The Author’s Benevolent Gaze

March 10, 2009

Daniel Hahn has been blogging for a few months on the Booktrust site about his ongoing translation of Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel Estação das Chuvas into English. Today he writes about a few instances in which he has altered the content of the original Portuguese in translation to accomodate cultural or linguistic differences. When he has done this in translations, he says,

I’ve usually been in the fortunate position of having an author to consult – an author who is living, and obliging, and on email – which both helps to clarify unclear things but also allows me to be freer with the things I change . . .

He wonders if he would have dared to make the changes he describes if he weren’t able to seek the author’s blessing. The few authors I’ve worked with have been very supportive of changing the text — “It’s your text now,” one of them told me, and trusted me to make changes as I saw fit. (In fact, she sometimes had better suggestions for changes than I did, embarrassingly enough, although she didn’t speak a lot of English.) I’ve certainly had the same experience Hahn describes of feeling more confident about changes when the author has signed off on them, like I haven’t somehow unwittingly committed some unspeakable crime against the original.

And yet it is precisely that submission of the translator to the author that is at once limiting (and as potentially criminal as any alteration of the original) and yet a fundamental characteristic of translation, since every translator, no matter what liberties he or she takes, is nevertheless responding 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 doing damage to an original at every moment. Every translator should be aware, of course, of the power — dangerous power — he or she has over a text, but I want us to also trust ourselves to do our best by the original. We assert our authority as translators, after all, word by word: evening vs. dusk vs. twilight vs. nightfall. Changes like the ones Hahn describes are simply more obvious instances.

However permissive our authors sometimes are, I hope we would know when to ignore their demands and remain “faithful” to our own vision of a text.

-ar

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