On compensation and explicitation

The phenomenon of compensation is well-known to translators. You cannot quite get that metaphor there so you put in one somewhere close by, not the same one using the same figure, but one that might do some of the same work. Or, even more commonly, the rhyme of the source becomes some other form of sound painting in the translation, shifting to alliteration or assonance.

With a long prose work, I suspect there are other, more general considerations than these, or rather in addition to these, which exist on the sentence or line level. Length tends to be a problem unto itself. Partly this is due to the conventional wisdom, all too often well-founded, that foreign texts are not edited much if at all. This means that often the first time a foreign author has the experience of having her or his text edited is when it is translated. Translators of contemporary works into English are therefore frequently engaging in two, distinct but in practice inseparable activities.

I had the great privilege of working with an experienced editor-translator on my very try. The book was Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada, and the editor in question, Michael Henry Heim, carefully marked up my text in pencil from start to finish. One of the principles (MHH liked principles) behind his suggested changes derived from his observation that my English text was “rather prolix.” Some of this, he said, was due to me, some to the author. The result was the language of the whole thing grew sparser and tighter.

Obviously this is not a principle to apply indiscriminately. Every text is different. But the tendency to explain, another phenomenon well-known to translators–which is described by translation studies scholars by the rather ugly but quite descriptive term “explicitation”–always puts a lengthening pressure on the translated text. You want your readers to see what is in the source in all its detail, so you add explanatory words here are there to try and make them clear, to make them explicit. Unchecked, this pressure can overwhelm any work, let alone one that is 1,000 pages long in the source.

And so I find myself actively struggling against it, trying to make things as short as possible, which means inevitably compensating in places like this:

Pomicao je usnama kao da sriče molitvu, a onda se prekrstio, lako i hitro, kao rutinski katolik.

Which becomes:

He moved his lips as if reciting a prayer, then crossed himself, nimbly as a rote Catholic.

Because (in this case I can also explain it through an analysis) “lako” (easily) and “hitro” (quickly) are both, I think, covered in the term “nimbly,” and “a onda” (and then) is covered by “then.” And while I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a “rote” rather than a “routine” Catholic, I know what it means implicitly. It’s also a syllable shorter.

It’s just one little place, but the accumulation of little places like this will, I hope, be palpable.

1 comment

  1. “Nimble”– yes! An elegant and underemployed word. Great choice. And yes on the general principle of reduction–though one does sometimes wonder whether this preference for economy–which I share–isn’t a kind of deep-seated cultural ‘anglosaxism,’ at least post-Hemingway.

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