Translation as Editing?
The craft—or is it art?—of the literary translator forever evades definition. There is something elusive about the process of translating that complicates every earnest attempt to describe it, especially when the original text is literary prose or poetry. The last essay in the collection The Translator as Writer (2006) is Michael Hanne’s clever study, “Metaphors for the Translator.” After playing around for a while with the problem of transferring metaphors from one language to another—“one of the most fascinating challenges for translators of journalistic or literary texts”—Hanne gleefully introduces his collection of metaphors for what translation is. The sheer number is amazing and so is the range, from “taking a log-cabin apart and reassembling it on a new site,” to “cannibalism,” to “love and surrender.” And so on and entertainingly on, until alarm bells begin to ring in the reader’s mind. Is it really so difficult to get a grip on the essential mechanics of translation?
Tiina Nunnally entitles her essay in the September–October 2006 issue of WLT “Removing the Grime from Scandinavian Classics: Translation as Art Restoration.” By way of introduction she also uses other, more conventional analogies. The translator is “not only an interpreter of factual information but also a cultural messenger”; later, the translator is likened to a musician interpreting a piece of music and an actor making a role her own.
Like most of these metaphors, the notion of the translator as an art restorer is intriguing but not very accurate—“imitators” or “copiers” (of artwork) would have been a little closer to the mark. Worse, it deflects the reader from the actual substance of the article, which is Nunnally’s comparisons between her own lucid translations of major works of Scandinavian literature and “grimy” past efforts to turn these books into English.
The crucial difference between the earlier translators of Scandinavian classics and her own approach is that she reads the original text with a sense of affinity as well as respect. The two authors concerned, Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75) and Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), are both outstandingly good writers with distinctive and curiously modern voices. Nunnally has picked examples to demonstrate how previous translations into English have, indeed, done dreadful things to the texts, from verbal embroidery to ridiculous overlays of cod medievalism to willful cutting out of offending (often erotic) passages.
Going back to the original and staying as close to it as possible is the task of every translator. One flaw in the art-restoration analogy is that no self-respecting translator wants to work from an old translation and, because there is no grime on the original, there is nothing to stop you from starting on a fresh canvas. What is essential and surprisingly difficult (although it sounds easy) is to read with proper attention to the tone of the writing. As Jorge Luis Borges puts it (in Esther Allen’s angular translation), “To translate the spirit is so enormous and phantasmal an intent that it may well be innocuous; to translate the letter, a requirement so extravagant that there is no risk of its ever being attempted.”
It is trivial to point out that to translate from past to present can be as “extravagant a requirement” as translating from one linguistic culture to another and that what now seems overornate and intrusive about past translations was presumably thought modern and appropriate at the time of publication. Nunnally’s examples of bad practice have many, many parallels—the Borges essay on the most important translators of “Thousand and One Nights” (quoted above) presents wonderful, outrageous examples of rewriting by the translator, in terms of both culture and time. Borges is forgiving: all translators, he argues, have “literary habits” likely to be more important than any deliberate policy of either interpreting or staying faithful. It seems incontestable. It is also true that translators are children of their time and likely to be literary fashion victims.
It follows that the shifts over time in the selection and style of translations into a language are important aspects of studying that language, as part of its history of literary criticism. However, for the translator with a job to do, the subject of study should be the author, not past translators. The first stage in working on a source text should be to consign memories of old translations to a secure mental lockup. If the author is an Undset or an Andersen, the “requirement” to recast and update the original text is relatively minimal, but there are other worthwhile writers whose magic seems to have faded with the passage of time. The Undset contemporary and once much-loved Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf is a case in point (Lagerlöf and Undset both received Nobel Prizes in literature, in 1909 and 1928 respectively). Although Lagerlöf’s storytelling is grippingly vivid, pacy, and even racy, her romantically high-toned style of writing can read like the literary equivalent of lace antimacassars. Not only does she take her time over long descriptions, anecdotes, and knowing asides to the Dear Reader, but at times the sheer fun of writing in her chosen style of a sophisticated saga seems to make the narrative slip out of control: “Warhorse, warhorse! Do you remember your youth, you old trouper, now that you are tethered in the meadow? Brave one, do you remember the days of battle? How strongly you galloped ahead, as if borne by wings . . .” This address goes on for a full paragraph, but in the end the reader realizes that the old horse has no function other than to introduce a minitreatise on the nostalgia of old men.
