Translator, Trader?

Photo by Lost in ScotlandThere is a fantastic new review of an essay on translating literature over at The Complete Review. Not only am I constantly impressed by the number of foreign-language books reviewed (either in translation or untranslated) over there, but the insight with which he addresses not only the merits of the work but the translation as well. This review deals with a new translation of That Mad Ache by Françoise Sagan, translated by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

What is especially interesting is that the book has two covers—a front and back. The front is for the text, the back, when turned upside down, is the cover of the long essay on translation by Hofstadter included with the text. I haven’t read it, but having read the review I think it’s safe to say that I will likely disagree with his discussion of translation in major parts. I would not translate Bonjour tristesse as Howdy, Blues, and don’t feel the need to elucidate texts as a translator—that is the job of the critic, teacher, or student. In any case, having not read it I was still struck by the magnitude of giving the translator not only so much page space in the book, but his own cover. And, according to The Complete Review, listing him on the front not as a translator but co-author.

Which immediately made me think of Russel Valentino’s excellent post at Words Without Borders. He discusses the debate over the National Translation Award’s new eligibility requirements that the translator of a literary work be listed on the cover. This, he seems to say, and I agree, needlessly punishes translators who have little to no control over what a publisher may decide. Not only that, it is, he says, a misguided attempt at educating a reading public about the necessity and pervasiveness of translation. I agree with his conclusion that this kind of education should be happening in universities and schools—where it is most effective and appropriate.

The issue from the publisher’s side is that translation is scary to the reading public, and being aware that a book is translated will make readers choose not to read the book. As Valentino says, this is merely hearsay, with no real data to back up this claim. You can also posit readers like me, who have several ‘favorite’ translators and regularly search for books translated by them not only because of their skill in the art of translation, but because of their excellent tastes in literature. If Margaret Sayers Peden translates a book, chances are I’m going to like it, because I share her taste in literature. In any case, there is no current way to determine what effect the prominent display of a translator’s name on the cover of a book has on its sales.

Which makes it more interesting then that Hofstadter is credited as being a co-author. His approach to translation, on the freer side of the spectrum, certainly allows for the possibility of crediting in this manner. The idea, frankly, turns me off. It would be one thing if he worked with the original author on the translation, which doesn’t appear to be the case here. But even then, I would be skeptical of a claim of co-authorship. There is an analogy here in music, perhaps. A contemporary conductor re-interpreting a Mozart symphony does not then claim to have co-composed it. Conducting itself is an art of interpretation, of translating written notes to sound, and is respected as such. Great conductors are acknowledged as masters of an art form that is separate from the act of composing (though of course one does not preclude the other, just as being a translator does not preclude one from also writing). Even in arranging music for new combinations of instruments one does not claim authorship of the original music. It is an adaption, separate from but indebted to the genius of the original author.

Looser translation tactics should also be seen in this light. And so while it is imperative that translation become more acceptable to engage academically, as Valentino suggests, and that translators are given credit and respect for the practice of their art, there are limits to how much ownership one can claim of the original text.

I’m delighted that the translator’s afterward in this book is so substantial—I think this is something that publishers, should they choose to, could add to the reading and understanding of a text. But I’m wary of the heavy-handed claims being made. A sure way to lose respect for the art of translating is to infringe into the art of authoring without warrant.

Tags: Foreign-Language Books, Literary Translation, Literature, Publishing, Writing

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