Sunday, 24 February 2013

Translations, foreign languages and the reader's choices



The recognition of the right of freedom to choose and the desire for instant self-gratification are as active in readers’ consciousnesses as they are in other consumers. We all know what we want, and the books we want to read, for we want nothing else, we want to read them now. And we demand them in a language we understand, for books aren’t useful otherwise. Literature has an irritating in-built flaw that no one can iron out by sending it back to the drawing board: most books, numbers will prove, were written in languages readers don’t know. Unlike ice cream or a pair of pants, commodities that don’t require a special skill set to enjoy or use, books demand of the reader that he be familiar with the language it was written, or printed, in; but no matter how much one is proficient in polyglotism, mastering the 6000 languages of the world is an impossible feat. Translators have mitigated our linguistic ignorance over the centuries, and nothing we can do or say can ever fully repay them for their hard and unprofitable work. Buying their translations certainly demonstrates our appreciation, but there’s a radiance about the spiritual satisfaction of reading that one book we longed for that somehow doesn’t feel right to think it can be easily repaid with crude money. Those amongst us who take the pleasure of reading seriously know that the memories retained from reading a beloved book, fond memories that will accompany us for the rest of our lives, can’t be repaid.

Translators for me are as invisible but important as the fundamental forces of universe. These often anonymous men and women who know foreign languages are the lynchpin of our book-reading reality, but we don’t notice them any more than we tend to notice gravity around us, keeping things grounded and giving them weight. Without gravity objects would not coalesce or remain intact, planets wouldn’t stay in their orbits, planets wouldn’t exist at all. Without gravity life would be impossible, but when it works normally we don’t notice it. So it is with translators, who provide a far more valuable service to the universe than making life possible.

Translators are only noticed in two negative contexts: when the translation in our hands strikes us a bad or clumsy; and when we can’t acquire the translation we crave. In the first context we’re passing a judgment on the aesthetic quality of the text based on our preconceived notions of what a literary text sounds and reads like, not on the accuracy of the translation, because if we’re reading a translation in the first place it’s because we lack the skills to judge that. Few are the readers who can fairly ascertain whether the faults of the translation lie in the translator or are intrinsic to the original text. I’ve read translated books that I believed were bad, but I never laid the blame at the translator’s feet because I can’t be certain of his fault. But even assuming the faults of the book stem from the translation, I think it’s preferable to have a mediocre but readable translation than none at all.

The second context occurs when translations don’t exist: finding out that the book I want to read is not available is an upsetting feeling. We readers are consumers, no matter what we think, and we believe everything we want should be within our immediate reach, and scarcity of translations infringes on our capitalist-given rights as consumers. Few seldom stop to think that translations cost money, are poorly remunerated, require a lot of hard work and take a lot of time to achieve excellence, and even then readers will find something to nitpick.

Those who complain about how translations spoil the purity of the original texts have a simple solution. They can always read them in the original. Several online bookstores now make it possible to order books from just about any country in the world. As a reader, and from the moment I first learned to read in a foreign language, I’ve made use of these two options, translations and reading in the original. They don’t work at cross-purposes but complement each other in giving the reader freedom to read more richly. It is unwise to rely too strongly on just one. Knowing foreign languages opens an astonishing breadth of possibilities to readers. All the specialised presses working tirelessly couldn’t hope to translate everything I can order from Amazon.it. Nevertheless, the handful of languages I can read pale in comparison with the variety of a single publisher’s catalogue, like Pushkin Press or Twisted Spoon Press. Those are two qualities I look for, extensiveness and diversity.

Although the Anglo-American world has an infamous and in my opinion unfair reputation regarding translations, my experience of the Portuguese market is not too different, and I’d be greatly limited if I didn’t use both options, sometimes the two at the same time. Portuguese translations have helped me to discover Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Cossery, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Ismael Kadare, Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel García Márquez, Jules Verne, Mario Vargas Llosa, and a host of English writers before I learned English: Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie.

