The Daily

On Translation


October 21, 2014 | by

On a sentence by Robert Walser.


Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »


Translation and Virginity

September 30, 2014 | by

Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.


Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, ca. 1480–5.

Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.

He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.” Read More »


Meet Me on the Bridge

June 25, 2013 | by


One afternoon I decided to read Groucho Marx in French, because, well, why not? I had temporarily switched Boston for New York on the larkiest of larks, had accidentally been charged $9,000 for a pulled pork sandwich (where my saying “It’s that much because it comes with a little waiter who grows when you pour water on him, right?” fell unbelievably flat), and—with nothing in the immediate particular to do on that May afternoon—felt the moment was right for a book.

Groucho and Me was translated into French in 1981 as Mémoire capitales, and it begins so: “L’ennui avec une autobiographie, c’est que l’on ne peut pas s’ecarter de la verite. Quand on ecrit sur un autre, on peut se permettre des retouches, voire carrement de la broderie anglaise.” (The trouble with an autobiography is that we cannot depart from the truth. When one writes of another, one is permitted alterations, even downright English embroidery.)

Groucho wrote it like this: “The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland.” Read More »


Document: Nabokov’s Notes

February 29, 2012 | by

When Vladimir Nabokov started teaching Russian literature at Wellesley College in 1944, he was frustrated by the lack of an adequate literal translation of Eugene Onegin, which he referred to as “the first and fundamental Russian novel.” He prepared his own extracts for class use and invited Edmund Wilson to work with him on a full translation.

Wilson had nurtured Nabokov’s early career in the States, and Nabokov had reciprocated with many generous hours of patient tutorial—often via letter—on the finer points of Russian literature, history, politics, and scansion. The two had grown to be great friends but never collaborated on a full-length work. The 1964 publication of Nabokov’s solo translation of Onegin effectively ended their friendship and sparked one of the best-known intellectual debates of the last century.

The project began promisingly enough for Nabokov, though Wilson had misgivings from the get-go. When Nabokov first decided to prepare a prose translation of Onegin, “with notes giving associations and other explanations for every line,” Wilson and Nabokov had been exchanging letters about Russian poetics for a decade, often with barely masked stridency on both sides. In 1950 Wilson expressed fatigue: “I am getting rather tired of all these topics and think we ought to start something new.” When he learned that Nabokov has decided to devote his Guggenheim Fellowship—achieved, in part, through Wilson’s recommendation—to the Onegin project, he complained: “I wish you had given them some other project—it seems to me a pity for you to spend a lot of time on Onegin when you ought to be writing your own books.” Nabokov, however, wasn’t worried: in his application he wrote that it would take “a year or so,” and told Wilson the work could be “quite smoothly combined with other pleasures.”

A year later he wrote how much more arduous a project it had turned out to be: “I was … on the verge of a breakdown and not fit for company. For two months in Cambridge I did nothing (from 9 A.M. to 2 A.M.) but work on my commentaries to EO.” Still later, it seemed he had met his whale. He wrote to Katharine White, his friend and New Yorker editor, that the “monster” had “grown far beyond whatever I planned originally.” He told Wilson, “I have at last discovered the right way to translate Onegin. This is the fifth or sixth complete version I have made.” At the end of the summer of 1957 he admitted more confidentially to his sister, “I hope that I can finally, finally finish my monstrous Pushkin … I am tired of this ‘bookish exploit’.” Read More »


Some Kind of Beautiful Signal

October 14, 2010 | by

Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation publishes an anthology series called Two Lines that focuses on literary translation. This year’s anthology is titled Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, and it was edited by the translator Natasha Wimmer and the poet Jeffrey Yang. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with Wimmer’s work on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, though Wimmer has also garnered praise for her translations of the novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. Last week, Wimmer was part of a collective response to Lydia Davis’s musings on translating Madame Bovary. But this week, Wimmer has been blogging on the Center for the Art of Translation’s Web site, where she describes discovering the writing of Bioy Casares and his novel The Invention of Morel:

Not only had I not read it, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of it. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Argentinian literature will tell you, this was a travesty. Once you’ve read Borges, you read his great friend and collaborator, Bioy. The cult classic The Invention of Morel is perhaps the defining work of fantastic literature in Spanish, and as Rodrigo would say, fantastic literature may be the Argentinian literature par excellence.

She also discusses an essay by Roberto Bolaño that appears in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal:

Scott Esposito: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the piece you translated for this volume, Roberto Bolaño’s essay “La traduccion en un yunque,” which you translated as “Translation Is a Testing Ground.” It’s an interesting piece about the limits of translation, which it illustrates by talking about those authors who will and can be translated versus those who can’t or won’t. What was the thought-process that got you from “yunque” to “testing ground”? And did your own extensive experience with translation inform your decision to go for this interpretation of “yunque”? Read More »


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.
Read More »