3 June 09 | Chad W. Post

Our latest review is Monica Carter’s piece on Francoise Sagan’s That Mad Ache, recently published by Basic Books and translated from the French by Douglas Hofstadter.

Monica — who works at Skylight Books and runs the excellent Salonica — isn’t especially keen on this novel, or, to be more specific, she’s not too keen on the 100-page essay by Hofstadter — “Translator, Trader” — that’s included in the volume (and although I remember loving Godel, Escher, Bach, this is cringe-worthy):

The essay is divided into small sections with wink, wink headings like, “Poetic Lie-Sense” and “Good Gravy-Americanisms Galore” that cheapen the role of the translator and the reader. There is a distinct feeling that Hofstadter woefully underestimates the intelligence of the reader by delivering abstract ideas of translation and semiotics chopped into bite-size ideas veiled by poorly chosen puns and a cutesy font. Yes, even the font selection gets page time in this essay and after stating that Baskerville is “pedestrian,” the reader is forced to look at headings presented in a gaudy font. And why this essay is divided into so many sections becomes a mystery. Finding a segue between topics would lend much more credibility to the author as well as avoiding breaking the aesthetic flow with a cloyingly scripted heading.

There is a distinct goal on Hofstadter’s part throughout the essay to not be boring – in the writing of the essay, in his choices of translation, and yes, even the font. The reader is given several metaphors to better understand what type of translator Hofstadter is and why he makes the choices he does. The metaphor that Hofstadter relies on the most is “Translator as Dog-on-a-Leash”.

“Whenever I am translating something that someone else carefully wrote, I feel like an unleashed dog taking a walk with its master through a forest or a huge park. It’s a marvelously joyous feeling, a subtle blend of freedom and security. I run around on my own, but despite all my seeming freedom, I am in truth always invisibly tethered to my master and the unpredictable pathways that my master chooses to take.”

He also uses the metaphor of temperature, that translator’s styles fall somewhere on a tic of a thermometer between hot and cold. He considers himself a “hot” translator, meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting. The problem this presents of course is that his idea of what is “hot” is subjective and could be construed as not adhering to the authorial vision. For instance, he makes a comparison between his translation of a passage to Robert Westhoff’s translation (Westhoff was Sagan’s lover):

“In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?” Once again, though, some little voice inside me protested, for two reasons. One is that what Lucile actually said in French was much shorter and simpler than this sarcastic retort, and the other is that the rhetorical question “Is the Pope Catholic?” might sound too American. I don’t quite know why that would be, since popes and Catholics are hardly limited to America, but perhaps there’s a down-home American sense of humor lurking inside that remark, and perhaps it’s that hidden flavor that sounds a bit un-French. In any case, none of my friends who read this phrase thought it belonged in Lucile’s mouth, and so I threw it out and settle for just, “Well, what do you think?”, and as I did so, my translation temperature fell from 100° to 75°.”

Click here for the complete review.

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