The Daily

On Translation

Responding to Lydia Davis: Exercises in Style

October 8, 2010 | by

For the last three weeks, Lydia Davis has shared her thoughts and experiences in translating Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She writes, “I did not study the other translations during my first draft because I had to establish my own style and my own understanding of what I was reading before I could risk the rhythms and eccentricities of the others striking my ear and possibly creeping into my prose.” We asked others to weigh in on the matter from their own work in the field. Here is what they had to say.

Edith Grossman, translator:

I admire Lydia Davis’s writing, and it is always extremely interesting to learn how another translator works, especially one as eloquent as Davis. I don’t often have the opportunity to read about another translator’s methods and attitudes toward the work, and I was intrigued by her essay.

The one point on which I disagree with her absolutely concerns reading other people’s translations. Although most of my translations, like hers, have been of texts not previously brought over into English, in the past few years I’ve had occasion to translate classic Spanish works, each of which has had countless versions in English. But it always seemed crucially important to me not to consult them or study them—to what end, I asked myself, when the point of a new translation is to be a new translation, with a fresh voice and a different point of view.

On the other hand, I agree with her absolutely regarding the importance of the translator’s ability to write the second language. Hearing the first text, and finding appropriate phrasing that recreates its tonalities and intention in the second, is the fundamental translating skill. Nothing else compares.

I’m curious about her not reading the entire text before beginning the translation. Even though she states her reasons, I still don’t quite understand why she doesn't. We are the translators, after all, not ordinary readers, and we have a different kind of obligation to the text.

I assume there are seven translating sins to match the seven mortal ones. I’ve never thought about this in terms of sins, deadly or otherwise, but I imagine the first—right up there with pride—is having a tin ear in English.

Wyatt Mason, translator and critic:

Every translation is an interpretation. As with all acts of literary criticism of which translation is only the most thoroughgoing, there are richer and poorer specimens. Not unreasonably, when a translation doesn't seem to cohere, when its parts do not quite cleave together, we look at its string of choices and worry its beads one by one. This is not heavy work. Any state trooper with a bilingual dictionary can ticket any translation for the betrayal of its original. A more complicated undertaking is to divine why, when a translation does cohere, it does cohere. The same trooper with the same bilingual dictionary will, as often as not, discover that the coherent translation is no less a word by word betrayal of its original than its incoherent demon twin. To succeed, then, a translation depends as much upon deliberate choices as upon indiscriminate magic. A steady accretion of dutiful particulars cannot alone compound into something finer than the merely finely wrought: Fine writing is not made by magic, only industry. The magic of the achieved work of literary art, whether borrowed or made, is always nested deeper than its visible pieces. The magic of the achieved translation, like its maker, and no less inexplicably, is that it is a thing that possesses a living soul, or does not.

Ethan Nosowsky, editor:

To Lydia Davis’s list of requirements for a good translation I would add a fourth: the translator’s ability to read. Davis’s own process, described later in her useful essay, makes room for this: “I had to establish my own style and my own understanding of what I was reading.” This seems to me essential. Whenever I'm looking to hire a translator, especially for a book that has some stylistic or narrative complexity, I hope to find someone whose critical faculties are acute. A translator needs to be attuned to the architecture of a book, to both metaphoric and musical patterning, to the elaboration of images. It seems to me impossible to properly convey subject or style or theme without an intimate understanding of the technical aspects of the way a given book is put together.

Natasha Wimmer, translator:

As it happens, the first translation I read that struck me as obviously bad was a translation of Madame Bovary. I have no idea who the translator was. The edition was old-fashioned, illustrated, something I picked up in a second-hand store. It seems unlikely, but by then I think I was already a translator myself. Despite this, I was only just beginning to be aware of translated books as translations. In high school and college I read any number of novels in translation, especially from the French and Russian. I have no doubt that some of the translations were mediocre, but like Lydia, it never occurred to me that my experience of the novel might have something to do with the translator’s rendition of it. Now I wonder: did I dislike Anna Karenina because I read it in a bad translation? Did I love The Brothers Karamazov because the translation was great? Actually, I doubt it. A translation has to be be egregiously bad to grate on an eager reader with little knowledge of the original language, or at least that’s been my experience.

But once I became really aware of translation, my experience changed. Now, sadly, I find it painful (sometimes only slightly painful and sometimes miserably so) to read anything in translation—especially translation from the Spanish. I hesitate to admit this, for obvious reasons. And it’s somewhat unfair, because I’ve had a modified version of the same problem reading English-language fiction lately. So it may just be that I’m not as easily swept away as I used to be, which is sad too, but not pertinent here.

