Unexpected Paris: Translator's Thoughts

Jeffrey Zuckerman share some thoughts about Paris he had while translating The City of Blood, which comes out this month.

Paris feels too beautiful for cutting-edge science research, so well preserved are its cobbled streets and yellowing façades. Building restrictions keep nearly every part of Paris less than 121 feet tall (with only a few skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower), and many blue street signs are lovingly repainted. This scheme is so entrenched in the French mindset that a recent futuristic film, Renaissance, envisioned a Paris that has its streets replaced with thick glass and expanded not by building up but by digging deep underground.

But how does this love for decrepit buildings mesh with science labs that need to be sterile and clean? Or with police investigations that require state-of-the-art technology? These were questions in my head as I translated Frédérique Molay's The City of Blood for Le French Book, and I was delighted to find answers in the book’s pages.

In one scene, where the police have sent items from a crime scene away for forensic analysis, the police captain comes to the research building at Quai d’Horloge. All the analysis there is being done not in the building itself, but in “mobile units set up in the courtyard.” The scene is right out of another sci-fi movie: “The lab was filled with workers in white coats, as well as machines connected to computers, printers, microscopes, and a surprising number of flasks and test tubes.”

But a far more ingenious workaround is achieved with investigations at the police headquarters. Everything happens at a massive eighteenth-century building on the Quai des Orfèvres, including suspect lineups. “The police didn’t have modern rooms conforming to twenty-first-century standards,” Frédérique Molay tells us. “The holding cells on the third floor were used. So the hallway lights had to be dimmed to keep suspects from seeing witnesses. And the witnesses had to talk quietly, because there wasn’t any soundproofing.” But sometimes respecting historical architecture just doesn’t do the trick.

What if the witnesses want to have a discussion? In one of the book’s most climactic scenes, Police Chief Nico Sirsky cannot use a modern room, so he decides to use glass in a completely different way from those futuristic filmmakers. He has several witnesses and criminal suspects squeeze into a room that has a huge one-way mirror in the middle. The suspects face the mirrored side, while the witnesses watch through the non-reflective side. And then the interrogation begins, and because of Nico’s ingenuity, the answer is found every bit as professionally as it would have been in a twenty-first century room.

It’s a perfect solution to a quintessentially Parisian problem—and yet another detail that made The City of Blood all the more fascinating to read, and to translate.

A translator's thoughts about Paris