FR: Si le guet-apens n’existait pas, on l’y eût inventé.

Discussion in 'French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise' started by Janos, Nov 10, 2013.

  1. Janos Junior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Hungarian
    This sentence from Les Misérables were translated by Isabel F. Hapgood in the 19th century as: "If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed, they would have been invented there." while a recent translation by Julie Rose says: "If this am­bush had not al­ready been planned, some­one would have in­vented it there." Now both English translations render the subordinate clause (as I expected) in the case as past conditional clause, while the Hugo used present conditional. Are the translations correct? If so, what difference would it make to say it in French "Si le guet-apens n'avait/eût pas existé...."? My other question concerns the "guet-apens". According to the first translation the concept of ambush was already invented, while the second translation talk about one, definite, "this" ambush that was already planned. Which one is correct? (My guess is that the first one.) Please help me especially with the past conditional. Thanks/Merci.

    This sentence from Les Misérables WAS translated... - sorry.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 10, 2013
  2. jann

    jann co-mod'

    English - USA
    There is no present conditional in Hugo's sentence. :) The English translations differ not in the tenses they use, but in the translators' choices of active or passive voice.

    Si le guet-apens n’existait [= imparfait, active voice] pas, on l’y eût inventé [= conditionnel passé 2e forme, active voice].

    • "If the system of ambush and traps had not already existed [= pluperfect subjunctive, active voice], they would have been invented [= past conditional, passive voice] there."
    • "If this am­bush had not al­ready been planned [= pluperfect subjunctive, passive voice], some­one would have in­vented [= past conditional, active voice] it there."

    Both translations are grammatically correct.

    Si le guet-apens n'eût pas existé...
    This conjugation (identical in spelling to a conditionnel passé 2e forme) would be a plus-que-parfait du subjonctif. Usage of the pluperfect subjunctive after si is old/literary and has been largely replaced by the pluperfect indicative --> si le guet-apens n'avait pas existé [plus-que-parfait de l'indicatif], which you may consider as the same for all intents and purposes.

    So the real question is this: why did Hugo use si + imparfait, conditionnel passé when the standard tense combination (in modern French at least) for expressing contrary-to-fact conjectures about things that did not come to pass (i.e., how things could have gone differently) is instead si + plus-que-parfait, conditionnel passé?

    I am not sure I have a good answer for you, but I think it has something to do with a choice to treat the ambush's existence as a continuing state, rather than viewing it as preparations that were (had been) laid and completed at a prior time.

    As you realize, the translations have different meanings. Hapgood's version suggests the concept of an ambush in the generic (i.e., if humankind had not already come up with the strategy of ambush, the technique would surely have been invented there in that particular situation) whereas Rose's version evokes only the specific (i.e., if that particular ambush hadn't already been in the works, one or more of the characters would have set up an ambush in that spot). Which idea did Hugo have in mind? I'm afraid I'd have to read a much larger chunk of the novel to help you there, but on the basis of this single sentence, I, like you, I lean towards Hapgood's version.* :)

    I'd be interested to hear what others think.

    A few other threads that may be of interest:
    FR: Si + subjonctif plus-que-parfait
    FR: conditionnel passé 2e forme - Il eût dû/pu/été, etc.
    Si vous m'eussiez aidé, je vous en susse gré - forum Français Seulement

    *That said, note the antecedent agreement error in Hapgood's translation: "If the system...had not already existed, they it would have been invented..."
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2013

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