"Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship"

Even if Peter Bush hadn’t have sent along the copy of his essay that’s in this collection, I think I would’ve been interested in checking out Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship, which just came out from Monash University Press in Australia.

The essays in this volume address one of the central issues in literary translation, namely the relationship between the creative freedom enjoyed by the translator and the multiplicity of constraints to which translation is necessarily subject. The links between an author’s translation work and his or her own writing are likewise explored.

Through a series of compelling case studies, this volume illustrates the parallel and overlapping discourses within the cognate areas of literary studies, creative writing and translation studies, which together propose a view of translation as (a form of) creative writing, and creative writing itself as being shaped by translation processes. The translations of selected contemporary French, Spanish and German texts offer readers some insights into how the translator’s work mirrors and complements that of the creative writer.

The U of R library has a copy of this on order, so I’ll probably write this up again after I have a chance to look it over, but for now, I wanted to share a part of the included Peter Bush essay that details his experience translating Juan Goytisolo’s Juan the Landless for Dalkey Archive Press.

First off, it’s worth putting Peter’s past editorial experiences with Dalkey into context:

Often one of the unknowns for a translator is the publisher’s eventual strategy for the editing of the translation. I have written about issues that arose in Dalkey’s edit of Quarantine in the Times Literary Supplement (Bush 1996). The editor claimed I was making Goytisolo more difficult than he was in the original and that by using words such as ‘knacker’s yard’ and ‘gentles’, being UK English or even, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, archaic UK English, my translation would not be understood by ‘the man in the street’. I pointed out that this mythical man was unlikely, unfortunately, to be buying Dalkey and reading Juan Goytisolo, and so my Shakespearian English finally passed muster – but not before offering another instance of a superficially plausible editorial criterion that in the end was simply superficial.

A few months before embarking on Juan the Landless, Dalkey Archive had also asked me to act as an arbitrator in a dispute they were having with a translator. I duly read a chapter or so of the original text, the original translation and the Dalkey edit. My report indicated weaknesses in the original translation – I felt it required a few more drafts, a little more time for reflection and rewriting, but that it was on the right track – and concluded that the edit was taking the translation into a more conventional mode. In other words, the translator was attempting to be equally adventurous as the original writer, and the edit was curbing the spirit of adventure in favour of conventionality, albeit of a highbrow variety. In the end, the translator’s final translation was severely edited and published on the basis of the ultimatum: Accept the edit, or your translation will never be published. Clearly, contractually publishers have the last word.

The incident reveals how fraught the editing of literary translations can sometimes be and illustrates what the translator must be prepared to handle.

There’s a lot that could be unpacked here about power struggles, translator rights, etc., but rather than get into all of that (which could come off as Dalkey bashing, which is not my intent), I want to hone in on one specific bit: the idea of the audience for a translation.

A lot of editors—usually at larger trade houses, but also at places like Dalkey—hold to the belief that a translation should be rendered in such a way that it will “appeal to the common man.” I’m not sure who a “common reader” really is, and want to echo Peter’s quip that the “average man on the street” is much more likely to be wacking it to Fifty Shades of Grey than reading a poetically experimental novel from a modern Spanish author, but, well, in theory this idea sounds appealing. The common line goes something like this: There are already enough obstacles to getting an American to read a work in translation (funny names with bunches of consonants, strange locations, unknown customs, not the “real” book, etc.), so why add any more difficulties in the prose itself? Make the translation as target reader-centric as possible, and eliminate anything too daunting or weird.

This is the sort of thinking that translators (and literary people in general) get pissed about—the idea that editors are “dumbing down” translations in hopes of reaching a wider, American audience. (See Larry Venuti’s Mémoires of Translation essay for an example of this.)

But I think this idea can be even more insidious . . . At some level, this isn’t just about eliminating terms that American readers aren’t familiar with, but working from the assumption that readers are stupid and have to have everything explained to them. For example, there’s a lot of offensive stuff in the edits of Mima Simic’s story but the thing that bothers me is the sort of flattening out of the prose to make sure that everyone understands. For example, this:

She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.

She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.

Edits like that alter the fundamental style of the text itself instead treating a work of fiction as if its main function is to “convey information,” like some sort of technical manual on life.

Peter has a few examples of edits to his Juan the Landless translation that follow this same line. For instance:

libradas de sus mazmorras y grillos, las palabras al fin, las traidoras, esquivas palabras, vibren, dancen, copulen, se encueren y cobren cuerpo (Juan Goytisolo original)

released from their chains and dungeons, words, treacherous elusive words, at last quiver dance copulate strip off and flesh out (Peter Bush)

released from their chains, their dungeons, those words, those treacherous elusive words, quiver at last and dance and copulate, removing their rags and clothing themselves in flesh (edited version)

What’s interesting to me, is how these sorts of “Explain Everything!” edits are out-of-sync with John O’Brien’s stated goal of what makes a “good” translation.

