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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