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Nitpicking

Over the break, while I was drinking mimosas and staying as far away from work-related email as possible, NPR did a story on literature in translation, namely, Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote and Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary. Before getting all screedy, here’s a bit of the piece that I liked:

Grossman says she had a lot of fear when she began translating Don Quixote. She spent two weeks on the first sentence alone, because she felt everything else would fall into place if she could only do justice to Cervantes’ opening line.

The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.

“The text brings you in,” she explains. “I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you are looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.”

Not sure that I completely agree with this, mainly because I don’t believe in “definitive” anything, but it is interesting:

After finishing her first draft, Davis takes a look at the work of other translators, and develops a kind of partnership with them as well. “I would begin to feel that we were a group sitting in the room together wrestling with the same problems,” she says.

Davis says reading many variations on a single phrase gives her an even better understanding of how complex the process of translation is.

“I sense how hard we’ve all worked,” she says. “It’s not easy. Even a not-so-good translation is not easy to produce. Somehow, I think we maybe should have been all together . . . doing it together, and somehow achieved the final definitive translation.”

OK, now on to the fun part . . .

Not to get all up in NPR’s grill, because, yes, any article on translation is better than no article on translation, but I have a few issues with this piece:

1) The Title. “When Done Right, Little Gets Lost in Translation” implies, to me, that the majority of translations are somehow flawed, and by extension, only the few, perfect ones, which only “lose a little” of the original are worth reading. I call bullshit on this. First off, I’d love for Lynn Neary to write out some specific examples of what was “lost” in a particular translation. Yes, I know this is a cliche made all the more popular by Bill Murray Scarlett Johansson, and I know she probably didn’t really mean to imply anything by this, but still. (How about nixing “lost in translation” from all article titles for all of 2011? That’s a resolution I can get behind.) As Michael Emmerich has pointed out, any translation is basically pure gain, since you go from not having anything, to being able to read, enjoy, discuss, dislike, argue about, a work that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

2) Neverending coverage of the classics. It’s great that people are talking about Don Quixote and Flaubert, but I’m personally totally over these pieces on retranslations of the classics. Just reinforces my prejudiced belief that the mainstream media only really wants to write about translations that they’ve read in previous versions. Which is sweet. But doesn’t necessarily encourage the growth of a culture that appreciates literary translation of contemporary authors. And because I’m irrational like this, I blame Oprah for choosing P&V’s retranslation of Anna Karenina for kickstarting this bias.



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