Jill Timbers is a translator from Finnish to English who recently posted on the ALTA listserve about a very curious situation going on in Finland w/r/t the new J.K. Rowling book. I asked her to expand on this a bit, since it’s a situation that raises all sorts of questions about translation quality, profit versus art, and how all of this plays out in a country where people can read English “good enough.”
Are quality translations at risk?
A new book by J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame is due for release in English on September 27, 2012. You’ve surely seen the hype.
I wrote about its translation into Finnish for Lisa Carter’s blog, Intralingo.
In brief: Otava, the Finnish publisher that won the bidding rights to this new book, wants to capitalize on the moment. Although translators are not permitted to see the Rowling book before it is actually published, Otava wants the Finnish translation ready for the Christmas sales period—and is requiring the translator to turn in the fully polished and completed Finnish translation by October 18. That’s exactly three weeks from receipt of text to completion. The book is supposed to have 480 pages. Do the math: 23 pages of polished final text every day for 21 days in a row—without even allowing for time to read the book.
Jaana Kapari, who translated the Harry Potter series, declined. Another translator has agreed to the terms.
Here are some of the issues this raises. You’ll find more.
What kind of translation can one produce at that pace? Where is there time to search for nuance and recreate word play?
Finnish is not an Indo-European language. Even if such a frenetic pace were conceivable in French or German, say, how can one transfer 480 pages of English into true, uncorrupted Finnish in that period? Finns often lament how English is seeping into their language. People even use a literal version of “in the long run” nowadays, which makes purists cringe. In contrast, readers comment on the brilliant language Kapari employs in her beautiful Finnish translations of Harry Potter. What will happen now?
Will Rowling care?
No one has yet to see Rowling’s newest novel. We can wonder: what is important in her text? Is conveying the storyline enough, or do her language and style deserve painstaking transferral?
As in so many countries, nowadays most Finns can read English. Pretty well. Well enough? Will a fast Finnish translation offer the same experience or perhaps a better experience than a sort-of comprehension of the source text? Both situations could involve missing out on . . . lots.
Then again, if translations do not recapture the original in all its depth and color, will the Finnish readers settle for an adequate grasp by reading only the English, and will best sellers ultimately not be translated into Finnish at all?
UPDATE: Just got a new message from Jill about how the German translator was able to read a copy of the book before starting the translation. There’s speculation about whether the German publisher paid extra for this right, and whether the Finnish publisher decided to forgo that possibility. Interesting.
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.
Below is a guest post from intern/translation grad student Acacia O’Connor, who also used to work at the Association of American Publishers.
Over the weekend the New York Times published a really great editorial about writing as an act of translation by Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel The Hours. (A warm review of Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall was also featured in the NYT Book Review yesterday.)
Cunningham offers an ode to translation and the difficulties it presents: musicality is an issue, fidelity, approximation of force, and so on ad nauseum until we translators are asking ourselves why on earth we would do this do ourselves, putting down our pencils and reaching for a drink instead.
He shares his observation that each attempt by a writer to write a piece of literature is an act of translation. Cunningham basically admits that the writer is attempting to approximate on paper the great work that he or she feels welling up inside of them, something I think few writers are willing to come out and say.
Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. [. . .]
Even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.
It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.
Then Cunningham talks about writing for the reader: writing for normal people who haven’t necessarily gone to Stanford or heard of Dostoyevsky, who will translate “the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension” Ideal readers don’t exist, and it’s silly to think about them snuggling up with Your Epically Great Franzenian Work of Literature. Because all literary acts, including translation, are attempts at understanding and communication. And according to Cunningham “attempt” doesn’t necessarily mean failure or, as he puts it, “a mass exercise in disappointment.” Whew, that’s a relief.
A few people have directed me to this post on Language Log which illustrates some potential dangers of translation:
An appellate court has upheld 20 year prison sentences for Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai, who translated the Qur’an into Dari, one of the two major languages of Afghanistan, and Mushtaq Ahmad, a cleric who endorsed Zalmai’s translation. It appears that no errors have been found in Zalmai’s translation: the objection of Muslim clerics is that the Dari translation does not appear alongside the original Arabic text. The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty. Although the court did not impose the death penalty, Chief Judge Abdul Salam Azizadah agreed that it might be appropriate.
This February, a very interesting seminar on translation is taking place as part of the Salzburg Global Seminars, an organization that “convenes imaginative thinkers from different cultures and institutions, organizes problem-focused initiatives, supports leadership development, and engages opinion-makers through active communication networks, all in partnership with leading institutions from around the world and across different sectors of society.”
