The Daily

On Translation

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 »


The Sins of a Translator

October 4, 2010 | by

I wrote the first draft of Madame Bovary without studying the previous translations, although I gathered them and took the occasional peek. Up to the front door would come Andy, our cheerful rural mail carrier, with yet two more packages—this time, Alan Russell’s Madame Bovary (a British Penguin Classic from 1950) and the volume of Flaubert’s letters that covered the period in which he was writing Madame Bovary. Reading the letters was a bright wide-open window on Flaubert the man—far better than any biography. I read them to know him better and to hear him grumble, usually, about the novel and the experience of writing it. Most of his letters were to his lover, the poet Louise Colet, and it was really too bad for all of us when they broke up two-thirds of the way through the writing of the book.

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. (As in translating Proust Swann’s Way and most of the previous books I had done, I also did not read ahead more than a paragraph or at most a page, so that the material would be a surprise to me, and fresh.) Then, in the second draft, as I revised what I had written, I looked again and again at the previous translations—sometimes at all of them, in the case of a particularly sticky problem, but usually at five or six that were proving useful in different ways. Over time, I began inevitably to imagine the translators.

The Joan Charles translation (an abridged Garden City Book Club edition from 1949) follows the original very closely—she wouldn’t dream of adding or omitting material with the self-confident and rather presumptuous writerly flair of, for instance, Francis Steegmuller (American, 1957) or Gerald Hopkins (English, 1948), authors of the two “classic” and popular translations of Madame Bovary—one for each side of the Atlantic. Nor does she rearrange the sentences much.

For a while I liked Joan Charles—I saw her as prim, correct, neat, sober, honest, frank, clear-eyed. I thought of her as a sort of ally in what I was trying to do. I thought she was unjustly ignored and passed over by the later translators, who didn’t mention her. Then I became somewhat disillusioned, as she made the occasional mistake and tended to lapse into a rather wooden style. Eventually I came to see her as tight, humorless, thin as a rail. She must have lived through World War II in England, was perhaps in London during the Blitz, endured food rationing, etc. She was perhaps not very attractive, perhaps horsey? Bad teeth? Always in a cardigan sweater, putting shillings in the gas meter? Then again, this may be unfair—she may have been lovely. Read More »


Trust and Betrayal

September 27, 2010 | by

I first read Madame Bovary in my teens or early twenties. Although even in high school I was aware of translators and translations, it never, ever occurred to me that the reason I did not like the novel might have been not only its unsympathetic characters (whom Flaubert himself did not like), or the weak and relatively thoughtless heroine (I craved a strong, thoughtful model), but most of all the inadequate translation. There is great trust in translations on the part of many people who don’t know any better and even many who do. Now that I’m aware of how many previous translations of Madame Bovary there are, and how inadequate most of them are, I suspect I read a bad one.

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Prof. X, head of the French Department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.

Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, produced the first translation of Madame Bovary in 1888. The Paul de Man revision of the Marx Aveling translation (Norton, 2005, 1965) retains some of her old-fashioned or inappropriate vocabulary, such as “heretofore” and “conjure” for “beg” or “plead.” It integrates explanations or identifications into the text (“the Chaumière” becomes “the Chaumière dance hall”)—undoubtedly helpful to the reader, but a betrayal of the original—and the writing style is poor, the revision making a rather poor style even poorer. For a while it seemed to me the very worst translation out of the eleven. It isn’t. Maybe it’s the second worst. But then, such a thing is hard to judge, because in certain specific passages, it is the worst. Although Marx Aveling was not a brilliant writer, she was a better writer in English than de Man, so where he corrects a mistake of hers, the correction is often not as well written as the original mistake. (This occurred, also, in the Kilmartin and the Enright revisions of Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, where the original impeccable grammar of the earliest version is replaced by an “improvement” that introduces a grammatical mistake.)

The book exists for a couple of wrong reasons, and people buy it for another wrong reason. Wrong reason #1: Norton chose to use the Aveling translation because it was in the public domain and wouldn’t cost anything (I’m assuming, or I was told—can’t remember which). Wrong reason #2 (I’m guessing here): They asked Paul de Man to revise and edit it not because he was conscientious and an excellent writer in English but because he had prestige, a reputation, and scholarly intelligence. He then apparently asked his wife to do much of the work (this is rumor, but from a good source—I’d be happy to have it proved either right or wrong) and did not acknowledge her. Wrong reason #3: People buy the book not because it is an excellent translation of this important novel, but because it has a useful apparatus of essays, etc.—handy for a teacher, for instance. So readers have a collection of useful material to read about the novel, but are reading one of the most important novels in the history of the novel, and one of the most famous novels, in a poor translation.

Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary debuted last week. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.

See Also: “Group Think

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000