An Unfortunate Episode in the Rhetoric of Re-translation

Or, to be clear, it would be that thing in my title, if the book had been re-translated, but this is not really a re-translation, so mostly this is about editing. Unfortunately, the editor in this case, Mark Thompson, has chosen to position his work along the lines that are often reserved for the rhetoric of re-translation and certain forms of marketing of translations that appeal primarily to accuracy and authenticity. (I will refrain from putting these words in quotes but please imagine them there; this is about rhetoric and the ways we present claims about translation, translated texts, translators, and so on.)51LJpC-v39L

The claims typically suggest that the previous translation was seriously flawed and, as a result, created a wrong impression of the work in question, such that its reception was somehow skewed if not missed altogether. Then they imply that the current translation rights the wrongs of the earlier work, giving readers proper access to the original in a way that they were somehow denied it before. This is exactly the rhetoric Thompson uses to critique Heim’s work (in the second half of his talk).

I was curious to know what precise translation experience Thompson was basing the larger claims in his critique upon, but unfortunately I could not find any book translations by him, only a portion of Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, published in 2011. Of course there are very good editors of translations who have not translated entire books themselves, though I have not been able to find any other translations edited by Thompson either. Still, he has written an excellent biography of Danilo Kiš, the author of the book in question, so there’s no reason not to pay careful attention to his critique of a translation of that author’s work by someone else.

It does give one pause, however, when someone with little professional experience in the domain itself makes categorical statements about how translators “ought” to keep the exact tenses of the foreign language text in their English versions, or how they “should” repeat words whenever the author does. Actually, these are both rather naive over generalizations that most experienced translators and experienced editors of translation know to be so. They are as dependent upon context as any choices a translator might make, and it is simply not the case that all language cultures have the same levels of tolerance for repetition and tense variation, or that the verbal systems of different languages work the same way. Nor does back-translating in the manner he discusses clarify the process of creating the English version, e.g., finding another word in the source language that might have been used but wasn’t in order to make the claim that if the author had wanted to use that word, she or he could have, and therefore, the word used in the previous English version was the wrong one.

Listening to Thompson’s categorical assertions—which I sincerely hope are not written down in the introduction to this new edition—actually made me as irritated and angry as he claims to have felt about Heim and his translation (why he should be precisely “irritated” with Heim was not completely clear). Editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. This is important enough to write again. The very slight nod to the translator of the whole text, the one whose work he used as the basis of his revisions, came very late in Thompson’s comments and seemed rather grudging and almost an afterthought, especially by contrast to the litany of “deep flaws” he shares.

I have edited quite a few other people’s translations. It is possible to do so when you don’t have an expert grasp of the language of the source text. It is even possible to fine tune the translation in the process. But in such cases, the editor’s name does not go on the cover, at least not unless it is a scholarly edition of some sort and the editor in question has created a scholarly apparatus to accompany the text. Actually, the editor’s name is not generally mentioned anywhere in literary works, whether they are translated or not. This is the work of an editor. Moreover, even when I know what questions to ask where and which verbs or lines or articles might have diverged from a Spanish or German or Japanese (minus the articles) source, I know that translating the whole would be beyond me given my skills in these languages. This is because editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. It makes the collegial nature of editing all the more important.

The rhetoric of re-translation often formulates attempts to move its audience by means of a critique of a previous translation: it is “old,” “outdated,” “inaccurate,” and so on. These claims are familiar as attempts to justify the need for the new version. This is what is happening with Thompson’s discussion of his edited version of Heim’s translation as well, and some of his changes might in fact be improvements on the English version. I just wish it had been more graciously done. The very title of his talk is rather offensive, as if Heim was not concerned with doing justice to the authors’ whose work he translated and the works themselves. When Heim was called upon to revise other people’s translations, something that happened often, he did it without putting his name to it. Nor did he spell out all the things he disagreed with in the other person’s work publicly. This grace and discretion were marks of his work both as an editor and as a translator.


  1. Thank you, Russell, for this acute analysis. I’d like to add a few comments, if I may.

    Thompson is, from all reports, a skilled biographer. Michael Henry Heim was a skilled translator. Here’s one difference between the two: Heim, whom I knew well, would not have gone over Thompson’s biography of Kis and then described points where his vision of Kis did not coincide with Thompson’s as errors, mistakes or carelessness on Thompson’s part.

    As Heim understood perfectly, two biographies can be equally factual but include differing readings of the salient features of a life and what they mean. Likewise translators of a text—and all its interpreters, be they readers, literary scholars, filmmakers— will often have contrasting views of what the text means and how to render it into another language. There is no single correct biography, just as there is no single correct translation. Translators can and do make real mistakes, just as biographers do, but the features of Heim’s translation that Thompson discusses here —choices between synonyms, shadings of verb tense and sentence structure — all fall into the realm of a reading of the text that happens to differ slightly from his.

    Thompson has never published a book-length translation and his lack of experience with the translation process is all too clear from his assumption, palpable throughout this talk, that there is a single correct way in which a text “should” be rendered. Thompson wants to develop an Anglo-Germanic vocabulary that requires the use of “sleepwalker,” and that’s, fine, that’s his choice, his reading. It certainly doesn’t mean that it’s a “deep flaw” for Heim to have chosen to develop a more Latinate register and to have translated the same word as “somnambulist.” Both approaches are perfectly valid, and assume depth and force within the constellation of related decisions around them. If I’m setting my production of The Merchant of Venice in contemporary Manhattan and costuming my actors in pin-striped suits, I shouldn’t argue that it’s a “deep flaw” for another director to set hers in Renaissance Italy and put the actors in doublets and breeches.

    As Valentino points out, Thompson’s notion that one most follow exactly the verb tense of one language when translating into another is quite laughable; verb systems work differently in different languages and a translation must account for those differences. A translator who rendered “Je suis allé à Kinshasa” as “I am gone to Kinsasha” would probably be making an egregious mistake. The French passé composé most often translates as a simple past tense. Japanese verbs have no future tense, yet translators are perfectly free to write “I will see you next week” when rendering Japanese into English.

    What is most disturbing about Thompson’s comments are the meanspiritedness and disdain they exude. At one point, he seeks to summon up some sort of respect for Heim and speaks of translation as collaboration. But who launches a collaboration by announcing one’s collaborator’s “deep flaws”? Heim made far more choices than Thompson did in establishing the text Thompson is now putting forward. If Thompson can find no way to respect that fact, he should at least respect Heim’s personal friendship with Kis and his enormous contribution to the dissemination of Central European literature and to Kis’s own international reception, on which Thompson’s biography builds. The tone of condescension and schoolmarmish reproach he adopts here vis à vis Michael Henry Heim’s considerable achievement does Thompson no credit whatsoever.

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