Random poking around on the Internet led me somehow to Manolis Antoniou’s analysis of Andrew Hurley’s translation of the famous Borges story “Borges and I.” Antoniou’s own translation is actually pretty good, and he does a fascinating and thorough presentation of the choices made in each translation.

The First Sentence

Borges: Al otro, a Borges, es a quien le occurren las cosas

Hurley: It’s Borges, the other one, things happen to.

This is an impeccable opening to an impeccable story in the original, and Hurley manages to mangle it. No one says it’s Borges things happen to — it’s completely unnatural English and reads poorly because the indirect object, Borges, is so far away from the to. Sure, the original is not exactly free-flowing, but it doesn’t sound wrong.

Then there’s the repeated a in the Spanish which acts as an important device to create distance between Borges and his other. Hurley, though, not once uses the almost-equivalent to correctly, let alone thrice as the original does, to recreate that distance.

I also object to the contraction it’s. The tone of this story is too formal for contractions.

My attempt: It is to that other one, to Borges, that things happen.


Over at the Center for the Art of Translation’s web site, they’ve posted several audio clips of discussions with Cuban writer (and former literary translator from Russian) José Manuel Prieto and translation dynamo Esther Allen, whose English translation of Prieto’s Rex was published earlier this year. In addition to some specific conversation about Rex and readings from the original and translation, the clips also include more general discussion of world literature and the role of translation in that literature. Fascinating material. I particularly loved Allen’s tangential anecdote about a panel of five translators of Don Quixote into five different languages.

It’s just so interesting because every translator’s experience is completely different because the experience is affected by the translator they’re translating into, not the language they’re translating out of. And Susanne Lange [translator from German] gave a presentation about Don Quixote that was so extraordinary that at the end of it, the correspondent from El País went up to her and said, “I’m going to learn German so I can read your translation of Don Quixote.”

(Via Three Percent.)

I was curious about the German translation so I went poking around and found an interesting article (in Spanish) on Deutsche Welle. Lange has apparently been much lauded for her Quixote, and was awarded the Johann-Heinrich-Voss Prize by the German Academy of Language and Poetry in May. She says of the novel,

Above all it has taught me a lot not just about Don Quixote and his era — a universal myth, a book that has almost everything in it and remains very modern to this day — but also about my own language, since in order to translate the Quixote I’ve had to look at all the sources of the German language, look from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries for the words that would work in my translation.

Take a look, if you read Spanish. I can’t in good conscience recommend Google Translate — union issues!


Brooklyn Rail has posted a fantastic interview with Susan Bernofsky, translator from German (oh, yeah, and she writes fiction, too). It’s a very thoughtful discussion of translation and of Robert Walser in particular. New Directions will publish Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners next month.

Rail: I’m curious as to whether sharing a sensibility with an author makes it easier to translate their work. Salman Rushdie, for example, compliments Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by saying their rambunctious personalities were ideally matched. Meaning, I guess, that being like Cervantes helped Smollett convey his style.

Bernofsky: I’ve wondered about this too. All my authors are very different from me and write differently than I do, but with certain authors I do have the feeling that I can summon up “their” voices fairly readily in English—and this certainly applies to the writers I’ve translated repeatedly: Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada as well as Walser. I like trying to hear other authors’ voices as well, which is why I like it when publishers ask me for sample translations from different books—it’s like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise.


It took me a while to find time to read the whole thing, but the roundtable discussion that went up a week ago over at the Observer Translation Project is really excellent. Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Open Letter and Three Percent), novelist Norman Manea, and translator Susan Bernofsky offer thoughtful exchanges on topics such as marketing and editing translated literature, team translations, issues of domestication in translation, and the appeal and value of international literature. For example, here’s Susan Bernofsky on editing translations:

The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.

The whole thing is highly recommended.


Redefining Translation

July 6, 2009

Beyond Words has a post today about translating poetry that references that old Johnson (via B.J. Epstein) quote about how poetry is impossible to translate. I hesitate to make grand statements about translating poetry since I’m a prose translator myself, and I may irritate some poetry translators with the following proposal, but it seems to me that the difficulties of translating poetry are not generally much different than those of prose. It’s just that most of the problems that crop up in literary prose — allusions, idiom, double entendre, culture-specific metaphors, etc. — are much more concentrated in poetry, showing up a few times a line, maybe, rather than a few times a paragraph. On the whole, except when talking about specific issues of musicality like rhyme and meter (which even so can also appear in prose), or of issues like voice (which do appear in poetry, as well, if not as often post-19th century), the challenges are largely the same.

And if that’s the case, then poetry as a genre is no more impossible to translate than prose. This is not to say that there aren’t individual works that are impossible to translate — in prose, for example, I gave up on Andrés Caicedo’s ¡Que viva la música!, and didn’t even attempt Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s “Sabaditos en la noche.” But thinking in terms of “perfect” translations capable of capturing every nuance is absurd. If that’s how we’re going to define translation in order to declare it impossible, there’s not much I can argue about because the translator has been set up for failure. But to me it seems analogous to declaring it impossible to really learn a language — even for native speakers — because you can’t possibly learn the definitions and etymologies and usages for every single word.

The post’s author, Jes, does a good run-through of some basic translation theory and uses Beckett’s self-translations to consider the function of translation:

Beckett realized that a translation of Godot was actually a new version of Godot, and in order for him to maintain artistic authenticity (note: not accuracy but authenticity) he himself needed to translate the work (i.e. rewrite the play in the requested language).

But while I agree with the idea that a translation is a new version of a work, the conclusion that follows, that therefore poets must translate their own work in order for the translations to be “authentic,” just puts the author right back up on a pedestal of untouchability. I think the problem is not translations themselves but our widespread cultural conviction that translations must be perfect. If we could accept that translation will not capture every detail of the original without having that be inevitably linked to a condemnation of translation — if we could accept, in other words, what translation is instead of harping on what it should be — we wouldn’t have these tedious hand-wringing debates about whether translation is possible or not.

One major flaw in the debates, besides that they’re eternal, boring, and unresolvable given the parameters as they have traditionally been set, is that they focus only on what is lost in the translation process. I would argue that translations can also enrich an original, not just in the abstract way posited by Benjamin, for example, but also in concrete details. People often think of “additions” to translation as springing from a Hofstadterian approach (see a previous post on that topic here), born of an arrogant translator meddling with a work and forcing it to conform to his or her own literary vision. (That kind of manipulation, of course, is part and parcel of translation anyway, if not usually in as noticeable a way as in Hofstadter’s work.) I’m not thinking of those intentional alterations, however, but of something even more inevitable: the ways in which transfer to a different language and culture transform a work of literature. One of my fellow Iowa translators, for example, translated a story from Japanese in which a hug received from a bear suddenly acquired an entirely new aspect because of our idiomatic “bear hug.”

In any case, this definitely seems to me one of those cases where the perfect is the enemy of the good. As long as we are convinced that translations are inevitably failures, literary translators will continue to be marginalized and their art eyed with suspicion. What I hope is for a less hidebound, more complex vision of translation that privileges a work of literature and its power, rather than privileging the specific set of words composing the original itself or, worse still, the author who arranged them. What, too idealistic?