Last month, Scott Esposito was kind enough to sand me a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Sleep of the Righteous in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation. The book is excellent, but what particularly interests me is the translation. Naming the translator has become a rallying cry and shibboleth among many people who talk about literary topics online, and though I, as a person who lives by translation, may see some benefit from this hoopla and therefore should be thankful, I am not always in agreement with the push to move the act of translation to the center of conversations about translated literature. In critics who are sympathetic to translators’ claims, it tends to provoke a cursory response, and the dashed-off “cleverly translated,” “brilliantly translated,” “awkwardly translated” etc. no more indicate real thought about the original’s rendition into English than the use of politically correct terms for minority groups, so-called, is a sign of sensitivity as to their status. Writers aware of this sometimes strive to do more, but lacking sufficient information, the attempt often comes out bad. A reviewer of a comic I translated went to the trouble of naming me, only to imply that I had been remiss in failing to translate an important note a character held in his hand; naturally this was the choice of the editor, who didn’t want to pony up for a hand letterer. Frequently, reviewers hoping to look clever will home in on an instance of “mistranslation” without regard to the chain of associations with a certain word in a given text. In Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Landarzt. Porträt eines einfachen Mann, the word Wirklichkeit is thematic, though its scope in German, particularly in the philosophical tradition Améry is responding to, is broader than whatever English term I eventually settle on in the translation. To pick a single occurrence and say, what Améry really means here is objectivity or substantiality or truthfulness or what have you, would be short-sighted. Also, this exercise frequently fails: some years back, I saw a review censuring a translator from Spanish for having rendered maleducado as “ill-mannered.” Really, the critic claimed, it should be uneducated. Naturally, that is ludicrous.
Michael Hoffman makes the seemingly obvious, but still necessary point that his translations aren’t for people who speak German, and advocates for a measure of wilfulness on the translator’s part. What that measure is must be an open question, but it strikes me he is right, at least in many instances. A translation cannot respect the whole range of syntactic, rhetorical, and semantic niceties that undergird a work’s goodness or greatness in its original language; and to attempt to do so halfway may yield something clunky yet still far from illuminating in this respect. Lydia Davis, in her translation of Swann’s Way, claims to have taken pains to follow Proust’s punctuation and word order, but does would a reader ignorant of French really get a better sense of Proust’s French from her version than from the Moncrieff translation? Is it possible for a person who unfamiliar with a language to get a sense of what it is like?
“Fidelity to the original” is invoked at times to justify the awkwardness of a text, ignoring that rhetoric is not ideal, but instead embedded in historical and cultural circumstances that are not always transferable. Due to interference from Euskera, many Spanish speakers from the Basque country and Navarre place their verbs at the end of clauses. Were this reproducible in a target language, that would not make it advisable. At best, it would require a footnote providing the reader with a bit of pedantic trivia. English has a genius for combining words (cankles, frenemy) that carries over poorly into other languages; the same is true of the German yen for ponderous neologisms. Attempts at “fidelity” to the specific resources of the out-language, which also partake of the unique way its speakers think and live, may exhibit brilliance, but they run the danger of yielding something ugly and unshapely, and there are already too many ugly and unshapely books.
(That said, much that is thought inherent to a language may be the result of ignorance of the language’s heritage, which those working in literature ought to struggle to preserve. It is averred, to take a small example, that German syntax is more complex than English and that German sentences requite breaking up. When I hear this, I think people need to read more De Quincey or Johnson.)
Anyway: The Sleep of the Righteous is one of the most exquisite translations I’ve read in some time, and gives some clues as to when and how discussing the translator’s art, even in the absence of an awareness of the source language, may be possible. Look at these beautiful sentences:
With their shoes slipping on the frozen mud crests, now and then the utterly phlegmatic beasts would stop; the coachman’s long, arcing whip, tip flicked out, sank from the white sky onto the horses’ huge rumps, darting there artfully until the mighty animals, making reluctant fluttery sounds with their nostrils, resumed their trot once more; fine wisps of ash rose from their coats as the man on the wooden seat administered those tiny, well-aimed rapier jabs that sometimes cracked like distant gunshots.
You can judge a think like this by counter-example: how could it have been done worse? From the poetic perspective, this is so magnificent, so subtly weighted, that almost any substitution would make it worse. I do not know whether the original is so alliteratively and metrically rich –– if so, Cole’s feat is doubly impressive –– but I also don’t care. No one to whom such phrases occur should fail to write them down. Throughout the book, the translator’s lexicon is so fresh and surprising (licquescing, dapples, asimmer, runnels, flues), and it makes the book a joy to read.
At night, the gleaming birch leaves caught the moonlight, and when they stirred in a breeze, a flutter or flicker passed down the edge of the causeway, an iridescent glitter like crinkled tinfoil, coming from beyond, from the rubbish heaps that loomed nearby forbiddingly with the blood-red light of fires, hellfires, shooting up between them: the red luminescence and the moon’s silver dazzle were echoed in the ripples of the bay…
This is a blog post, not an essay, so I won’t say more, but congratulations and thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole and to Two Lines Press for this lovely book of stories, some of which will stay with me for a long time.
NB: I reread Torii Moi’s review of the now not-so-new translation of Beauvoir’s Second Sex this morning. The entire thing is a fascinating look at how and why a bad translation (for those who do consider it a bad translation) happens as well as the publishing politics that favor one sort of translation over another and that may affect the reviewing process afterward.