I thought of writing this post yesterday as I began to look over Jacques Testard’s edits for my translation of Rainald Goetz’s Irre (Insane), which Fitzcarraldo will be publishing in the coming months. In one sentence, I used the phrase, “to all lights.” Jacques put in a note: “I don’t know what this means.” Since I wrote it, I did, but I began soon to second-guess myself: was that a proper English idiom? Google yielded equivocal results, so I sent a message to another editor I have worked with, Jeremy Davies, now at FSG. His response was no, it didn’t sound like English to him; he was familiar with “by my lights,” though generally in older texts. I saw right away what had happened: the English idiom had mated with a todas luces in Spanish, producing a monster viable in neither tongue. “Thank god for editors,” I wrote to Jeremy, who responded, “A phrase I have never heard before nor expect to hear again.”
This is unfortunate, as in many instances, a book lives or dies according to the dedication and acumen of its editor. I am writing here of translation, which is thought of as a solitary endeavor but isn’t, or shouldn’t be, rather than of original writing, where the role of the editor is better recognized.
First, as a translator, you stand eye to eye with the text, and there is much you can lose sight of. Second, a person who deals with several languages can develop idiosyncrasies that need to be rooted out – like the spurious idiom above. Living in a different country and in a language other than English has many salutary effects: you don’t feel the same compulsion, or are not subject to the same debasement, by which nonce-words come to infiltrate your speech, and you don’t forget as easily as the person immersed in the language how ugly some usages are. The word morph, hone in in place of home in, the creep of business words into nominally elevated prose – all this slides more easily under the radar of those back home, while one whose relation to his mother tongue is as much a matter of memory as of experience may be less likely to capitulate to these irritants. At the same time, the ineluctable leveling tendencies in American English, the aw-shucks-them-words-is-too-big disposition, has a rival in the Latinate tongues where these same words are common, and keeps alive the virtues of ubication, insufflate, or soliform. Still, the ear too accustomed to foreign prosody sometimes loses a sense of the lines dividing blunt and forthright, sonorous and languid. These are things good editors help with.
In translation, there are times when an editor offers cover for changes that are needed but that a translator might feel unethical effecting on his own. When I translated Marianne Fritz’s Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, dutifully entitling it The Gravity of Circumstances, my editors at Dorothy recommended The Weight of Things. There is no doubt that the second is a better title than the first, and I am glad that at least one Austrian, Michael Orthofer, agrees. Titles, in particular, give fungibility problems between languages: there must be some language in which the word moisture is beautiful, but in English, people find it repulsive, and if anyone should write a volume in another language with that title, one hopes the editor in English will be granted leeway.
I am not sure how many people would agree, but I have the sense, after editing short translations, reviewing translated fiction, and bringing some 10,000 pages of text into English, that when something is wrong in a translation, it generally smells off. One translation I reviewed spoke of a man having “square balls” (huevos cuadrados) when it might better have called him ballsy or a ball-breaker – in any case, cuadrados here means well-situated rather than square; another spoke, perplexingly, of the “moon faces” of two children when the original described their mood (luna); another said “amen to” (amen de) when it ought have said “besides.” Any of these could have been sniffed out by a person unacquainted with the language of the original – they simply don’t look right. Translation is as dependent on contingent factors as any other profession, and at the wrong time of day, erstechen and ersticken may not look so different, or you may space and read the French word for “world” where the text has the German word for “moon.” Timothy Buck is withering in his criticism of John Woods’s celebrated translations of Thomas Mann – one error he points out is “licentious” where Mann has leichtsinnig (careless or thoughtless) – one thinks, probably Woods just hadn’t had his coffee. Such mistakes worm their way all too easily into a text for reasons little related to a translator’s ability or vision, and a clear-eyed editor are invaluable for digging them back out.
Wakefield Press and MIT deserve special mention here for hiring people acquainted with the language of the original to look over a translation before publication. I have been on both sides of this process, and consider it invaluable. In the end, this is a negligible expense on the publisher’s part relative that can save a great deal of time and heartache.
An editor at times helps shoulder the burden of snags in a given text. Again, in Marianne Fritz, there is a series of bird-images related to the protagonist Berta: Pechvogel, Rabemutter, and so on. Going back and forth about what to do here, it was pleasant to muse about translating Pechvogel as “shit magnet,” which fit the character quite well. The proofing of a translation can be dull, and a witty editor can liven up the process. I remember reading a note by Rainer Hanshe in the margins of this passage from Winkler’s Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, proposing we hire actors to perform the following at a launch for the book:
With the help of an altar boy in red and white clothes, Pope John Paul II placed a different colored condom on each of his fingers, one smelling of the woodworms from the statues of the saints, one of the crumbling bones of the beatified, and one of damp roses flowering on a crown of thorns, and raised a holy wafer printed with the watermark of a crucifix, moving it in the sign of the cross while saying, If your hips ache, crush crabs with a pestle and sprinkle the juice over your genitals!
This entry is now long enough to have grown boring to some readers, so I will close with a bit of thanks to the editors I have worked with.