Friday, 7 February 2014

Bless Thee, Bottom...: Writers on Being Translated

Over the last couple of years I have had the very happy and odd experience of having bits of my academic work translated into French. A piece on languages in Inglourious Basterds was translated by Sophie Goldet and friends on the ATAA blog, and an article on the localisation of written text in dubbed film appeared in both English and a French translation by Marie Causse and Betty Serandour in L'Écran Traduit. I am very flattered to have had this experience, and at the same time I am always taken aback by the feeling of reading 'my' work in a language that I read fairly easily but that isn't native for me. The precision of expression in the translations seems to me very impressive. I get a sense of occasional shifts of emphasis and tone, and the kinds of slight rephrasing inevitable when dealing with two languages which have quite different traditions of academic writing; though in fairness, it's just an impression, because I don't have enough command of nuance in French to gauge exactly how the French texts read. Meanwhile, I (re)learn lots of useful French turns of phrase, which is lovely. And I discover that being translated is a salutary way of finding out whether the original text makes sense or not.

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to look for writers writing about the experience of being translated, hence this post.

(The image is from the 1943 Bugs Bunny short Wackiki Wabbit. It shows a shipwrecked sailor, startled at finding himself unexpectedly subtitled. The whole short can be viewed on Youtube here). 

There are quite a few writers out there who've written about this. Without a doubt my favourite piece is this essay by Lawrence Norfolk. It's a charming, effervescent piece that I urge you to go and read right now. Really - don't even finish reading this post, go and read Mr. Norfolk.

Among the themes that come up are the kinds of questions that translators ask writers. Culturally specific references are a perennial problem. Dennis Borisov, Russian translator of Scarlett Thomas's Going Out, has trouble with kitten heels, Essex girls, display cases, French plaits, water features and going out on the pull. J.M. Coetzee's Korean translator writes to check on thanatophany, off-spin, Esther Williams, the Isles of the Blest, and the charge of the Light Brigade. His Icelandic translator needs help with South African vocabulary including muti, snoek and Kaffraria. The Australian writer Shane Maloney first has to deal with being translated into English by his American publisher:
Could I please provide meanings and possible replacements for the following terms? Franger. Duco. Shoot through. Op shop. Furphy. Laminex. Ruckman. Fibro. A piece of piss. An unreconstructed Whitlamite.
Then, as Maloney tells it, things get technical with his French translator:
Not content with definitions for hoon, Paddle Pop, blue heeler and doona, my traducteur also requested clarification on the issues of bonking her ears off, living the life of Riley and being off with the pixies. By the time we’d finished with Clive James, Melbourne-Sydney rivalry and the witchetty-grub cappuccino, I could have taught a course on antipodean social anthropology at the Sorbonne.
The translator is the closest and best reader any writer will ever have; this has its downside, too, when the translator politely brings home to the writer errors or infelicities in the text. Lawrence Norfolk points out wryly that translators' questions 'are not designed to make authors feel good about themselves':
  So: 'How many legs, if any, does Captain Roy have? On page 170 he is described as the amputee and it says that he has lost one leg; whereas on pages 389 and 478 he appears to have no legs at all.'
Or: 'The coach turned left before the Marché des Innocents as though to cross the river by the Pont ....... are you sure you mean left and not right?'
Authors' preoccupations understandably include the dreaded howler. Coetzee notes that 'in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar)'.

Gender turns out to be a recurring problem. Ruth Brandon, in a short but excellent piece in The Author, describes her communication with Camille Fort-Cantoni, the French translator of her book Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oréal and the Blemished History of Looking Good. One chapter in the book is called 'Consumers or Consumed?' The chapter envisages consumers who are both male and female, but the French translator originally rendered it 'Sommées à consommer' - a solution which is both very neat and quite misleading, since the use of the adjective in the feminine limits the scope of the chapter to women only.

In another case, the Croatian writer Mima Simić was furious to find that a short story of hers in which the narrator's gender is deliberately ambiguous was heteronormalised in translation so that it suggested a male heterosexual narrator. The translation was in fact by Simić herself, but between submission and publication an editor had made changes which the author found unacceptable.
Some writers, like James Bradley, don't seem to have much contact with their translators. P.C. Jersild becomes 'suspicious if a translator has no questions at all'. Others report tremendously enriching dialogues with their translators. Brazilian short story writer Lúcia Bettencourt finds the experience of being translated (by her English translator, Kim Hastings) an enlightening one which foregrounds the limited control which a writer has over their own text and the contribution that a good translator can make:
Let’s suppose [...] that an author tosses her pebble and it lands close to shore. The ripples formed won’t reach very far. Yet a translator nearby might detect a shimmer in the pebble and, seduced by this quality, pick it up. With his or her skill/translation, the pebble/story is tossed back into the lake. Only this time, the pebble skips before sinking, and the ripples therefore multiply, create patterns, and expand further. I’m lucky to have one of the finest translators I know: Kim Hastings. She’s collected my pebbles and cast them with skill, generating ripples to the extent that some of my stories are stimulating the imagination of people farther away than I’d ever have thought. [...] Through her, I have learned that translators have a far more analytical relationship with language (I should say, languages) than everyday speakers have.
On the whole, authors express deep appreciation for their translators. Kerstin Ekman hopes that 'there are places in the text, passages that may ignite a spark in the mind of the translator and make the entire artificial Christmas tree open up once again' [...] I can hardly bear the thought, although I know it is possible, that my stories might be nothing but a yoke of obligation under which the translator bends at the publisher's behest, and nothing more.'

Diego Marani writes, in a lovely short post on the PEN website,
What I can do in order to help the translator is not to check words in a language I do not know and presume meanings I cannot completely grasp, but rather give him the most exhaustive information on the spirit of the text, the ideas that lie behind it, my thoughts and my feelings on the matter. Then there has to be trust.
When the trust breaks down, things may not be so pretty. The translator Marilyn Booth has written an interesting article on her experience of translating a writer who wanted to retain creative control of the translation (see below). And of course the less said about Milan Kundera, the better...

LATE ADDITION: I was just reminded of Brecht's testimony before the House Un-American Committee, when asked to acknowledge a translation of his writing:

Offline and paywalled resources:

Marilyn Booth, "Translator v. Author (2007): Girls of Riyadh go to New York" in Translation Studies 1:2 (2008), pp.297-211. The article can be accessed above on subscription, or here for free (I think) by registering with the Routledge Translation Studies Portal. You may need a university email address. I'd be interested if readers could confirm either way whether that works.
Ruth Brandon, 'On being Translated', in The Author, Summer 2011, pp.66-67
J.M. Coetzee, 'Speaking in tongues', in The Australian, 28 January 2006 (now offline), republished in Meanjin 64:4 and in Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko, Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture (OUP, 2008)
John Derbyshire, 'On being translated into Russian', in New Criterion 27 (February 2009)
Kerstin Ekman, 'On Translation and Being Translated', translated by Linda Schenck, in World Literature Today 77:1 (April-June 2003) pp.34-39
P.C. Jersild, 'On Being Translated', translated by Joan Tate, in Swedish Book Review 1983 (Supplement), pp.39-40
Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. Translated by Linda Asher (New York: Harper Collins, 1995)
Gareth D. Jones, 'Speaking in Tongues' in Focus 56 (Spring 2011), pp.22-23
Susan Sontag, 'On Being Translated' in Where the Stress Falls (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), pp.334-347

More links to writers talking about the experience of being translated are, as always, welcome. 

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