Friday, June 10, 2011

Translation revisited

Last week, our friend BDR, in linking to Stephen Mitchelmore's recent meditation on Peter Handke's fiction, reported an opinion of a professor acquaintance who told him "if you can't read Handke in German don't bother since Handke's main interest is the language." With all due respect, I call bullshit on this. I cannot read Handke, or anyone else, in the German, but I would be much the poorer for not having read the English translations of Slow Homecoming, Across, or Repetition, to name only three from the 1980s. They are remarkable works in their own right. I'd go further and say that few works written originally in English from that same decade compare favorably with them. So to say I shouldn't have bothered? Nonsense.

On a related note, back in March, translator Daniel Hahn had a post at Words Without Borders in which he took issue with how translations are reviewed. He rants thus (emphasis his):
what makes me crazy is when the reviewer praises something that I did and gives the impression that I’m not there. By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too. And if that’s what you’re reviewing, I want credit. (Or, for that matter, criticism.)
This strikes me as, frankly, wrong. All three of those Handke titles I mentioned above were translated into English by Ralph Manheim. Another of my Handke favorites is the memoir about his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, which was also translated by Manheim. Perhaps it's simply Manheim I like! I think not.

I began reading Hahn's post expecting it to contain utterly banal points with which I would trivially agree. After all, it is all too believable that reviewers both tend to ignore the work of translators and have little understanding of what it is the translator does. But Hahn takes it further, appearing to claim that the translator is entirely responsible for "the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice". In fact, the translator is responsible for conveying as best as possible the original author's rhythm, texture, beauty, warmth, and wit. The translator makes the best possible decisions within constraints presented by the original work.

Along with those Manheim-translated works mentioned above, I've also read Handke books rendered into English by other translators, such as Scott Abbott and Michael Roloff, and have never gotten the impression I was reading a stylistically different writer. I have just begun reading Charlotte Mandell's translation, from the French, of Mathias Énard's recent novel, Zone. The last novel I read was, coincidentally, Mandell's translation of Jonathan Littell's remarkable novel, The Kindly Ones. Oddly, they have very little in common at the level of the sentence! And neither of them bear any obvious resemblance whatsoever to Mandell's translations of Maurice Blanchot, which themselves are instead stylistically similar to other Blanchot translations, for example, those by Ann Smock or Lydia Davis (meanwhile, Davis' own fiction is nothing like her translations of Blanchot). This point aside, which I am sure I have belabored, Hahn here, in so easily separating plotting and characterization from the language used, demonstrates as little appreciation of fiction as the standard mainstream reviewer.

Daniel Green, highlighting Hahn's post, agrees with him too readily, though he makes this excellent point, which is the point I'd originally thought Hahn was going to make, as I began reading him: "Too many reviewers make too many facile judgments of translations in which the translation itself drops out. . ." Unfortunately, Dan uses this as an opportunity to once again all but throw his hands up when it comes to translations. He writes:
This is the tragedy of translation: Many of us will read some great books only in their translated versions, and thus we won't finally really know fully what makes them great. It's also possible we might read some rather mediocre books that have actually been made better by their translations. Given the cachet translated fiction seems to have acquired among some readers (its very lack of widespread availability, its lack of attention from the major newspaper book reviews perhaps allowing the devotee of translated fiction to feel one of the enlightened few), I think it likely some translated books of this latter kind are getting more attention than they deserve--under the prevailing circumstances, any new translated work deserves notice. Making authors and their work available through translation is an entirely worthy service, but understanding their limits are also important. We shouldn't make claims about the underlying work--on which the translation is a variation and therefore a new work--we can't possibly validate without in fact reading it.
There are some good points mixed with the bad here. I think he's right that there is some excessive valorizing of translated works for their own sake, and it's of course trivially true that translations have their limitations, and that we should be cognizant of them. However, where Daniel Hahn wants to isolate plot and structure from the "rhythm, texture, beauty, warmth, and wit" of the language, Daniel Green insists, as he often does, that because we necessarily read some great books in translation, "we won't finally really know fully what makes them great" because of that distance. The problem with this is that it assumes that "knowing fully" what makes great books great is the ultimate object of reading.

There once was a time when a literate person knew and could read multiple languages as a matter of course. There are no doubt countless reasons why this is no longer the case, at least in the Anglo-American world. And, of course, literacy itself is more widespread. Anyway, regardless of the reasons, many of us rely entirely on translations if we are to read anything originally written in a language other than our own. There is undeniably a distance between the original work and its possibly multiple translations. Some of us, myself included, have looked on this situation with anxiety. How do I know which translation to choose? What am I missing? How will I ever know or understand the work in question? As such, we owe good translators a great debt of gratitude, and we should always remember what it is that they do for literature. And certainly praising any quality of the prose without mentioning its status as translation is opening a reviewer up to easy and deserved criticism. But the history of literature is rife with misreadings and poor interpretations and context-free assessments, not to mention misleading translations; indeed, the history of literature arguably is these misreadings. We do the best we can with what we have. That so many of us require translations in order to read most of the great works of world literature is no reason not to read them, nor is it a reason to refuse to critically engage with such works at whatever level we see fit.

