The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.

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The Translator’s Answerability

My previous post on Masha Gessen’s review of the two new Anna Karenina translations, one each by Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, attrAK Gessen reviewacted some criticisms. I’ll respond in a couple of posts to make each one shorter.

Schwartz AKJohn Cowan comments, “You write as if the translator had no responsibility to the author at all, and it is all one whether the AK translator writes ‘All happy families are alike’ on the first page, or ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'”

I hope this wasn’t a widespread impression from my piece. But maybe I wasn’t clear enough. A glance at the Weinberger essay I quote from should dispel any lingering doubts, especially where he writes: “Now obviously a translation that is replete with semantical errors is probably a bad translation.”Bartlett AK Outside of parodying or otherwise hijacking a text for other purposes, it’s hard to imagine a context where switching a Tolstoy line for a Dickens line would be seen as a successful translation strategy.

But why the “probably” in Weinberger’s quote?  Because “fidelity may be the most overrated of a translation’s qualities.” It is the easiest thing to get right. Not easy of course, just the easiest.

His amplifying example: “I once witnessed an interesting experiment: average 9-year-old students at a public school in Rochester, New York, were given a text by Rimbaud and a bilingual dictionary, and asked to translate the poem. Neither they nor their teacher knew a word of French. What they produced were not masterpieces, but they were generally as accurate as, and occasionally wittier than, any of the existing scholarly versions. In short, up to a point, anyone can translate anything faithfully. But the point at which they cannot translate is the point where real translations begin to be made. […] A translation is a whole work; it is not a series of matching en face lines and shouldn’t be read as such. It means that the primary task of a translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right — which is the easiest part — but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation-language, one that is mandated by the original.”

He uses poetry as his primary example, but the same is true of artistic prose. Translations are whole works, not series of matching lexical or semantic items, which means that the primary task of most translators is not merely getting the dictionary meanings right (the easiest part) but inventing new music for their works that resonates in the receiving culture’s language and literary traditions. Without that, it doesn’t matter how “accurate” their renderings are, for no one will want to read them. Responsibility to the author is implicit in this, but responsibility to the text is foremost. As Samuel Johnson once put it when asked by a reader regarding his intentions in a particular passage of Rasselas, “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what was in my head, God and myself. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that.”

Responsibility to an author can become explicit, too, however. It was part of the Maudes’ motivation for translating Tolstoy — they had met the man and were long-time friends and admirers. Something like this has happened to me two or three times, and I’ve written about two such instances in “A Matter of Trust,” part of a forum on “Translation and Social Commitment,” published by 91st Meridian.

In such cases, the author’s encouragement can increase one’s motivation to do things well, and interest in the literary qualities of a text comes to seem a rVenuti bookather empty and abstract substitute for the respect and affection one feels for the person. I suppose this is the “simpatico” method that Lawrence Venuti critiques in his book The Translator’s Invisibility. He is probably right that, as a method, it fails for some kinds of literature, as his example of experimental Modernist poetry makes clear. But it is also a mode of work that can be powerful and productive for many translators, an additional source of responsibility often overlooked in discussing their work.

The Translation Police arrest Anna Karenina

Masha Gessen’s review of the latest two Anna Karenina translations in the December 24, 2014 Sunday Book Review of the New York Times is a subtle example of what Eliot Weinberger once called the translation police at work. AK Gessen reviewThe translation police are those, according to Weinberger, “who write — to take an actual example — that a certain immensely prolific translator from the German ‘simply does not know German’ because somewhere in the vastness of Buddenbrooks, he had translated a ‘chesterfield’ as a ‘greatcoat.’ Such examples,” Weinberger explains, “as any translator can tell you, are more the rule than the exception. One can only imagine if writers were reviewed in the same way: ‘The use of the word ‘incarnadine’ on page 349 proves the utter mediocrity of this book.’ This is the old bugbear of ‘fidelity,’ which turns reviewers into television evangelists.” Here is the full text of his essay.

To be fair, Gessen is both kinder and fairer to Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, whose translations of AK published this year by Oxford University PressBartlett AK and Yale University Press respectively, are the primary subjects of her review. And her claim that “to decipher what Tolstoy wanted to say, the translator has to devise an interpretation of Tolstoy’s narrative voice in Anna Karenina” is certainly correct. But her understanding of the translator’s work appears to stop at this relatively elementary stage, which, as she correctly points out, is the same for any reader of the Russian original. What’s wrong with this is that translators don’t just read, they also write. Schwartz AKIn fact, writing is what makes them translators of — rather than merely readers of — the original book. And as any writer knows, the words that appear on the page rarely exist in finished form in one’s head. They are shaped in the act of writing them.

Some readers of Gessen’s review will hear the authority of someone who knows the source and, as a result, they will essentially cede their own authority to make judgments because, well, she knows the source so she must know the right answer! They are hearing the voice of the translation police, which lurks behind every example and in fact informs the entire approach. This approach mostly involves calling up a variety of largely unconnected individual lexical items, selected by the reviewer and held forth with relative approval or disapproval almost as if she were teaching a foreign-language class and telling us which words mean what the translator has said they mean and which do not — but on the basis of a text that exists only in the reviewer’s mind. We certainly don’t have access to it. In fact, no one does. Remember, if you read the original Russian, you’re just a reader of the original Russian; the translation is created in the act of writing by the translator.

By the end of such a translation-police-inflected review, I suspect that people who do not know Russian, and maybe also those who do, will come to the conclusion that all of these supposedly important differences don’t make that much difference really, despite Gessen’s claim about the construction of narrative voice in English. To make that claim come across in a review, she would probably need to focus on just one example and show how it carries across the entire book, both in terms of the construction of voice and in terms of an interpretation of how the work’s meaning in English is shaped by the construction of that voice. This, in turn, would show how the two translators are doing much more than the readers Gessen invokes who might reread the Russian book several times in a lifetime. Of course they create voice in their heads, but they don’t create it on the page. Tolstoy himself, when asked by Nikolai Strakhov what he had meant to express in one part of his book, responded that in order to explain that little part, he would have to rewrite the whole thing from the start. Strakhov, Tolstoy suggests, was asking about the version in the author’s head, not the one on the page.

The crucial difference between reading and writing in the translator’s work should make us suspicious of explicit comparisons with the foreign-language original in a review. Unless they are part of a careful and likely extensive analysis, they are liable to tell us much more about the version in the reviewer’s head than the one on the English page.

Hats off to Bartlett and Schwartz on their new books.