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?



Insert Pun Here

June 27, 2009

I’ve been putting off responding to a number of things I’ve spotted around the internet, and now that our latest issue is officially launched (see our previous post), perhaps the moment has arrived.

In Three Percent several weeks ago now, Monica Carter reviewed Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Françoise Sagan’s La chamade, which in typical Hofstadterian fashion he rendered with the anagrammatic title That Mad Ache. Carter and Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review are both somewhat dismissive of the novel itself — Orthofer, who is more aggressively critical of Sagan’s sophomore effort, describes it as “hardly worthwhile” — but both also dedicate a fair bit of space to a discussion of Hofstadter’s lengthy essay on translation, Translator, Trader, included in the volume.

Hofstadter is one of the most exuberant translators out there, and while his irrepressible love of wordplay and colloquialisms can get in the way of his translations, I appreciate his enthusiasm and his willingness to muck around in a text in ways many translators would consider inappropriate and even disrespectful of the original. And however mediocre Sagan’s novel, the publisher’s decision to include such an extensive discussion of the translation in the same volume is a wonderful change from the silence in which the translator usually labors. Translators know the books they translate as well as anyone in the world, and I am certain that most of them could provide all sorts of fascinating insights into their texts, but it is the rare translator these days who is even given the space for a brief note.

Translator, Trader, then, could be declared a success for its mere existence. That said, Carter and Orthofer both have their misgivings about the essay, many of them centering around the way Hofstadter seems to generate puns as a default setting, leaving him oblivious to the tone of the work he’s translating. Carter notes that Hofstadter considers himself a “hot” translator (as opposed to a “cold” one on the scale he’s devised), “meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting,” and says that this often pulls him away from the “authorial vision” of the original. She quotes Hofstadter discussing his own translation:

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?”

Hofstadter was talked out of this option by his friends, but notes wistfully that by switching it out for “Well, what do you think?,” the temperature of his translation “fell from 100° to 75°.” Stodgy, faithful room temperature.

While Hofstadter is a bit too enchanted by his own puns for my taste — I’ll never forget the moment in his translation of Eugene Onegin when someone(s) “cast their nyets” — I am nonetheless bored by Carter’s insistence that he hew close to the original. I have no way of judging his version of Pushkin against the original, for example, but for me his translation ultimately failed because the incessant japery was tiresome, not because it was “unfaithful.” And I am content to let 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 emphasize the same things as everybody else.

That sort of demand (for “faithfulness,” inevitably) largely springs, I think, from translators’ feeling that they should be producting a “definitive” translation, as if that were possible or even desirable. Hofstadter seems to be admirably free of that neurosis. While I certainly don’t blame translators for feeling that one of their roles is as ambassador for a work of literature, even for an entire language and culture, and that they should therefore strive to represent it accurately, I nevertheless wonder how much it also hamstrings translation and limits its creativity.

Orthofer finds Hofstadter’s essay more interesting, but doesn’t agree with him any more than Carter does. In fact, he goes further, calling himself “an ultra-literalist — with notable caveats — . . . who believes in the primacy of the (source) text.” (Ultra-literalist? He can’t really mean that, or he’d be headed into the realm of experimentation again.) He finds Hofstadter’s approach “outrageous” and, like Carter, is bemused by Hofstadter’s conviction that he’s going about things the best way possible.

Without having read the essay myself, ultimately I suspect I come down on the side of Hofstadter’s critics. I can’t see why prizing “hotness” above all things (especially one’s personal, subjective definition of it — Hofstadter may find his text “interesting,” and yet I have found his linguistic shenanigans repetitive and even boring) would be less crippling than prizing newness or shock value or . . . faithfulness — or any other single value to the exclusion of anything else. And Hofstadter has certainly shown himself to be somewhat tone-deaf when it comes to characters’ personalities or the mood of a narrative.

Still, even apart from being thrilled that a publisher moved forward with including in a work of translated literature a substantial piece of writing on the subject of translation, and regardless of what I think of his translations, I think  Hofstadter’s approach to the craft opens up space and makes possible a broader discussion of what translation might look like and what values it might embrace.


Since getting a Ph.D. in translation studies is something I still idly consider from time to time, I was very interested to read B.J. Epstein’s description of her doctoral program in Wales. Coming from an M.F.A. program, however, which by definition focuses on the practice of literary translation, I find this statement incomprehensible:

I have met many people who study or work in the field of translation studies and yet have never translated and have no intention of doing so.

I’ve heard people say this before, and can’t really fathom it. Myself, I have no particular insights into moviemaking, despite having seen hundreds of films over the years . . .


James Marcus at Critical Mass has posted a summary of the results of their survey of members of the National Book Critics Circle that asked, “Which work in translation has had the most effect on your reading and writing?” As most of you have probably already surmised, a lot of the usual suspects — Camus, Mann, Proust, the Bible — appear in the results, and some of the respondents’ descriptions of the literature are compelling in and of themselves:

Camus’s style is spare and simple—a Gallic Hemingway, if Hemingway had done his writing, not just his drinking, in French. . . . L’Etranger, La Peste, and La Chute still stun me, like a pistol shot on a sunny beach.

What I noticed most, though (I know, I know, I am very predictable), was how infrequently readers mentioned the translator responsible for providing them with access to these stunning works of literature — or, assuming that all of them wrote at length about the translator, that it was those sections of their responses that were deemed least worthy of reproduction at Critical Mass. Of course there is occasional praise given to Moncrieff for his Proust, Singleton for his Dante, King James for his Jesus, and so on, but in fact the most effusive praise given to a translator is of the sort I find really upsetting:

“I guess the best measure of a translation,” he wrote, “as with any work of art, is that you don’t notice the work that went into it. It just is. So I had to think about this question a little. What translated work was so good that I never noticed that it was translated? That would be The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera, who writes in Czech and in French, is concerned about the missed connections between human beings, the trap that our world has become. His prose comes across so clearly in English that it’s impossible to imagine it written in any other language.”

Not to be all Venuti or anything, but doesn’t “invisible” in this case just mean that the translator’s skill was on dazzling display? That Heim never misstepped, unlike even many authors, and that his performance should be appreciated as a display of grace and beauty as extremely visible — there it is, after all, right on the page — as a Baryshnikov routine. Others have objected to the positioning of “invisibility” as an ideal in translation, so perhaps this row doesn’t need to be hoed again, but it is still amazing to me that people can read a translation and feel that the translator has somehow stepped out of the way, allowed the author’s original words to somehow be transmitted unmediated (and even more extraordinary that they view this claim as a compliment). It’s not just a lack of recognition of translators’ achievements, it’s a fundamental misconception of what it means to read these canonical works in English.


The “No Word for X” claim that I mentioned in my last post (and so thoroughly explored by Language Log) showed up less than 24 hours later in an article by Manfred Ertel in Business Week, “Greece on Verge of Bankruptcy”:

In Greek, there is no direct translation for the verb “save” in a monetary sense. And that is precisely the way the Greeks live.

In reading the entrails of the Greek language, I find that their cultural downfall was also foretold in their invention of “hedonism.”


No Word for . . .

April 7, 2009

The Language Log has a post compiling links to all its past discussions of the “No Word for X” phenomenon, in which someone claims that some concept is impossible to express in another language because the language has no word for it (and thus, naturally, translation is once more proven to be a fool’s errand and a lost cause). It seems to me absurd and reductive to announce that because a single word does not exist in a language, the concept doesn’t exist in the culture — I imagine it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have adopted schadenfreude into English if we hadn’t felt an emotion that was usefully described by the German word. And indeed, that is the Language Log’s project in these posts: to deconstruct the layers of misleading argumentation and erroneous assumptions in these statements.

Or take the point Mark recently made about the complete lack of dedicated vocabulary (so far) for “the processes, categories or roles involved in academic outsourcing.” He seems to be right. But does that mean I cannot describe what goes on when students cheat in my Unix course? How about “student who paid someone to write a piece of code for him so he could pass his programming course” for student academic outsourcers? Or how about using “student academic outsourcers”? Or “snivelling little cheating weasels”?

(from a post in November 2004)

And since language is so inextricably linked to culture, they often find themselves combating some hideous cultural claims:

A particularly damaging example of the No word for X fallacy is one that one hears here in Northwestern Canada. Many of the Athabascan languages of Canada have a word for “thank you” that is borrowed from French merci. In Carrier it is [mʌsi]. This fact has suggested to the ignorant that these languages previously had no word for “thank you”, from which they draw the further conclusion that their speakers had no concept of gratitude. Such a people, of course, must have been sub-human savages. The conclusion is that it’s a good thing that white people came to rescue them from their degraded traditional way of life.

(from a post in May 2006)

It’s great to get links to all these posts in one place, and they make for some fascinating reading.


The Szirtes Variations

April 3, 2009

George Szirtes, poet and translator from Hungarian, has written a post outlining his ideas about the relationship of a translation to an original, and of translation to art.

I don’t think translation is betrayal. I don’t think translation is theft. Translation is hearing and replying: it is trying to get your ear, mouth and mind round that which potentially fascinates you in another work in a different language.