Olga and Zehra

Rounding page 340 and making good post-holiday progress, I continue to find little gems of passages, like this one in a chapter from Part Five of Kin, which is called in the source Inventarna knjiga, a play on “invention” and “inventories” that I think I can get at by simply calling it Inventories in the English (this is what I am trying at this point anyway):

One after another she gave birth to her five children. There were two by the time Olga arrived in town, and the others were all born with her there. Olga told Zehra she herself did want to have any more children. This was not an easy thing to accomplish because Franjo was pushy. He didn’t understand about children, only about his male needs. Zehra understood all this. In general Zehra understood everything and was able to reduce any overlong, complicated story to two or three sentences in which everything was simple, easy, and clear. She was not embarrassed by a single one of Olga’s stories—this was important, for her other friends were easily embarrassed—but rather found her way around in each one and managed to say something to comfort her. How was this possible given that Zehra was a Muslim, a very devout Muslim who kept to all the rules of her faith and did everything every day, when she was awake and when she was asleep, in accordance with it? The answer is strange but simple: Olga belonged to a different world and a different faith, one that determined that the women could have their heads uncovered and all sorts of other things that were different from Islam. If Olga had been a Muslim, Zehra would have died of shame, run away from her confessions, and never seen her again. But as it was, she not only did not have to run, she could always be helpful. Before Olga’s faith, Zehra was always completely free, just as Olga was free before Zehra’s. This made them best friends.

The unlikely friendship of Olga and Zehra is one of the many standalone moments of the book, and its splicing together of these moments—through stories interwoven with other stories like the great network of the Habsburg train system that Olga’s husband Franjo helps to build and manage (other literary references come together here, most notably to Danilo Kiš but also to Robert Musil and others, this in another superb standalone chapter entitled “Kakania”)—is a major achievement, constructed of sentences that do something like what this one is doing, weaving and interweaving these stories in verbal tapestries around an inscrutable center that is perhaps best expressed as history through memory, family, and the stories of a family.

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.