Monday 2 December 2013

In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means -- A Review

Quick, name your three favorite literary translators. Oh, okay. Well, how about one? Really? In that case, then, maybe just the title of a novel you’ve read in translation? Great, now we’re getting somewhere. And who translated it? Hmm. How did you choose that translation? Was it the only one available? Oh. No, not to worry, I see. Sometimes we just don’t attend to these things. Well, I wonder, was the translator also a writer of fiction in her or his own right? Oh, right, apologies. You did mention that you didn’t know who did the translating… 

A new collection of papers entitled In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means (2013) makes it clear that literary translators get a fraction of the respect and recognition they deserve. Poet and translator Peter Cole notes, “… translation has traditionally been thought of as a curse or a necessary evil” (p. 12). The literary translator’s name does not routinely show up in book reviews (in a mere 10%, by one contributor’s estimate [p. 26]) ; translators are interviewed extremely rarely; contracted translations can be changed by a plethora of publishing intermediaries, and by the author on occasion; and translators’ lives are occasionally threatened, and indeed taken, when readers disagree with ideas presented in the original literary work.

And yet, among the essays of the eighteen multiple award-winning translators (into English from a variety of languages: Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish) represented here, the overarching tone is one of pleasure. These experts experience pleasure in the day-to-day tasks of decision-making concerning tone, emotions, cultural contexts, rhythm, rhyme, allusions, words, syllables, letters; pleasure in their part in allowing lesser-known works and those in lesser-spoken languages to be appreciated by a wider audience; and pleasure in the gift that the practice of translation gives back to them in their own work, when translator and poet or novelist inhabit the same skin.

This double view of translator and writer on literary creation is an important motif in this collection. Among the contributors, two are also poets, four novelists, one a writer of short-stories, and one a literary essayist. And what difference does it make? In an article on the ethics of the art, Peter Cole insists, “But artists are notorious for their (necessary) egoism… How will the translator-artist’s character bear up, let alone thrive, under the strain of all that subordination?” (p. 5). He concludes that translators need “a firmly moored sense of humility” but one accompanied by “a potent sort of presumption – one that is akin to the belief that lies behind fictional creation” (p. 11). Alice Kaplan finds that in translating, “There is no better writer’s workshop” (p. 80). Eliot Weinberger finds a certain “joy in translation” (p. 27), which is free of the “otherwise all-consuming ego” (p. 27) and that translation is “the greatest education in how to write, as many poets have learned” (p. 28). He adds, “It is the only time when one can put words on a page entirely without embarrassment … The introspective bookworm happily becomes the voice of Jack London or Jean Genet; translation is a kind of fantasy life” (p. 28).

An interesting question in the context of the kind of issues explored on  is how might imagined author-reader dynamics be altered by the introduction of the intentionality of the translator? “I have always felt,” notes Haruki Morakami in his paper on translating The Great Gatsby into Japanese, “that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness. It is not enough to find words that match: if images in the translated text are unclear, then the thoughts and feelings of the author are lost” (p. 171). Some version of this view is held by several of the translators in this volume toward the authors whose work they translate. They do, after all, have the right to choose who they will and will not translate. And these translators most often choose authors whose works they admire, or authors whom they know professionally. Authors, however, seem more often to feel less congenial toward their translators. Alice Kaplan openly describes her clashes with the French translator of one of her books, leading her to explore more closely other failed, and other very successful, relationships between the two. She notes that Vladimir Nabokov’s widow had all copies of the Swedish translations of Pnin and Lolita burned in a bonfire outside of Stockholm (p. 68). Not the kind of reception a translator wants to experience after many months invested in a labor of love.

Jason Grunebaum’s “Choosing an English for Hindi” is a nice articulation of how the translator must take the reader into consideration. He presents two imagined readers for his translations, both college-age English speakers who are also well-read connoisseurs of fiction: Krishna in South Delhi and Kris in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Grunebaum takes us through his decision trees for his two very culturally different readers of English, using the particular case of his translation of Uday Prakash’s novel The Girl with the Golden Parasol. The details are fascinating and reveal, perhaps better than any other piece in the collection, how translators are interpreters of culture as much as of language.

In my opinion, the not-to-be missed contributions are those of Cole, Weinberg, Grunebaum, and Susan Bernofsky, and the latter paper was my favorite piece. In “Translation and the Art of Revision,” Bernofsky reveals how she works, emphasizing the crucial willingness to revise phrasing to excellence in semantics, syntax, tone, rhythm for “that unity of sense and sound that characterizes all good writing” (p. 229) and notes that this unity arises only in revision. She typically goes through four drafts – first hasty, then “painstakingly meticulous” (p. 224), then into the mandatory hard copy edited longhand in the absence of the original with a read-aloud of the English text, then the final read-through (p. 224). She speaks of “hearing the text’s heartbeat” (p. 229), notes that “the best translators are particularly suspicious of the intermediate drafts of their work” (p. 230), and scrutinizes most carefully “the endings of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs” (p. 230).  She crystallizes felicitously a feature of excellent translation that several others allude to but don’t quite explain: “Style can go soggy in translation. It is important to counteract this softening trend whenever feasible. This might involve exaggerating certain stylistic features – in fact, I believe that emphasizing and underscoring a text’s characteristic attributes is crucial to good translation, a way of turning up the volume on a key aspect of a sentence or phrase to solidify the writer’s voice in the translation”  (p. 230). Style, voice, tone, heartbeat – she has presented very clearly how she attempts to render these qualities in her translations. 

Finally, two aspects of this book could have been done better. The title starts out well “In Translation: Translators on their work…”, but then dwindles into a very general and lackluster “and what it means” – which contravenes much of what the contributors are saying about the evocative qualities of language. Second, I understand that the point here is to let the translators speak for themselves, and that is one reason why this collection will be engaging for those interested in the psychology of narrative. However, there are very few numbers here to give the reader an idea of how many translators there are working in different areas of the world, how many translations there are of different genres of works, what languages are most and least translated from and into. A concise table with such data presented early on would have been an excellent advance organizer.

Allen, Esther, and Susan Bernofsky, eds. In Translation: Translators on their work and what it means. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.


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