Lost in Translation

Martha Toll discusses the pitfalls of translating literary works.

Martha Toll discusses the pitfalls of translating literary works.

For an unnerving take on the World War II underground, try The Darkroom of Damocles.  The protagonist fancies himself working for the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis, but the reader is never certain.  Vacant and amoral, the main character leaves us confused and queasy about whose side he’s on.  Was it the translation (Ina Rilke) or the underlying text (W. F. Hermans)?

Consider the disturbing impact of Desert by Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. Le Clézio (translated by C. Dickson).  The novel features a hero and heroine deracinated from country and culture, allegories for the epic human migrations of our time.  Le Clézio, part anthropologist, part literary genius, is himself a translator.  His output ranges from studies of Amerindian culture pre- and post- Spanish conquistadors, to children’s literature and novels.  What about The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier (translated by Lorin Stein)?  Stein, now editor of the Paris Review, opens with the following–“For reasons the reader will understand, I have neglected to translate the expression ‘C’est le bouquet.’”  He then goes on to translate it—“It means, more or less, ‘that takes the cake.’”

Edith Grossman enlightens us on the art of translation in her provocative set of lectures:  Why Translation Matters, published as a book.  Renowned for delivering Spanish masterpieces into English, Grossman spells out the argument for translation’s necessity.  Even the best linguists can master only a tiny fraction of the world’s languages.  If we are to understand our fellow humans, learn about other cultures and share in their art, we don’t have a choice; we’ll have to read in translation.  More important, if we don’t, we’ll never be able to appreciate the impact that works outside our native language have on both ourselves and on others.  “Someone once called Faulkner the best-known Latin American writer in English,” Grossman notes.

What makes a translator translate?  Grossman recalls with affection her own journey from graduate student and college instructor to translator, despite meager pay and inferior status.  Readers and critics may undervalue translation, but publishers understand.  Grossman got her start from a magazine editor’s invitation.  She lets us in on a secret–in private, most translators consider themselves writers.  And why not?  “The most fundamental description of what translators do is write—or perhaps rewrite–… hoping that readers … will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.  This is the translator’s great ambition.”  In other words, we might just as well ask what makes the writer write.  William Carlos Williams—physician, poet, translator–wrote in a 1940 letter [quoted in Grossman]:  “If I do original work all well and good.  But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable.  What difference does it make?”

The translator renders an independent creation.  Grossman tells us that the “undeniable reality is that the work becomes the translator’s (while simultaneously and mysteriously somehow remaining the work of the original author) as we transmute it into a second language.”  To some extent, the reader does the same.  How often in fiction are we called upon to draw conclusions about characters based on their style of speech or other cues?  The translator must convey this and more.  No mere facilitator, at every step of the way she is making judgments and choices about how to express ideas and language.  Therein lies the art.

Translation questions abound around poetry.  How can poetry, which is so dependent on the rhythm and music of language, be successfully translated?  Giving us insight into her own processes, Grossman explains, “How would I write the poem if I were composing it in English within the formal constraints set by the poet?  These constraints include, but are not limited to elements of form such as rhythm, meter, rhyme, stanzaic structure, and line length.  I believe that of all these poetic elements, the most important is rhythm.”  Grossman tells us that the beat of a line “allows structural coherence even in freewheeling, apparently conversational, almost prosaic verse.”  Thus, the translator serves not only as writer, but as musician as well.

Why do translations age?  I’ve heard it said that a good translation lasts about twenty years.  That’s never made sense to me when the underlying works are timeless.  Yet periodic updated translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey are hailed as classics.  My children read Robert Fagles in school, while I read Richmond Lattimore.  A couple of hundred years ago, we would have been reading Alexander Pope’s version. Similarly with Constance Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina.  All happy families may be alike, but apparently this is not true for all translations.  Garnett, who met Tolstoy in person, gave us numerous English translations from the Russian that were once considered definitive, but have since been upstaged by more contemporary editions.  I haven’t even touched on the differences between American and British versions of the same work (consider Harry Potter in English and American), which raises a separate set of questions.

I continue to be deeply puzzled by the need to renew translations.  I can’t come up with a satisfactory reason, other than the obvious; that language evolves over time and a good translation should render a work as lively as possible.  We don’t “modernize” Shakespeare, although most of us can no longer read Beowolf in the original.  On the other hand, the Bible is periodically updated to make it more accessible, even though we can’t agree on the best source from which to translate.  Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” goes some way toward answering this question—“Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.” [Quoted in Grossman]

At the end of her book, Grossman generously offers a list of her favorite works in translation.  Like her, I can hardly stand to think that I would have missed out on José Saramago because I don’t speak Portuguese.  Or Fyodor Dostoevsky (or should I transliterate it as Dostoyevsky?) because my Russian isn’t up to snuff.  Think what we lacked before Stieg Larsson’s tattooed girl became a bestseller.  To some extent, the influx of new Scandinavian crime fiction isn’t new at all; the success of one Swedish trilogy opened the door to a host of fresh translations.

The whole concept of translation raises tantalizing questions.  There’s no doubt that we are greatly enriched by gaining access to foreign works, even if our language deficits prevent us from reading them in the original.  In our shrinking world, we are global citizens.  Apparently, the reading public agrees.  After all, the 944 page 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin), has enjoyed snappy sales since its publication last fall.

Martha Toll is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has just received representation for her debut novel.

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