Literary translation is a key to cross-cultural communication: it enables literature to cross linguistic borders and facilitates inter-cultural exchange and understanding. How else would we be able to enjoy and learn from literature written in languages other than our own? How else would we gain insights into societies and cultures about which we know little or perhaps nothing at all? Given the undeniable value of literature as a means of understanding societal developments and of capturing and transporting the rich diversity of our cultures, one must ask, then, why so many works go untranslated and why the critical art of translation is so little understood or valued?
This session will bring together literary translators, literary agents, publishers, critics, scholars, cultural authorities, philanthropists, and translation advocates from around the world together to shed new light on the unsung art of translation and on the vital role that translators play in making literature accessible to international audiences. Participants will work together to identify where particular deficits exist, and what actions could be taken to encourage the publication of more and better translations. Plenary sessions will focus on the following questions: Who decides what gets translated and how can these decisions be influenced? What role can the public and philanthropic sectors play in encouraging more translation? What can translators’associations and authors’ networks do to increase awareness around the importance of translation? And finally, what case studies show how translation can be successfully promoted – through prizes, regional projects, or publicly-sponsored programs – and how could they be adapted and applied to a variety of contexts?
The list of participants is really impressive, and includes Peter Bush, Esther Allen, Susan Harris, Michael Krueger, John Siciliano, Bas Pauw, Boyd Tonkin, and many more. I’m going to be attending as well, and will definitely write about the goings on for Three Percent. (And hopefully the Frankfurt Book Fair newsletter as well.)
From Harold Augenbraum’s Reading Ahead post regarding the rise of immigrant fiction in foreign countries:
I wonder, however, if the specific minority group fiction in foreign languages—say, Paris’s banlieue—will appeal to the American sensibility, as did Zadie Smith with White Teeth or Hanif Kureishi with My Beautiful Laundrette (which came to America through the movies). It poses intriguing problems for the translator who must take English-laced French and develop a new code to convey the pervasiveness of American popular sensibility without losing the sense of foreign-language creep in French. The future of translation—both language and experience—becomes increasingly interesting as argot digs deeper into the literary realm.
In reading the new translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Levi Stahl came across a really interesting translation issue. In “The Prisoner,” when Madame Verdurin suggests inviting Comtesse de Mole to a party, the Baron de Charlus insults her:
“Well, well, there’s no accounting for tastes,” M. de Charlus had replied, and if yours, dear lady, is to spend your time with Mrs Todgers, Sarah Gamp and Mrs Harris I have nothing to say, but please let it be on an evening when I am not here.”
Fans of Dickens will recognize these three women as characters from Martin Chuzzlewit—and their names, you can surely imagine, were quite a surprise coming out of the Baron’s mouth.
A note accompanying the line explains:
M. de Charlus’s reference in the original is to Mme Pipelet, Mme Gibout and Mme Joseph Prudhomme, minor creations of hte nineteenth-century writers Eugene Sue and Henri Monnier. They are chosen as examples of women utterly lacking in social distinction: Mme Pipelet, for example, is a concierge. Three comparable characters from Dickens have been substituted.
As Levi points out, this isn’t a huge issue, but it is sort of weird, since in either case—leaving the names as were, or using ones from Dickens—an explanatory note is necessary . . .
So at times I take a bit of pride in my Canadian heritage and think about how cool parts of Canada are, about all the interesting publishers up there, about how nice everyone is, etc. And I make an internal promise to pay more attention to Canadian publications, presses, and the like. But for whatever reason, although I’m living only a small Great Lake away from the largest Canadian city, there’s still a sort of cultural wall between the U.S. and Canada that’s difficult to break through.
A case in point is the new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries which is dedicated to translation. If it wasn’t for Jack Kirchhoff from the Toronto Globe & Mail mailing me a copy, I probably never would’ve come across this.
But this issue—which arrived yesterday with a slew of packages I suspect mail services has been hoarding for weeks—is remarkable and definitely worth spending some time with.
The intro piece by Mike Barnes is cool in part because it’s all about Celine, and tangentially relates to Michael Orthofer’s recent diss of Ralph Manheim’s translations.
