Translational Infi-what?

March 7, 2009

Hey, a free ride on my hobby horse.

Andrea R. refers in the previous post to Anne Carson’s translations of the Oresteia as a perfect storm of “translational infidelity”–because it’s a translation of drama, and it’s a translation from Ancient Greek. I think that A.R.’s right to note that translators tend to translate differently when they’re translating drama, and that translators of Latin and Ancient Greek tend to translate differently than translators of modern languages. (Full disclosure: I translate Latin.)

No argument with any of that–only with that word “infidelity.” And all of its connotations. We can see the reclusive Anne Carson coming home to find the original Greek plays slumped over and sobbing, a half-empty bottle of Chianti spilled over the translation–proof of her infidelity!–and Anne Carson saying of her choices as a translator, “Baby, they didn’t mean anything!”

Of course though they do mean something, and I doubt Anne Carson would actually say otherwise. (And would the Oresteia drink Chianti? I’ll leave that up to you.) And I think this is what reviews of translation are better suited to talking about: choices, not acts of fidelity or infidelity. Describing, not moralizing: talking about what the translation’s own terms are, whether these terms seem legitimate, and in any case whether or not the translation succeeds by these terms.

Because certainly, Carson’s translation (which I haven’t seen) is going to be faithful to the original in some ways. Even in the brief quotes A.R. gave from it indicate a molding of English to the norms of Ancient Greek, which, somewhat like modern German, has an amazing capacity to make new words by smooshing two old ones together. Also, in English poetic diction, such combined words often give an elevated feel (think epic epithets from Beowulf to Dryden and on and on), which certainly matches the elevated, ornate style of Euripidean tragedy. And as for her choices to simplify some syntax to make it more immediate, that’s perfectly faithful to Euripides as well–Greek tragedy seems to have been both ornate and immediate, something our language doesn’t really do anymore.

So what kind of “infidelity” are we talking about when we talk about a translator’s infidelity? In my opinion, it’s not infidelity to the source text that gets people riled up, because a good reader of the original (as Anne Carson, an accomplished and widely published scholar of Greek Tragedy, surely is) will find many ways of being faithful to what they consider to be most important, or at least most worth communicating, in the original. The “translational infidelity” that raises eyebrows is not infidelity to the original, but infidelity to our received way of translating. Not infidelity to the source, but infidelity to a tradition of translation.

Now, I see no problem with critiquing something on the grounds that it departs from tradition, as long as there is a fair accounting of what is gained and lost in such a departure. What I don’t like is how words like “infidelity” tend to be accepted as descriptive, when in fact they are deceptive.

Translational infidelity seems to be about the relationship of the translator to her source text, but is really about her relationship to something else entirely.

mike s


6 Responses to “Translational Infi-what?”

  1. exchangesjournal Says:

    In my defense, Mike, I intended no moral judgment with the word “infidelity.” In my mind it always goes wrapped in very scary scare-quotes. I don’t think we actually disagree on this one. For me drama and ancient languages — and the Bible, which I discussed a month or so ago — simply make more obvious the flexibility inherent in any text. I have my doubts that “infidelity” is a useful term, but it’s also pretty built in to the way we think about translation, unfortunately, and I admit to finding it an easy shortcut for saying “scholars may look on in horror,” with an extra bonus of mockability thrown in.

  2. mike Says:

    Hey Andrea. Yeah, I figured as much–I know you have a nuanced and mature understanding of what translation is and does. I think your translations and bloggings clearly demonstrate this.

    But, like I said… I just couldn’t resist a free ride on my favorite hobby horse!


  3. […] to another text. Browbeaten by centuries of accusations of “infidelity,” as Mike complained a couple of posts back, translators have grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as possibly […]

  4. […] the article focuses quite a bit on Anne Carson’s Oresteia, which we talked about below (1, 2). I’ve read a little more of it since then (in the current Tin House – I’m not sure […]

  5. […] was intrigued by Mike’s earlier argument that it is not works of literature we are protecting with our demands for fidelity, but instead a […]

  6. […] the translation stand or not on those terms, rather than demanding that Hofstadter honor, as Mike described it in a post a couple of months back, a standard approach to translation, and that he value and […]

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