What could modernization of the “warhorse passage” entail? Cutting it out is possible, of course—if this fits the policy of the publisher’s editor. Neither the narrative nor the overall structure would be affected, and what Lagerlöf goes on to say about old men’s disorientation and wistful sense of loss is powerful enough on its own. Shortening the passage is possible, too, by keeping the first lines, but not her enthusiastic gloss on the image of the sad old horse, once so brave and strong and beautiful. What about the rhetoric? It could be toned down without losing the mock-epic style, for example: “An old warhorse put out to grass” could be elaborated into a lead-in to the first story about the group of old men.
To translation purists, this will sound like yet another example of irresponsible, even arrogant tinkering. I obviously disagree, in general. Francis Jones and Allan Turner have compiled a thought-provoking collection of perfectly respectable editorial interventions by translators of old texts under the main headings of archaization (“high-lighting the historicity of the text by using non-modern language”) and modernization (“high-lighting the modern-day relevance of the text by using modern language”). The authors emphasize that there is no either-or polarity between these two concepts, but rather “a spectrum of translation decisions.” One of their case histories, the English versions of four lines from a Dutch seventeenth-century poem to the nightingale (by Maria Tesselschade Visscher) illustrate the point very well: the translations move from a careful adaptation of the language of the metaphysical poets, to “superficial archaisation” (modernized, but with inserted words like oft and doth), to minimal modernization (the odd rhetorical gesture). The last of the versions is, in my view, the most accessible and hence the most likely to attract new readers to Visscher’s writing.
All commercial (as opposed to academic) translators are aware of strong pressures to adapt and update the source text, as well as “just” translate it. Modernization of antiquated writing is only a special case of “deforeignizing” the oddly or incomprehensibly exotic, which is, in turn, only one aspect of what editors want more than anything else: readability—or, really, popular appeal. “Make this book readable!” they urge the translator. “By all means, keep the atmospheric details, but make it work for our readers as if it had been written in their own language.” Implied or stated up front is the necessary corollary, “. . . and someone will try to calm the author.”
Many things can and do go wrong in the resulting interplay between the author, the translator/editor, and the publisher’s editor. Because the translator operates as a go-between in the no-man’s-land separating cultures (more dubious metaphors . . .), she is the most accessible target when the shooting starts. Michael Hofmann, who translates so authoritatively from the German, has admitted his relief at not having to negotiate with the author about what he does with the text, whether on his own or at his editor’s bidding, because all “his” authors are dead.
Not that death of the author automatically stops these arguments from rumbling on. In “The Translation Wars,” David Remnick’s lengthy yet never dull analysis of “the race to translate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,” he revisits the scenes of familiar conflicts of principle between the camps favoring either the literal or the interpretive approach to translation—between what was then (or there) and what is now (or here) the most acceptable way to write. The new translators of Russian classics, husband and wife Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, see it as their duty to stay true to the original, even to Dostoyevsky’s “erratic, even sloppy prose” (he wrote under great pressure, often in installments), and hence not only to keep what he says but how he says it, “hedged assertions, mixed diction, wandering syntax and weird compound modifiers” and all. With such reverence for the original, modernization is clearly not on the cards. It is paradoxical and heartwarming that some of their translations have been commercial successes, most notably Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Though this should make publishers’ editors think again, it probably will do little to change the pressures on translators. Only fierce dedication to their self-appointed task saw Pevear and Volokhonsky through the dark days of rejection and criticism. (Penguin’s editor told them that their Anna Karenina was “unreadable” and should be made “more reader friendly.”)
