Reading in Translation

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By Jean Morris

The right words will come to me, because I am now translating from the heart, not from the head.
Maureen Freely

One of my favourite reviewers remarked a while ago that she often shied away from books in translation, fearing that she’d find them a bit clunky, though the one she was reviewing certainly wasn’t. This caught my attention because I’d once have said the same, but would no longer.

Just recently, there I was unable to go to sleep at a reasonable hour or get much of anything else done until I’d finished reading Dancing in the Dark, Volume Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive autobiographical novel series, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Riveted by Knausgaard, I rarely remembered that he writes in Norwegian. Nothing in the translation reminded me that it was a translation; nothing broke the spell or came between reader and text. Don Bartlett made the difficult work of literary translation look easy, rendering himself invisible. Not that everyone agrees that translation should be invisible: doesn’t an absence of anything strange or clunky necessarily mean, some say, that we’ll also have lost some characteristic colour and feel of the original? That debate is likely to continue.

Another fine example among recent reads was Sandra Smith’s translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Fires of Autumn (reviewed here). She has surely played a huge role in the rediscovery of this significant and now very popular writer. Around the same time, though, I read a much-praised novel in translation whose compelling characters and story won me over pretty quickly, but… was it me, or was there something in the language that was subtly jarring and distancing? (not naming this one, since I’m still glad to have read it and don’t want to put anyone off). It’s all very subjective, of course – just like every reader’s reaction to everything! But I think many who read widely in English translation, from Chinese or Korean no less than from French or Norwegian, would agree that the standard these days is very high.

Literary translators do it, on the whole, for love. Not for free: they’re commissioned and paid by the publishers, but – not unlike many of the authors they translate – most also work at something else, or they have a pension, or a partner with a more lucrative career. Nonetheless, their numbers are increasing, as the number of books translated into English increases. It’s still a tiny number compared, for example, with translations published in most other European countries – a few hundred titles every year in the UK and the US combined – but something seems to be afoot. As shown by the many books in translation reviewed in every issue of Shiny New Books. As shown by innovative and successful publishers specialising in translations, such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press (see here). As shown by the finalists for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize – unprecedentedly, eight of the ten authors nominated write in languages other than English and are published in the UK in translation: César Aira (Argentina – Spanish), Hoda Barakat (Lebanon – Arabic and French), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe – French), Mia Couto (Mozambique – Portuguese), Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya – Arabic), László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo – French) and Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa – Afrikaans). Some of us will now be moved to read these outstanding writers – and what a loss that we didn’t read them earlier! In the words of English PEN, which funds and promotes translation as part of its mission to defend freedom of expression and remove barriers to literature:

What better way to share our humanity than by sharing our many stories? In today’s complex and unequal world, it is more important than ever that voices from other languages are heard in English, the global language of power.

Translators have begun, meanwhile, to speak and write eloquently about what they do. Lydia Davis, more famous for her crystalline short stories, retranslated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She described her meticulous, laborious process to the New York Review of Books:

In front of her, propped open on mismatched book stands (wooden, plastic, metal), she’d place five different translations. Then she’d crawl, word by word, through the text, stopping occasionally to consult her pile of worn-out dictionaries or to watch the way a French phrase would ripple across the different translations – how “bouffées d’affadissement”, for instance, would become “waves of nausea” or “stagnant dreariness” or “a kind of rancid staleness”. (Davis’s version has “gusts of revulsion”). On a good day she’d translate three pages.

In a recent essay Maureen Freely told her story of translating several big books by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, whom she’d known since schooldays in Istanbul where her American father taught in an international school (both Pamuk and Freely are now in their sixties). “If you do four pages a day, it will take you just two months”, he said when he first approached her about translating Snow. The author of several novels and a lot of journalism, Freely was new then to literary translation and embarked on a journey of seven years, not two months: an intimate struggle between two writers’ minds (‘our usual fine line between spirited discussion and open warfare’) and with the Turkish language, which unfolds a thought and constructs a sentence in utterly different ways from English, challenging – and deepening – all notions of accurate or ‘faithful’ translation:

If I am to be faithful to anything, it will be to… mood. It will be to the trance it sets up, the “siz, siz, siz”, the magic trick that takes the reader through the page and into the secret realm beyond… I have to listen to the language of the original and look for the English words that might ride their echo. As important as it is for these words to convey the right meaning, what matters more is how they sound and how they look. I need to… play them like instruments until I find the orchestral voice that can tell the story.*

Her translations of several acclaimed works were acclaimed in their turn and along the way Freely also found herself at the heart of a political and media storm, when her author was reviled and prosecuted for speaking out on the massacre and expulsion of Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915. Their intense collaboration ended one day when ‘he called me away from lunch with a neighbour to tell me that he could no longer construct a sentence without worrying how I was going to ruin it’. Pamuk now has other translators, while Freely continues to translate Turkish novels and was elected president of English PEN.

So: skilled, meticulous work and politics and love and difficult collaboration – and something else almost impossible to pin down. But here’s the great writer, critic, artist and translator John Berger having a go in a recent article for The Guardian:

…true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

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* Maureen Freely. Angry in Piraeus. The Cahiers Series. No. 24. Sylph Editions / Center for Writers and Translators, American University of Paris. London, 2014.

Jean Morris is an editor and (so far not literary) translator with late-life aspirations.

You will find many other works in translation peppered throughout Shiny New Books.