Then there’s a whole range of non-English writers I associate mainly with the English language, because that’s how I read them or read most of their work: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka’s greatest novels are known to me mainly, sometimes only, in English; Thomas Mann I’ve always only read in English. Some writers are more widely available in one language than another; some books I can get in English that I can’t in Portuguese, and vice versa. In Portugal, for instance, I have more translations of Horacio Quiroga, Selma Lagerlöf, Dino Buzzati, Max Aub, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Claudio Magris, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Enrique Vila-Matas; I can acquire all the novels of Albert Cossery. I actually have translations of Marcel Schwob, Giovanni Papini, Léon Bloy and lots of quirky, odd, obscure European writers that fill me with marvel and joy.

But there are frightful lacunas here. Every time I read people complaining that translations only make three percent of all published books in the United States, I think of this: there’s not a single book by Peter Nadas or László Krasznahorkai in Portuguese; there are less than four Carlos Fuentes books available, and none is Terra Nostra; Dario Fo only has one book in Portuguese, whereas in English there are six or seven; I once found a second-hand copy of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy, while in English I can buy up to eleven of his plays, almost his entire theatrical oeuvre, not to mention his letters and non-fiction; although I can read the most important of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels in Portuguese, I’m out of luck if I want to read his plays; Eugene Ionesco is nearly impossible to find in Portuguese; Mikhail Lermontov is not available; I can’t find Eugene Onegin in Portuguese; there’s no Magdalena Tulli yet; Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is currently out of print; there are more books of Leonardo Sciascia, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Alejo Carpentier and Halldór Laxness in English than in Portuguese. Last year I bought the Shocken edition of Franz Kafka’s diaries because they’re out of print in Portugal. Kafka out of print. Meditate on that, reader.

Portuguese collections of foreign poetry, I’m sad to say, are a disgrace. Portuguese poets are published in beautiful, painstakingly-organized hardbound editions, genuine labors of love and appropriately expensive. But everyone else? There’s a complete edition of Federico García Lorca that I know of. But I’ve had no luck finding one of Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, Odysseus Elytis, Eugenio Montale, Joseph Brodsky, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Vasko Popa: they’re all available in English. Most of them are in Portuguese too, just in pitiful selections. Or how about actual translations of Jaroslav Seifert, Adonis, Miroslav Holub and Adam Zagajewski, currently my favorite living poet, who I only know thanks to English translations? Last year we finally released a selection of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. The complete poems were available in English before he had even won the Nobel Prize.

And then there are gaps in both the English and Portuguese markets. Last year I had to read Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s La Saga/Fuga de J.B. in Spanish because I had no other options. In the English-speaking world no one has ever heard of him, and although he was once popular in Portugal, nowadays all his books are out of print. Likewise, spurred by my love for Kaputt, this month I preferred to anticipate NYRB’s release of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin and used my poor Italian skills to finally read La Pelle. In both instances the experience was very rewarding; the ability to read in these languages is one I haven’t yet made full use of yet, but it’s reassuring to know these options exist.

Not everyone will have these options; some will have others or none at all. I for instance am at the mercy of reading whatever Russian, Polish and German literature English and Portuguese publishers deem worthy. I accept that, like I accept most things I can’t control or affect. And frankly I have very little reason to worry. Imagining that I could master all the world’s languages, or that every book I want to read were translated in a language I can read, and in print, I would still have time against me. I’ll never read everything I want to read, and that will have very little to do with shortage of translations. Even Three Percent, with its alarmist speech, has to concede that "that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year." More likely enough translations to keep a reader busy a whole lifetime. I continue to be left with the usual difficult choices readers face: what to buy, what to read, why read it, how to find time. Every book we read is another book we won’t read somewhere in our lifetime. How do we know we’re making the right choices? Translations and knowledge of foreign languages don’t help solve this conundrum at all.

20 comments:

  1. Makes you wonder why you bothered to learn Portuguese in the first place. ;)

    In all seriousness, I really enjoyed your comments on translation. We have forgotten that not long ago we had to learn several languages just to cover the very basic reading that was written in those languages. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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  2. This well wrought manifesto (if it is a manifesto) articulates some of the issues I have on language and translation.

