (The White Stone), L’Île des Pingouins (Penguin Island), Les Contes de Jacques Tournebroche (The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche), Les Sept Femmes de Barbe bleue et autres contes merveilleux (The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvelous Tales), Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Athirst), La Révolte des anges (The Revolt of the Angels), Vie de Jeanne d’Arc (The Life of Joan of Arc) and La Vie en fleur (The Bloom of Life).

We are happy to present before you an unpublished correspondence of Amal Kiran alias K.D. Sethna with the Mother regarding translation of a sentence from Anatole France’s works.

With warm regards,

Anurag Banerjee


Overman Foundation.

A Lesson in French from the Mother: An Unpublished Correspondence with Amal Kiran apropos of a Translation

Amal Kiran: In your translation of Anatole France’s sentence — a direct and suggestive translation —

“The best in life is the idea it gives us of a something that is not in it”—

have you deliberately omitted the words “at all” either after “not” or after “it”, words which would render the French “n’est point” in the original sentence:

“Ce que la vie a de meilleur c’est l’idée qu’elle nous donne de je ne sais pas quoi qui n’est point en elle.”

Perhaps “at all” at the end may echo something of the music of France’s sentence, music which in its subtle and poignant mellifluousness seems impossible to catch wholly in an English rendering. Or do you think it will unbalance the rhythm as well as make the expression lose its sensitive simplicity?

The Mother: Yes, deliberately, because in France’s sentence there is nothing like at all, “qui n’est point en elle” does not mean not at all, if he wanted to say at all he would have spoilt the meaning also.


Amal Kiran: I am glad I asked you about “ne … point”. I have learned something. I believe most of us think that “point” always brings in the nuance of “at all”. From what you write, I gather that it is only a variant of “pas” unless it is followed by “du tout”. But what would “n’a point d’argent” mean? Would the “de” there introduce the sense of “at all”? Perhaps where “de” occurs, this sense comes in?

The Mother: The “de” changes nothing to the sense. “n’a point d’argent” and “n’a pas d’argent” is exactly same — “point” is used for “euphonics” and is considered as more poetic. “de” gives only the sense of indefinite like “de l’eau”, “de l’air” etc. Only if it is written: “il n’a pas le sou” I would translate: “He has no money at all.”


Amal Kiran: Your explanations have made several matters very clear to me. (1) I understand, as never before, the function of “de” as a denotation of indefiniteness. (2) I realise that as there is actually the phrase “point du tout” the words “ne point” cannot mean “not at all”, though unfortunately most books teaching French lead us to believe that generally it does. (3) “Point” as a poetic equivalent of “pas” had never clearly struck me. But one problem still remains. If you say that “point” is used for emphasis, how is the emphasis to be indicated in a translation? Perhaps “at all” is brought in as an indication — but I feel now that it is a mistaken device, merely a facile à peu près. Would you say that in the case of “il n’a point d’argent” the emphasis is best translated by using, instead of “he does not have money”, a phrase like “he does not have any money” or better still, “he has no money?” [Underlining “he has no money”, the Mother wrote in the margin: “this”— expressing her choice out of the three alternatives offered for “il n’a point d’argent”.] As for Anatole France’s sentence, I suppose “point” was used only with a poetic intention and not for emphasis. Perhaps in English there is no poetic need in such a context to avoid the common “not” — but, if in addition to the poetic tone the emphatic tone is intended, how will the mere “not” serve the intention? Could I assume from your translation that no emphasis in particular was intended by France? Or is the emphasis so subtle here that any attempt to translate it would be crude and therefore a slight understatement is preferable?

The Mother: I meant by “poetic” the sound not the meaning. To translate France the most simple and short sentence is always the best.


3 Replies to “A Lesson in French from the Mother: An Unpublished Correspondence with Amal Kiran apropos of a Translation

  1. The Mother in her kindness had invited me to join her class for translating into French a few major works by Sri Aurobindo. I wondered what urged her to invite a lad of hardly fifteen.
    I learnt,however, the rigorous means to hunt for the mot juste: while Pavitra-dâ was struggling with half a dozen dictionaries and Satprem exploding a magic formula, the Mother in her infinite patience would not leave the sentence till she was satisfied with it. This lesson was to serve me nearly twenty years later when, as a founder of the French Association of Literary Translators, I was to question – in the presence of sacrosanct Professor Etiemble – the choice of a word by the majestic veteran poet Yves Bonnefoy in his translation of a passage from Shakespeare.

    1. C’était donc en 1951. Mère, Pavitra, Satprem et vous-même étiez réunis pour traduire plusieurs oeuvres de Sri Aurobindo en Français? Ceci est en soi un sujet d’article passionnant pour la Overman Foundation! Qui d’autres participaient à ces classes? Où avaient-elles lieu et quelles oeuvres de Sri Aurobindo étaient ainsi traduites? De quelle manière les échanges entre vous avaient-ils lieu? Procédiez-vous d’abord individuellement avant de discuter de vos propositions respectives? Veuillez, cher Docteur, satisfaire la curiosité d’un de vos lecteurs fidèles…

  2. Dear Anurag Banerjee ji
    Simply Divine experience as we read the beautiful conversation in this lovely form. The correspondence between The Mother and Amal Kiran ji takes us to the highest levels of understanding and the depth of ideas. Thanks a lot for sharing this ‘Priceless Treasure’ with us and for enriching us with your continual efforts.
    Giti Tyagi
    Editor, Creative Artist, International Author & Poetess, Book Reviewer, Translator

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