Balls of Gold

Over at Salon, Kevin Canfield has a nice piece about the challenges of translation and the way translators are underappreciated:

Gavin Bowd, the English translator for Michel Houellebecq, was working on the controversial French novelist’s “The Map and the Territory” — Knopf will publish the first American edition in January — when he came to a chapter about a character who’d decided to commit suicide at a legal euthanasia clinic. As the book’s narrator put it, the clinic’s medical staff was “going to ‘se faire des couilles en or,’” Bowd recalled. “Literally: they were going to turn their balls into gold.”

Herein lies the translator’s dilemma. Bowd’s mission is stay as loyal as possible to the original text. But in this case, a strict translation would be ridiculous. “I translated: they were going to make a killing” in fees, Bowd added via e-mail from Scotland, where he teaches French at the University of St. Andrews. “In the context, I prefer that.”

These are the kind of decisions that translators make on a line-by-line basis. Readers don’t notice these artful adjustments, but their enjoyment of literature in translation is dependent upon them. But even as the American appetite for foreign fiction — Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy” remains a bestseller, Haruki Murakami’s just-published “1Q84” is a huge hit, and the months ahead will bring big new English editions from international stars like Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Peter Nadas — the translators of these works typically labor in anonymity. Some even crave it.

For long-time readers of this or similar blogs, a lot of this—especially the litany of gripes—will sound familiar, but it’s still fun to read:

It’s true in America, but it’s even truer in Britain, that there is a kind of cloud of disapproval over translators and translations,” said David Bellos, a translator of novels by Ismail Kadare and Georges Perec and the author of the new book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” (Faber and Faber). “Reviews in the [Times Literary Supplement] of translated books — if they mention the translating at all, it’s to disparage it. Bit by bit over the years, I’ve come to realize that these are very effective devices for holding the foreign at bay. It’s a way of comforting yourself: ‘Oh well, I only read English, and I don’t really have to take these books from elsewhere terribly seriously because they are only translations.’”

Though he chuckles about it — “Bellyaching is part of the community, I’m afraid,” he said — Bellos has a good case when he says that translators deserve better. “A long novel — maybe you get $10,000, in dribs and drabs. A bit on signature, a bit when you deliver the manuscript, a bit when it’s published. How many of those have you got to do in a year to make that a living? More than is really conceivable to do well,” he said. “You would have to translate at 90 miles an hour and not revise. Most literary translators don’t want to do that, even if they could. You can’t really live as a literary or book translator in the English-speaking world as a full-time job and also sleep.” [. . .]

Not too long ago, Imre Goldstein completed a translation of Hungarian novelist Peter Nadas’ 1,100-page “Parallel Stories,” which comes out in the U.S. in November (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Does Goldstein believe translators are appreciated, and properly compensated, for the work they do? “I do not,” he said in an email from Tel Aviv.

BTW, you can check out part of Goldstein’s translation of Parallel Stories by clicking here, and can read a nice chunk of Bellos’s book here.

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