As a translator, then, I suppose I put my faith in the eager reader mentioned above, as opposed to the jaded professional reader. I aspire to win over the latter, but it may be that the success of translation requires a certain blind faith and trust in narrative that some readers can no longer muster. As Lydia says (and here I one hundred per cent concur): “Translating is arduous, frustrating, time-consuming. Even a bad one can’t be dashed off.” Once you become aware of that behind-the-scenes labor, the reading experience, too, threatens to become arduous and frustrating.

In translating for the eager reader, I’ve developed my own list of Translation Sins, though I never quite formulated it that way. Most deadly of these (even my Number 1?) is Being Too Cautious (or, to put it another way, Too Faithful). As a naturally cautious person, it was initially difficult for me to let go, but I’ve loosened up over the years. It’s been helpful to me to think of novels as texts that—once they leave the writer’s hands—become the mutable property of their readers, and by the same logic, their translators. I never fetishized the book as object (my paperbacks are inevitably wrecked), and I’ve come to believe that a bit of lovingly careless treatment won’t hurt the text in translation either, and might even benefit it.

See Also: “The Sins of a Translator

Edith Grossman is an award-winning translator and the author, most recently, of Why Translation Matters. Wyatt Mason is a contributor to Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. Ethan Nosowsky is the editor-at-large for Graywolf Press. Click here to request their spring catalogue. Natasha Wimmer has translated novels by Roberto Bolaño and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others.



  1. Corinna Hasofferett | October 10, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Things might get even more complicated, if we remember that the relationship is not monogamous – just between the translator and the reader. Haven’t you left out the mistress (writer) herself?
    So please allow me to bang from the inside on the doors of the cupboard: I am the culpable one: Born in Romania, where I lived in and ouut of the Romanian-European language and myths, brought to Israel, where I’m writing in what seems to the regular ear as Hebrew and voila! the triangle has quadraped!

    Still, with due respect, I cannot but ask: do not add to this misery the voice of the translator. Be my voice, in the same sense as when a Zen priest empties himself in order to become the vesel.

    How dare I ask that much?

    Well, in the beginning I did some translations myself. Very soon I realized that the creative energy translation demands is as great as that of writing itself. So I took out the pages of my own prose from in-between the pages of the translation – annd ran away.

    Luckily, you are more courageous. Thanks.

  2. Lydia Davis | October 11, 2010 at 10:18 am

    This discussion is fascinating to me (another feature of the work of the translator being its long-enduring isolation–unless one is fortunate enough to work with a partner, I suppose).
    To Corinna and your plea for the translator to leave her voice out of it–yes, absolutely. One strives to become invisible, not to impose one’s style on the work. You have in fact named another one of the “sins”–remaking the work in one’s own image.
    To Edie Grossman, thanks for your thoughtful comment and a response to a couple of your points. Like you, I don’t meet and talk to very many translators face to face, but when I do, I often ask them whether they read the whole of the book before beginning to translate, and many, like me, actually prefer not to–among the ones I remember were William Weaver and Gregory Rabassa, and were you another, Natasha? Their reasons were the same: one’s heightened interest in the text and the freshness of each page seems to infuse the work of translation with greater energy. And after all, we will read the book many more times in the course of the project and for all the later drafts will have the whole of it, in all its particulars, in our minds.
    Another point, about not reading previous translations. I can’t imagine not doing that. As I said in my article, I write my own first draft of the translation (and in my case the first draft is a fairly advanced version) before looking at them, so I have a solid text of my own, a result of my own independent decisions, before I look at others. Then I look to see what others have chosen to do. Mind will not change much in response to theirs, and I’m not sure, in the end, how much difference it makes to look at them, since our styles and approaches are so far apart–though I may see some nice writing in another version, it is writing of a different kind. I suppose for me looking at the other versions is part of a general “no stone unturned” approach. And it certainly is fascinating.
    I like your traffic cop simile, Wayne!–with bilingual dictionary in hand, no less. Yes, if the final result certainly depends on many “dutiful particulars” (“dutiful” in the highest sense, however–conscientiously thought out) and endless painstaking industry, how the magic, or soul, arrives is more mysterious–perhaps it comes at least partly from the translator’s identification with the writer, the way in which he or she comes to inhabit the writer’s mind?
    More soon, in answer to the latest responses, and thanks for everyone’s interest,

  3. Lydia Davis | October 11, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Sorry, Wyatt (not Wayne). You may ticket me!

  4. kingfelix | October 22, 2010 at 1:20 am

    One thing translators never get bored of, talking about themselves.

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