Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of translation, part 1

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William Weaver

Here are a few names: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Proust, Mann, Borges. Here are some others: Allen Mandelbaum, Sir Thomas Urquhart, James Falen, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, John Woods, Andrew Hurley. The names on the second list aren’t nearly as famous as the ones on the first, but their roles are just as indispensable. These are the translators, those crucial intermediaries for readers, like me, who want to read world literature but are only comfortable in one modern language. Ideally, their work is invisible, and in many cases—though not all—their names appear only in small print on the book’s title page. Yet the dance they perform is as intricate, in its own fashion, as that of any other author. Instead of following the language or story wherever it takes them, they’re constrained by the words on the page, and they have to perform a complicated triangulation between fidelity to the text and the author’s intentions and the needs of the reader. A few, like Pevear and Volokhonsky, become something like celebrities in their own right, but for the most part, their contributions don’t receive a fraction of the attention or gratitude they deserve.

I got to thinking about this yesterday, when I heard that William Weaver had died. Weaver is the first translator whose name I came to recognize, thanks primarily to his translations of Umberto Eco’s first two novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. If you count Weaver as a creative force working side by side with Eco, he’s among the authors whose words I’ve read more than any other, and not just through Eco: I’ve encountered him with pleasure in many other works of art that have played important roles in my life, from Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler to the subtitles for Fellini’s late movies. Few great translators are ever translators alone—their lives, not surprisingly, tend to be polyglot, multinational, and full of curiosity—and Weaver was no exception. The interview he once gave to The Paris Review is filled with good stories about life in Italy after the war, his work as a man of letters and music critic, and his creative process, described in the kind of detail that I love:

After having done this very rapid (i.e., in a month or two) first draft, I print it out; then I arm myself with a box of Ebony soft pencils and good erasers, and I go over it painstakingly with a pencil. I fill in the blanks, make the choices and change things. I have a big legal pad beside me and at the top is written, Ask Um [Umberto Eco]; then I write: pg. 35; pg. 10; and the things I want to discuss with him…I solve all the problems with the pencil.

Allen Mandelbaum

And solving problems is what translation is all about. An author like Eco poses particular challenges: his characters tend to be as erudite as he is, moving easily from one language to the next, and they sometimes speak in languages of their own creation. Tackling this kind of author provides a translator with his best chance to subtly show off, but it’s in the ordinary, everyday way people talk that true genius reveals itself. “Literary or writerly language is much easier to translate than dialect and popular speech,” Weaver notes, and it’s easy to see what he means: the high style, with its elegant rhythms and refined vocabulary, is similar in spirit across every language, while rendering slang or casual conversation requires an ear for unwritten nuances on both ends. It’s why there are more great translations of Sophocles than Aristophanes, and why botched attempts by translators to render earthy language can so often stop the reader cold. Scholars like David Tod Roy, whose unexpurgated five-volume translation of the encyclopedic and pornographic The Plum in the Golden Vase is making headlines, are forced to confront these issues on every page, as are the various translators of the Decameron, whom Joan Acocella discusses in an insightful recent piece in The New Yorker.

But the central mystery of translation is the question of what, in the end, we’re really getting. To hear some critics describe it, we’re either being presented with a faithful reflection, imperfect but useful, of the original text, or we’re being fed an illusion, a sort of confidence trick designed to persuade us that we’re reading something like the source when it’s nothing like it at all, or even to console us for our own lazy inability to read these authors in the original. Writers as different as Vladimir Nabokov and Douglas R. Hofstadter have wrestled with these issues, and it’s a problem that any serious reader, especially of poetry, needs to confront sooner or later. Most of us ultimately arrive at a realistic intermediate stance, which is that prose translation, at least, can preserve the core and spirit of a text well enough for a thoughtful reader, and that compromises and judgment calls are an inevitable part of the process—which makes it all the more important to have a translator we can trust, like Allen Mandelbaum, who acted as my Virgil to Dante. Translators, like most good authors, strive to present what seems like a transparent window on the world beyond, but when you examine it more closely, it gets a lot murkier. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk a bit more about the enigma of translation, and what an intelligent reader ought to make of it all.

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

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