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The Editing of Translations

Today on the Calque blog, there’s a fascinating exchange between translators Daniela Hurezanu and Michael Emmerich regarding the editing of Matsuura Rieko’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, which Emmerich translated and is forthcoming from Seven Stories.

In the last issue of Calque—one of, if not the, finest journals of literary translation being published—there appeared an interview with Michael Emmerich followed by two versions of the opening paragraphs of The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, an unedited version, and the one that’s actually going to be published.

The huge differences between the two versions—and Emmerich’s explanation of why certain changes were made—really set off Daniela Hurezanu, who wrote a substantial letter to Calque, asking them to publish it. They did so online along with Emmerich’s response.

Both letters are way too long to accurately summarize, but needless to say, the issues that come up are at the crux of literary translation, the editing of literary translations, and the nature of fitting a book to a particular country’s aesthetic and commercial desires—all of which are really fascinating and well presented in the two letters.

From Hurezanu:

In comparing the unedited translation with the edited version, one can see that the changes have been made according to a certain pattern, which obviously reflects the esthetic view of the editor(s). The first two long sentences have been chopped into much shorter sentences, and what is conveyed indirectly in the first version is expressed telegraphically in the second one, as if the narrator was answering a police questionnaire and was summoned to give the most unambiguous, direct answers possible. But the narrator is not answering a police questionnaire. She is telling a story about a woman whom she doesn’t recall very well. The first version has two paragraphs about the narrator’s difficulty in remembering who this woman who showed up at her door was, and the style parallels her mental hesitations. The sentences in these paragraphs have the oral feeling of an inner monologue, and contain words expressing hesitation that have been deleted in the edited version. All the nuances, the words that don’t convey specific information have been deleted, and only the bare bones of the text—its “message” has been kept. Why? Do the editors believe that we read fiction in order to get some “information,” and the shorter and more clearly it’s conveyed, the better? Do we really read in order to find out that the narrator didn’t remember Mazo Kazumi? So what? I can’t speak for all readers, but when I read a book it is to be transported not only into another physical universe—which, in the case of Japan, some might equate with a desire for exoticism (and I understand Emmerich’s frustration regarding such expectations)—but to be transported into another universe of thinking. It is not a book’s “message”—whether the narrator remembers or not Mazo Kazumi—that represents another view of the world, but the way a writer’s thinking is articulated through the flow of the words, that is, his/her structure of thinking. When a paragraph begins, as some do in Emmerich’s unedited version, with a subordinate clause or a sentence that draws us slowly into the story’s atmosphere, the text has an entirely different rhythm than when these sentences are either deleted or replaced by short sentences starting with “I.” There is a huge difference between a structure of thinking that places the I and its “actions” at the center of the world and a structure of thinking in which the I is less important than the background on which it is placed. If one alters a text’s syntax, it is this very structure that is altered.

And a bit from Emmerich:

When I proposed printing the two texts together, I assumed that this might make some readers uncomfortable—indeed, that was the point. I decided to present the most drastically edited section of the entire book, the opening paragraphs, because I have the sense that few readers are conscious of what goes on behind the scenes before a translated novel, or any novel, is published in the United States, and I hoped that putting these two texts on display might give Calque’s readers some insight into this process. At the same time, I expected that translators who believe, as I do, that it is important to consider the political, ethical, and economic choices we make when we engage, not only in the nearly impossible task of translation, but also in the all-too-frequently flat-out-one-hundred-percent impossible task of finding publishers willing to assume the daunting financial risks involved in paying for and publishing our work, might also be made uncomfortable by some of the points I made. My aim was not, after all, to repeat comfortable truths: it is true that editors often do things to translations that many of us find deeply objectionable, not infrequently without allowing translators the option of undoing their edits; it is true that English prose in the United States has been deeply influenced by the “shorter is better” aesthetic, and this has had an effect on the editing of translations, even in cases where strong arguments might be made in favor of preserving the prolixity and complexity of the original text; it is true that this imposition of a local aesthetic on translated foreign writing seems contrary to the purposes of translation as they are understood by many translators active in the United States today. While fully aware of these truths, I wanted instead to consider in discomfiting detail the fact that practical, real-world benefits can accrue from compromises that we might, in an ideal world, prefer not to make.

The whole exchange is fascinating and definitely worth reading, and hopefully we’ll be able to discuss this in more depth when Michael Emmerich comes to Rochester for a Translators Roundtable on October 1st. (An event that will be recorded and posted here.)

There’s such an interesting web of concerns related to how a translator relates to the original text, what liberties he/she takes when translated it, and what the American editor then does to the translation to make it “more appealing” to American readers. Personally, I’m very much against the idea of American editors altering the style of a book to make it more like crappy American neo-realism, but there are a number of people I respect who would probably disagree with this. To me, it’s the differences in the style and the structure of international books that is so intriguing . . .



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