SEPTEMBER 16, 2010 12:46PM

The Tricky World of Translation

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I have a friend who is translating The Iliad from Latin, for fun, and I have to admit that on hearing of his undertaking my first reaction was, why? Hasn’t that been done already, a lot? Yesterday The Paris Review’s blog provided a great reminder of the importance of new and multiple translations. Short story writer and French translator Lydia Davis, whose version of Madame Bovary comes out September 23, discusses a few cultural issues, then offers this gem:

How many ways, for instance, has even a single phrase (bouffées d’affadissement) from Madame Bovary been translated:

gusts of revulsion

a kind of rancid staleness

stale gusts of dreariness

waves of nausea

fumes of nausea 

flavorless, sickening gusts 

stagnant dreariness

whiffs of sickliness

waves of nauseous disgust

Multiply that by the thousands and thousands of words in a story or novel, and wow. Of course I knew that translation was far from a literal, straightforward process but this simple example made its nuanced and seemingly fraught nature much more concrete. Davis will be writing at The Paris Review about translation for the next two weeks; it definitely seems worth following.

Discussions about translation popped up this spring and summer in the wake of acclaimed Spanish translator Edith Grossman’s book Why Translation Matters. While addressing an art that is “often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented,” Grossman explains her task and challenge (as Tim Parks cites in this article in The New York Review of Books) as:

‘To hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate.’

After which, the translator seeks to

‘re-create…within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work.’

Whew. In an interview on the New York Times blog Papercuts a couple years back, Natasha Wimmer, who translated Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666, described the special knowledge, beyond language, required of a translator—2666, for example, required her to research Black Panther history, WWII German army terminology and obscure divination and forensic science vocabulary.

Yet much of the time, a reader (or at least this reader) pays very little attention to a translation. A few months ago I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which has a peculiar, quirky yet matter of fact voice. I actually forgot that I was not reading the original (Murakami does speak English), until it hit me partway through—“Oh right, this was translated! I wonder what is different.” Turns out, quite a lot: The English-language publication, translated by Jay Rubin, is actually an abridged version of the Japanese (under orders from Knopf, the American publisher). You can read an interesting discussion about translating Murakami on the Random House website.

That conversation also includes another vivid example of the elusive nature of translation (in this case, three-point translation), from Philip Gabriel, who translated the Murakami novel Sputnik Sweetheart:

In chapter five there was a short quote from Pushkin's poem Eugene Onegin. In cases like this--quotes in Japanese from other languages--of course you need to find the original language, and with languages other than English, I try to locate a reputable, existing translation… I located four different versions of the poem, from which I copied out these translations of the lines:

(1) He had no itch to dig for glories/ Deep in the dust that time has laid.

(2) He lacked the slightest predilection/for raking up historic dust.

(3) He lacked the yen to go out poking/Into the dusty lives of yore--

(4) He had no urge to rummage/in the chronological dust.

…Seeing all four versions side by side was a mini-revelation to me. When I got home I pinned these all to my bulletin board--where they still remain--as a reminder of a simple truth, namely that there are so many possible translations of even one line.

These examples are only on a linguistic level, and there is of course much to say about the cultural importance of translation; about how translated texts open up the world of writing and help us connect with people and countries we otherwise never would. With that in mind, I’m going to head over to Words Without Borders—a magazine and website devoted to translating and publishing international literature—and get reading.

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