Friday, 18 July 2008

In Other Words

Estelle Gilson has written an interesting piece for the Boston Globe on the art of literary translation, focusing on "that easy Italian pun, 'traduttore/traditore,' by which the world knows us. Toss the term into Google and it turns up a website that declares: 'Translator, you're a traitor!'" Interestingly, she points out that War and Peace has been translated into English 12 times over the past 140 years.

Translators in Germany, at least, can get a bit touchy about these re-translations. They argue that nobody re-writes Goethe, so why is it general consensus that translations "age" and become dated? I suspect a secret desire to render oneself immortal with a "definitive" translation of a certain work might be behind this argument. But whatever the reason, I think it's wrong. Because firstly, as Estelle points out, writers, directors and dramatists do of course re-jig Mozart, Shakespeare and Dante all the time. And secondly, as she also says, there can be no perfect translation.

She also touches on the way our expectations of literary translation have changed over the years, using the example of Constance Garnett. Nowadays, no one but the most romantic soul would expect a literary translator to work among the buzzing of bees in a beautiful garden, as D.H. Lawrence leads us to believe Garnett did. Nor would we expect translators to skip parts, clean up the dialogue or smooth texts over. But this was all standard practice until fairly recently - the first German translations of Shakespeare by Schlegel and Tieck being prime examples. Yet these Romantic and Victorian translations remain the only quotable versions we have, as they were "good enough" to establish Shakespeare, Tolstoy and many others outside their own languages.

Now, of course, literary translators are true professionals with years of training and experience, working under the pressure of market conditions but with the advantages that technology offers us. We can research at the touch of a button or simply ask a range of native speakers around the world if we come across something we don't understand. If we are puzzled by an architectural description or a botanical detail, we can call up a photo to help us get to grips with it. We have excellent dictionaries for many languages and if we are re-translating, we also have the benefit of being able to look at how those before us have dealt with the text. So it's three cheers for modern life from me - and I even know one translator who genuinely does work in his garden, albeit on a laptop with wireless LAN.


David said...

Has anyone ever done a study of translations by translators - usually poets - who have no knowledge of the language they are translating? Robert Lowell's translations of Rilke in "Imitations" is an extreme example. But there are many others.

kjd said...

What a good question! I have absolutely no idea. The Literaturwerkstatt Berlin runs a whole programme of this type called Versschmuggel, with poets translating each other using interlinear translations. The results are often much further from the original than one would usually expect.