Precision and Translation

The Complete Review links to an OpenDemocracy article bemoaning the lack of attention towards translated work. Although it’s true that there are classics out there deserving of translation (I’d really like to read Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologie some day), I have to wonder if the small percentage of translated books relative to others in the U.S. is really due to a specifically American dislike of translated work, rather than the sheer amount of American books that are produced. There is a European holism that produces a lot of German-French exchanges, as well as even more double translations from some obscure language (in addition to Albanian and Hungarian, Polish seems to count here for Gombrowicz as well as Lem) to French to English. But even that wouldn’t fully account for what the article describes.

Dilday is dismissive towards the academy, but it is the university that institutionalizes a real bias against translated literature. In the most prestigious universities, you study “English,” or else “comparative literature” in the original languages. There are very few opportunities to read translated literature; they are usually in cultural history classes, or else pet projects of professors that wouldn’t attract enough students otherwise. I don’t know if this attitude is present in most other countries, though I know it is England.

There are problems. There was a British imprint called “Quartet Encounters” that went out of business around the time when I was visiting the Strand in Manhattan often. Faced with a battery of obscure European novels, often in the less popular languages, I picked one or two up each time I was there. The list now doesn’t seem as imposing as it did then, but the eclecticism is admirable: for a subset, consider Martin Hansen, Ismail Kadare, Par Lagerkvist, Boris Vian, D.R. Popescu, Stig Dagerman, and Stanislaw Witkiewicz (I still wish I’d bought Insatiability, unreadable as it is). With matte covers, tasteful abstract cover art, there was a certain weight to the presentation, but the translations were, on the whole, pretty bad, pet projects of Englishmen or maybe student work.

(A good tip-off is whenever translators punt the problem of the familiar vs. polite second-person by using “thee” and “you”, respectively. The most egregious example I can think of is George Szirtes’ translation of Deszo Kosztolanyi’s Anna Edes, where a lothario seduces a woman by saying:

“I love you. Only you. I love thee.” Having addressed her formally so far, he whispered the last pronoun…’”Thee, thee. Say it. Thee. You say it too. Say it to me. Thee…thee…”

To be fair, Szirtes seemed to do an amazing job on The Melancholy of Resistance.)

But to echo Borges, what is lost is often miniscule compared to what is preserved. What you lose, however, is the authority to know exactly what was said, and what’s left is the uncertainty that one turn of phrase may or may not have a hidden resonance, that a language-specific idiom could not possibly communicate the same thing as whatever is in the original. The Quartet Encounters translations made this obvious, which in one sense was helpful. I had to treat them on the level of the abstract ideas, characters, and plots communicated imprecisely, not the specifics of the language. With few exceptions, I was not able to do this at university, and I appreciated the bald awkwardness of many of the translations, which pushed me away from the particulars of the words.

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