Views on the moral acceptability of the text are also functions of time and culture. As ever, translators have edited, one way or the other. Nunnally draws attention to past cutting of a few mildly “immoral” passages in Undset’s novels (e.g., omitting “with open arms and let Erlend do as he liked” from the sentence beginning “She sank back into the hay”). The problem is as old as translated literature. In the essay “Norms of Translation,” Theo Hermans describes how agonized translators of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata have tried over the centuries to avoid coping with “penis,” variously replacing it with “nose,” “leg,” and the like (an object described as a “leather dildo” tended to be ignored altogether). Borges, with his lovable generosity toward eccentricity, writes of the translations of Arabic tales that “an evasion of the original’s erotic opportunities is not an unpardonable sin in the sight of the Lord, when the primary aim is to emphasize the atmosphere of magic”—only to approve, just a few pages later, of his favorite translator, Richard Burton, who resents earlier expurgations of “the erotic” and is “rampantly capable of filling this gap.” Direct censorship for any reason—usually part of the political and/or moral climate of the time as opposed to, say, a publisher’s foibles—is part of what can be asked of the jobbing translator. It should obviously be resisted or, at least, controlled.
No one denies that a deep sense of affinity and respect for the author’s work is centrally important to honest (and therefore good) translation. However, it is also true that there are justifications for the translator editing the source text. This is not a nice thing to say. Translators are pleased to be seen as interpreters or experimental linguists or cultural ambassadors but do not, it seems, approve of the idea of acting as editors. In Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, Lawrence Venuti uses some examples of what he calls “excessive adaptations” to deforeignize the text for American readers in William Weaver’s translations of Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics, 1968). For example, “ricotta” becomes “cream cheese” and “pressed like anchovies” becomes “packed like sardines,” all of which seems acceptable, at times even necessary, in my view though not in Venuti’s. But it is Weaver’s response to the criticisms that is particularly interesting, because it is so typical of the ambivalence characterizing translation debates: in an interview, Weaver briskly distances himself from what Venuti called his “Anglocentric strategy” and argues that translations should “sound foreign” or, at the very least, must not “sound American.”
No translator can be immune to the pressures and temptations to stray from the original as part of a process that Peter France summarizes as the “rewriting, recasting, appropriating and relocating a given source text” in order that “the translator attunes the resulting entity to a new communicative situation.” This is distinct from the translator who unforgivably makes the text over in her own image or strives to make it conform to some prevalent notion of “good literature” or, worse still, “readability.” The debate about whether to adapt and risk losing the sense and flavor, or stay close to the author’s text and risk losing any resonance with the readership, has been running as long as translation has been practiced. The best way of conducting the debate is to keep it in the open, admit the pressures in specific cases, and follow Tiina Nunnally in her presentation of actual examples.
House of Glack, Aberdeenshire
Author note: Thanks to Astrid Grønneberg-Meldrum for her thoughtful comments.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights.” In Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Tr. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger. New York: Viking, 1999. 34–48.
Hanne, Michael. “Metaphors for the Translator.” In The Translator as Writer. Ed. Susan Bassnett & Peter Bush. London: Continuum, 2006. 208–24.
Hermans, Theo. “Norms of Translation.” In The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Ed. Peter France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 10–15.
Hofmann, Michael. “Speaking in Tongues.” Guardian Review, 22 November 2003.
Jones, Francis R., and Allan Turner. “Archaisation, Modernisation and Reference in the Translation of Older Texts.” Across Languages and Cultures 5:2 (2004): 159–85.
Lagerlöf, Selma. Gösta Berlings saga. 1891. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1986. 64.
Remnick, David. “The Translation Wars.” New Yorker, 7 November 2005, 98–109.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Local Contingencies: Translation and National Identities.” In Nation, Language and the Ethics of Translation. Ed. Sandra Bermann & Michael Wood. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 177–202.
Anna Paterson writes literary journalism, most recently “The Alien Made Known: The Compact of Writer and Translator in Kerstin Ekman’s Writing about Nature,” in The Translator as Writer (2006), and translates from the Scandinavian languages, most recently The Exception, by Christian Jungersen (due out from Weidenfeld & Nicholson and Doubleday in 2006).
“From the November-December 2006 issue of World Literature Today (80:5), pages 51-54. Copyright 2006 World Literature Today.”