The two translation [John Marks’s and Ralph Manheim’s translation of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night] are so different, line by line, word by word, that it is obviously extremely difficult, requiring much ingenuity, judgement and (presumably) compromise, to render Celine’s language into English. More interestingly, though, the distinctive lineaments of Celine’s creation emerge so unmistakably from both translations that, though made of words, they seem impervious to words. The ideas are too cool not to make it across. (Within limits, obviously; they are immune to the fluctuations of skilled translators doing their level best by the work.) This, and not premature senility or recollected mania, was why I’d felt such ennui reading Manheim’s new translation: I was expecting a revelation, but I’d already had it. Manheim’s new version was more smoothly readable while more sharply particular, grittier, earthier, an improveme in most (not all) ways over Marks’s fifty-year-old, and now a little fusty and clunky by comparison, original. But —
He then goes on to make some line by line comparisons, which are fantastic in the way that Celine’s writing is fantastic, especially when taken totally out of context. First the Manheim, who shies away from nothing, followed in brackets by the Marks.
Upstairs the woman’s ass was still bleeding. [The woman on the third floor was still bleeding profusely.]
The day when those motherfucking wagons would be shattered to the axles . . . [The day those swine and their waggons were smashed to splinters . . .]
. . . the unforgettable depth of her fucking, her way of coming like a continent! [. . . her gift for tremendous delights, for enjoyment to her innermost depth.]
Personally, the Manheim is the one I prefer. Possibly because that’s the one I’m familiar with, the Celine I know, but I think it goes beyond that. Manheim is more direct, vulgar, and vivid. His translation leaps and crackles in a jangly, almost out-of-control way that I find captivating . . .
Anyway, this is so getting away from the issue of CNQ . . . Almost nothing is available online, which is really unfortunate, since so many of the pieces are worth reading:
There’s even more to this issue—including a nice book review section covering translated poetry and books that came out a few years back—but this post is already way, way too long.
This issue can be ordered online (I think, once again, it’s the same old publisher-website problem and the site isn’t very sophisticated) or by contacting the publisher at 519-256-7367 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A.S. Byatt reviews Adam Thirwell’s Miss Herbert in the Financial Times:
Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.
Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that – always with some slippage or accidents – styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.
It sounds like a really interesting book. Politics was published by HarperCollins/Fourth Estate in the US, but I doubt that they’ll be picking up this one. I wonder if anyone here will (or already has)?
Following on the post about the translations of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, The Sharp Side has an interesting piece on the English translations of Genet’s work. It all starts from comparing these two translations:
Description of Darling: height, 5 ft 9 in, weight 165 lbs, oval face, blond hair, blue-green eyes, matt complexion, perfect teeth, straight nose.
(from Our Lady of the Flowers, translated by Bernard Frechtman; Faber and Faber paperback, 1990)
Description of Darling. Height 1 metre, 95. Weight: 75 kilos. Face: oval. Hair: blond. Eyes: blue-green. Colouring: matte. Teeth: perfect. Nose: straight. Penis: length when effect 24 centimetres, circumference: 11 centimetres.
(from Edmund White, Genet; Vintage paperback, 2004, p. 239.)
The Reykjavik Lit Festival runs from September 9th through the 15th, and the full schedule of events is available online.
As pointed out in this overview, the “biggest” international name is Coetzee, but personally I’d love to see the events with Bragi Olafsson (Open Letter will be publishing his novel The Pets on our first list), Einar Mar Guðmundsson, and Guðbergur Bergsson.
The festival concludes with a seminar in English translations, which looks incredibly interesting, and includes presentations by Jón Karl Helgason on perspectives on contemporary Icelandic literature and publishing, and Guðbergur Bergsson on the psychology of the translation.
Too bad Hugleikur Dagsson isn’t included this year . . . His Should You Be Laughing at This? is one of the funniest, and most offensive, comic books I’ve ever read.
Richard Woolcott, who ran Australia’s foreign service for four years, is publishing a book called Undiplomatic Activities about translation issues in diplomacy.
Which sounds potentially boring until you read some of the linguistic screw-ups he cites in the book:
Take the Australian diplomat in France who tried to tell his French audience that as he looked back on his career, he saw it was divided in two parts, with dull postings before life in Paris.
“When I look at my backside, I find it is divided into two parts,” Woolcott quotes the diplomat as telling his audience.
Woolcott says the former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke left his Japanese audience bewildered when he used the Australian colloquial phrase “I am not here to play funny buggers” to dismiss a pesky question from Japanese officials.
“For Japanese interpreters, however, this was a real problem. They went into a huddle to consult on the best way to render ‘funny buggers’ into Japanese,” writes Woolcott. The interpreters then told the audience: “I am not here to play laughing homosexuals with you.”
That’s why we need more translation programs in the world. (All via The Guardian.)
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .