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.


Two recent letters to the editors of the New York Times have made vociferous — and much-needed — calls for more recognition of translation in American literary culture. In the first, Ezra E. Fitz gently points out that an adulatory reviewer of a García Márquez biography

notes that García Márquez studied Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and Proust “in Spanish translation,” but when he raves about the “gorgeous sentences” in “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” lauding it as “a heroic demonstration of man’s triumph over language,” he neglects to mention whether he read those sentences in Spanish or English.

How often we seem to forget that the brilliance of world literature is only available to us thanks to the brilliance of numberless and nearly anonymous translators.

In the second letter, Jason Grunebaum objects to American publishers’ refusal to publish South Asian literature in translation:

Why hasn’t an American publishing house brought out a single contemporary Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation? Not to mention the scarcity of translations of important writers from other South Asian regional languages like Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu — just to name a few in which important South Asian writers write.

I’ve often thought of the South Asian literature-in-English phenomenon as a giftwrapped boon to reluctant and provincial publishers who want to give their readers that intriguing whiff of the exotic but are afraid of putting them off with a work in translation. And it’s a vicious cycle, too: having filled the South Asia quota with a number of works written in English, there’s no compelling reason for the complacent publisher to seek out works originally written in other languages.


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.


In The Day, an interview with Ukrainian literary translator Olha Seniuk. Some of the issues seem to be shared between the American and Ukrainian publishing industries:

We know that you are trying to share your professional experience with young translators and that you taught at a school for translators in Yaremcha. 

“Sharing this experience is easier said than done. Sometimes I think that there is no continuity left in the realm of literary translation here. The impression is that the younger generation has categorically discarded everything previously achieved in Ukrainian literature and that these young people are starting from scratch.

“Furthermore, if there were market demand for literary translations in Ukraine, you could make demands on young translators. Literary translations are adequately appreciated [sic?!], so they have nearly dropped to an amateurish level. Besides, our publishing companies keep economizing and no longer hire style editors, so translations are publishes with a multitude of mistakes.”

People talk about a surge of interest in translation and I get all giddy and optimistic, but my inborn cynicism responds to statements like Seniuk’s. Here’s hoping the giddy optimisim is right on this one!