As readers, we can never "know fully" any work, translated or not. We are always at some remove from the work. Treating art as a set of objects to be assessed and judged is finally little different than treating it as a set of commodities to be bought and sold.

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Blogger BDR said...

Thanks for the Kind. I was hoping it would nudge somebody; glad it was you. I will be delighted to forward this to the professor and if I get a response I'll get it to you in one medium or another.

I have no problems reading novels in translation - the best reading experience of the past year for me is Littell's The Kindly Ones, translated from the French. (I confess I get squishy when it comes to poetry, though I also confess that smacks of snobbery.)

June 10, 2011 3:59 PM  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

Let me cut to the chase and take the beagle by its ears. Handke, a very great translator himself - Euripedes, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Patrick Modiani, Bove, Walker Percy, from the Slovenian {Lipius,etc.] etc - once stated "A good writer takes his translator by the elbows." As a translator myself, I must say that that is the case, not only that: when Handke is playful he inspires m own playfulness, permits it. Mannheim does fine work but at the opening of A SLOW HOMECOMING where he fails as the MEDIUM for its rhythms. Moreover, having lived in Europe since the late 40s, Mannheim entirely lost touch with the common day tongue. I will cut the chase short, but iI run a translation site devoted to Handke and transation which has some fine pieces by Fabjian Haffner and Elisabeth Schwagerle on the subject of Handke as translator.

June 11, 2011 10:00 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

I saw that at BDR's and had a quick "huh?" reaction. Nicely done here, Richard.

The Daniel Green quote also confuses me because he seems to be saying that works in translation are getting too much attention in part because they don't get enough attention, which maybe if I knew more about the lit-world would make more sense?

Your last paragraph is fantastic.

June 11, 2011 10:09 AM  
Blogger Anirudh Karnick said...

Richard, you may like Eliot Weinberger's very intelligent and practical essay on translation:

June 11, 2011 10:19 AM  
Blogger Scott Abbott said...

Your sense of what a translator is up to matches my own. As I worked out an English-language version of Peter Handke's A Journey to the Rivers, my aim was always to find semi-equivalent rhythms and textures, to bring Handke's fine prose into my native language, to expand English a bit, perhaps, with Handke's sentences (this last idea from Walter Benjamin's fine essay on The Task of the Translator). When the editor from Viking told me I shouldn't begin so many sentences with the word "And" I pointed out that Handke shouldn't do that in German either.

June 11, 2011 10:38 AM  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

American editors of translations - who have not a second language, the bane of my existence at Farrar, Straus. The insistence invariably was that all sense of its foreignness be extirpated, ya know, the way our tongue happens to be wagging in New York that day!

June 11, 2011 1:25 PM  
OpenID noggs said...

To the extent my use of the words" "know fully" suggests something like "understand," it's an unfortunate usage. Of course we'll never fully understand any work of literature. Ulitmately, understanding it isn't the point. I don't advocate "treating art as a set of objects to be assessed and judged." I advocate treating it as something to be experienced. I can't come as close to fully experiencing a literary work in a language I don't have as I can one in a language I do have. This is why I consider translation, for me, "tragic."

June 12, 2011 5:42 PM  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

indeed, handke especially creates experiences - once you have a drift how a composer goes about his business you can also criticize him, within his terms, if terms he has. longer works such as YEAR IN THE NOMAN'S BAY & DEL GREDOS have matters that can be criticized, and DEL GREDOS has the odd dead skin at moment, when Handke was just a pro - he writes the pro's 1000 words a day to stay well, but ...

June 13, 2011 11:57 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

the interjection of the translator into literature creates something new, something markedly different from the work in its original language

there's nothing wrong with that, but we should acknowledge it, and I suspect many contemporary authors have acted with this knowledge when dealing with those assigned to translate their writings

June 28, 2011 12:46 PM  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

the most accessible example of a translation through several thousand years is the bible of course, which proves that if inspired by belief, if touched by a text translators, sometimes groups of them, can do marvelous work that enrich a language. most accessible to me, the king james bible and luther's translation which changed the language forever, i have had the fortune, and a very taxing one it was in its two instances, of translating two texts that pretty much hollowed me out: 65 poems in nelly sachs' OH THE CHIMNEYS & Handke's WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES. The original has all of Handke, and the translation left me a husk; and Handke actually understood what had transpired. but then its publication became an albatross!

June 28, 2011 2:39 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

for the sake of clarity, I should point out that the Richard above is not me (blog proprietor), but Richard Estes of American Leftist

June 28, 2011 2:56 PM  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

that's all right, occasionally we forgive a lefty being a bit gauche! if i haven't mentioned it, the site
has some fine pieces on translating handke, not just by yours truly, but also by handke who, after all, or the after the very many, has translated from the ancient greek, french, american, shakespeare [a winter's tale], slovenian..

June 28, 2011 3:09 PM  

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