One of the things that Peter writes about a lot in his essay is this conversation between Jeremy Davies and John O’Brien about editing translations.

I have a lot of issues with this article (started from the very doubtful claim that it’s an “unedited conversation”), as does Peter Bush and a number of other translators I’ve talked with. I don’t want to quote it at length, or get into too many specifics, but here’s one lengthy section that relates to the examples above:

1) Translators see themselves as the protectors and advocates of a text. This is certainly noble and not entirely untrue. The problem here is that, as concerns contemporary literary fiction, a translator must also be the protector and advocate of an author—a collaborator after the fact, in other words. They must be the advocate of their author—whom we may presume is read and enjoyed and comprehended (however abstrusely) in his or her original tongue—and therefore the advocate of that author’s writing process, the advocate of his or her talent, the advocate of their particular procedure of turning intent into language. Not, then, a defender of what, in the world of translation, must be seen as the calcified remnants of this procedure: the original text. The bottom line is this: if the author reads as being brilliant in the original, then he or she must at the very least read as being pretty damn good in English. What kind of a favor are we doing the book or the author if we provide them with anything less?

Of course, most translators find their own syntax, idiom, and style to be perfectly readable representations of a text—but this is because they have access to something their readers do not: an understanding of the original; and, better, all the unspoken/unwritten assumptions that aid native speakers in reading any kind of fiction. But translators must be capable of developing that “third ear” which gives one at least a (partial, subjective) understanding of how a poor, monophone, but intelligent and fiction-savvy reader is going to see their prose: stripped now of its form and context both. The difference, finally, between translators and authors is that the latter (no matter what they say) do actually worry about being read, and about how they’re read, and if what they transmit (however difficult) can be received or appreciated. Thus, translators need to see themselves as more, not less, a part of the “art” of the novel (say) that they’ve taken on. Authors don’t fight over every sentence because they see their work as being in flux, and can’t really ignore the possibility that they might be doing their work a disservice. Translators need this same flexibility, this same ability to “care” about their texts (rather than just “protect” them): care not about fidelity, or not only fidelity, but about how they will be read.

The editor is, ideally, a stand-in for that “poor, monophone” fiction-reader. Not (or certainly not at Dalkey) a philistine with a machete who wants to dumb knotty prose down. If we can’t make head or tail of a sentence without going back to the French or Spanish or Dutch, something isn’t right—even if, and this is usually the case, the English version is “accurate.”

This is something that could be (and has been) (and will be) debated for hours and ages, and again hinges on how a publisher/editor views readers. In this case, Jeremy Davies describes the target audience as “‘poor, monophone’ fiction-readers.” (I’m not sure I get the “poor” part, or even what type of “poor” he’s referring to—too poor to buy books? too culturally poor to understand them?)

But check this paragraph from Peter’s essay:

John O’Brien continues the dialogue with two ideas that are frequently rehearsed in exchanges on literary translation and seem to me to belong to an immediately appealing, again superficially plausible, but at the same time critically flawed set of prescriptions. The first is that the translator’s goal must be to recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’. Does one track the latter down, questionnaire at the ready? Señora¬ señor what was it like for you reading Juan Goytisolo’s trilogy during the decline of the Generalísimo’s dictatorship? Were these readers in Madrid, Bilbao, Sevilla or Barcelona? Or were they indeed exiled like Goytisolo himself in Paris, or else in Mexico City or Lima or Havana? Or what if they were fascists? And thirty years later, what will they remember of what undeniably must have been a riotously disturbing and severely demanding, and even possibly clandestine, read? Of course, we could ask Spanish readers today but they couldn’t be categorised as ‘original’ readers. We might at most ascertain memories of general impressions, responses to certain passages, perhaps. But hey, perhaps I qualify as an original reader: I read the books when they were first published in Spanish! My reactions belong to the immediate reader as translator as well as the historically formed imagination of someone who has lived in and out of Spain during the dictatorship, transition to democracy and now in Barcelona for the past eight years.

So on the one hand, the goal of the translator is to “recreate the experience of the ‘original readers’” (a very suspect term), but only to recreate that experience in a way that “poor, monophone” readers can understand it. The assumptions about readers—both original and otherwise—that are made here are astoundingly bizarre, and, in my mind, quite problematic. And what concerns me even more is the way in which these beliefs tend to downplay the art of the text being translated in favor of better communicating something to a set of readers that isn’t really even being respected . . .

Anyway, if the other articles in this collection are even half as thought-provoking as Peter’s, this book will be completely amazing.

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