Sunday, December 20, 2009

"the simplest, if perhaps least imaginative, way"

Following up on the recent Blanchot posts, this comes from Charlotte Mandell's translator's note to The Book to Come, which I've only dipped into here and there (the opening essay on Proust is excellent):
there flourish two much-beloved groups of words, whose ambiguities in fact pervade ordinary French usage, but which are here frequently and trenchantly put into play.

First is the simple-seeming word expérience. A good deal of the time it serves the same purposes and covers the same terrain as the word it looks so much like in English. The word however also means, in ordinary French, "experiment" in the scientific sense—but also (and here the reader is warned to be wary) in the literary or artistic sense, as when one speaks of an experimental novel. There are more than a few sentences in this book in which the translator has candidly had to guess which hand of the word was gesturing in the text. "The Experience of Proust" is also "Proust's Experiment." And a sentence that plausibly reads "The experience of literature is a total experience" might suddenly seem far richer a statement if read as "The literary experiment is a total experience," or "The experience of literature is utterly an experiment." To rescue my author from my own opinions (which seems decent chivalry for a translator), I have usually chosen the simplest, if perhaps least imaginative, way of handling this issue, that is, construing what seems most obvious at the moment, and alerting the reader, herewith, to the problem of the word's surprising range of meaning.
Though at times I've had considerable anxiety about translation, I am generally not one to avoid reading an author because I lack the language to read it in the original. But it remains the case that there are times when that lack becomes a potential barrier. A crucial word might have multiple possible meanings, all of which can come into play; reading is in part about balancing that play. One doesn't necessarily decide on a particular meaning while reading. And if even lovingly scrupulous translators like Charlotte Mandell are nonetheless forced into deciding on a meaning, perhaps settling on the most prosaic sense for the purposes of expediency or consistency, something is undoubtedly lost, and who's to say that that something isn't the element that allows a work to live for the reader?

1 comment:

Anirudh K said...

Which is why I think that the translator should put footnotes where they think it is necessary. It won't even interrupt the flow of reading if the translator puts in endnotes. A first-time reader may ignore but one can come to them when one rereads.