Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Here is something that happens (often) when I’m checking and re-checking a full draft Ramuz translation. Today it goes like this:

On page 77, Ramuz uses a word I’ve never seen before (other times it’s a word I’ve seen, but he uses it in an odd way). In this case the scene shows two men walking down from a high alpine village to a lower alpine village (the relationship between these two men is one of the funniest and saddest of the whole novel) and one of them stops and points toward the steeply descending valley. He says,

“There, beside the pine tree, do you see it? It’s square, it’s gray, it looks like a large stone. You know what it is? It’s the doctor’s car, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.”

There’s two things about this. First, I’m immediately stopped on that verb dérocher. I’ve never seen it before but it doesn’t look difficult. Rocher is rock. But the second thing is that when I first read this little phrase, I missed something. It would seem – following that comma – that the clause refers to THE CAR. And I nearly translated it like that. But then looking at the whole phrase:

En bien, tu sais ce que c’est? la voiture du docteur, celui qui s’est déroché l’année dernière.

That’s a celui which is masculine, and la voiture is feminine, so they are not connected. That celui is referring to the doctor, which makes dérocher a little more tricky.

It’s the doctor’s car, the one who [s’est déroché] last year.

Dérocher seems simple enough, doesn’t it? When reading the sentence, I just assumed it was a way of saying the car had slipped from the road and fallen down into the ravine. And my first thought was that it might be a Swiss particularity – mountainous country, with a specific verb to explain this kind of accident. But I looked it up to be sure. It wasn’t in my Larousse and it wasn’t in my beloved Robert Historique (if you enjoy reading dictionaries – not saying I might enjoy this, ha ha – this one is wonderful, with detailed etymology and first literary references), so I had to look it up online and ask some mountaineering/rock climbing friends. But in any case, it appears to be a mountaineering term that can be translated either as “falling from rocks” or “to let go” or “lose your grip.”

So now I’m hesitant to make it a common word for a kind of snowy, mountainous car accident (which it could still be), or to give it some notion of the doctor driving his car off the road on purpose. And it’s just one sentence, and the doctor doesn’t exist in the story. It’s a tiny side story… except it isn’t. Because one of the men in this conversation is trying to convince the other man (who is depressed) to give him something. The one man wants the other to wallow in his depression and give up – because it will lead to a financial gain for the first man. What he points out to this man while they walk down the mountain is now very interesting.

And so now, how I translate this single verb (se dérocher… reflexive even!) is suddenly quite important…

6 Responses to “dérocher”

  1. Karen Brown

    Yes! But saying the doctor lost his grip could mean both things to the reader and to the man being shown the car–it is ambiguous and so, subtly threatening.

    • Michelle

      This is really helpful. Thank you, Karen. I like to hear how other people might read the sentence. I love the ambiguity of Ramuz’s sentence.

  2. smithereens

    I didn’t know it was a technical term, but to me the image was instantly clear that it was the doctor who fell from the rock, and using the reflexive I understood that he threw himself off this rock, implying suicide but not on an explicit level (I guess there is a chance that it might have been an accident/mistake in climbing). Does it help?

    • Michelle

      YAY – this now confirms it for me, I’ve had several people now say the same thing. That it is more or less obvious he’s talking about someone who purposefully drove off the road. Thank you!

  3. Scott W.

    I can’t help with your translation conundrum, but I am so glad you’re translating more of C.-F. Ramuz. I am eager to read more. You may be interested in a recently translated novel by contemporary Austrian writer Robert Seethaler – Une Vie entière in the French translation I read – as I’m fairly certain Seethaler has an awareness and appreciation of Ramuz. It’s another alpine novel with setting, characters and thematic elements I found remarkably similar to those in Ramuz.

    • Michelle

      Thank you – this sounds interesting, and I haven’t heard of Seethaler before. I will look for it right away.

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