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    1. Rise, it's not a manifesto, just several ideas I have about these matters that I tried to articulate in a coherent and hopefully thought-provoking way.

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  3. I'd disagree with one point though.
    "Few are the readers who can fairly ascertain whether the faults of the translation lie in the translator or are intrinsic to the original text."

    If the problem is with the second language (in my case, English), then it's pretty clear that the translator is at fault. In one recent case, the English was pretty dire - that has nothing to do with the original writer...

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  4. Very interesting how you look you associate certain non English language writers with the English language because you read then that way.

    It is too bad that it is so difficult to find Portuguese translations of works. I have never been to Portugal. I assume that the majority of citizens speak multiple languages. Other then yourself Miguel, do many people read translations of works in languages such as English, Spanish, etc ?

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    1. Brian, I think that's more common in other European countries, actually. Perhaps in France, Italy or Germany, which are more centralised, surrounded by different languages. Portugal is in the furthermost margin of Europe and we only have a border with Spain. Not a lot of exposure to other foreign languages, like the Germans or Swiss have.

      I read in English all the time, and I see from time to time others doing the same, and also some French. But not other languages. It's a pity.

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  5. I like how you identified the real problem as time. If only we could translate ourselves out of it, instead of running out of it. I tend to buy a lot more books than I can read and the backlog is starting to look more and more like the rest of my (reading) life.

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    1. Séamus, I must say I'm happy to declare I haven't bought a new book since December!

      But come April and the Lisbon Book Fair I'm going to add some new thirty books to my ever-growing list, I'm sure.

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  6. I’ll join you in raising a glass to translators. Without their work, I would have been completely unacquainted with some of the most valuable literature I have encountered.

    I agree with you that if one does not know the original work, it is impossible to tell how good the translation is. A translation may read awkwardly, but what if the original also reads awkwardly – and, indeed, was intended to? Should the translator smooth out what the original author had deliberately left knotty? Surely not!

    I remain unconvinced that lyric poetry can be successfully translated, as the qualities of poetry are intimately tied with sounds and the rhythms. At best, a translator of poetry creates new poetry in the target language that are based on originals. This means I’ll never really get to know the poetry of the likes of Heine, or Leopardi, or Akhmatova, etc., but until I have exhausted all the great poetry available in English (and in Bengali, my mother tongue), I guess I don’t have any great grounds for complaint.

    When I particularly value a work in another language, I try to read it in different translations, since no single translation, I think, could hope to capture everything. There are many different approaches to translation, of course; for me, I feel that the translator should attempt to re-create in the target language the effect made by the original. To do this, of course, translators need to use their judgement to determine precisely what this effect was, and as a consequence, there is bound to be difference in emphasis between different translations. I find it fascinating comparing different translations of the same passage.

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    1. argumentativeoldgit:

      "I agree with you that if one does not know the original work, it is impossible to tell how good the translation is. A translation may read awkwardly, but what if the original also reads awkwardly – and, indeed, was intended to? Should the translator smooth out what the original author had deliberately left knotty? Surely not!"

      This, I believe, is what happened to Poe in French; and I can attest than in Portuguese he's also more readable than in English. I also hear that Dostoevsky's prose in Russian is bad, but translations always cover that up. I don't know Russian, so it's a moot point to me.

      I also agree lyric poetry can't be translated, at best an approximation can be made, and the translator has to choose so many things: cadence, alliteration, meter, length, syntax, each choice he makes shuts off many other possibilities.

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  7. Nice post. I would like to make a few additions.

    Personally, I tend to compare the situation in English with the one in French and in particular German, the two other languages I read books in. And in those two languages the selection of what is available in translation seems to be vastly superior to the one in English. For example, the last two years or so I have been focusing on Hungarian literature. You basically get everything in German translation, all books by Nadas, most of the books by Krasznahorkai, no problem at all. The same is true for Esterhazy, Konrad and other renowned but also less well known writers from that country. The situation is not nearly as good in English, although it is getting better, so for example only three of Krasznahorkai's longer books have been translated into English (twice as many are available in German). Most importantly, his books usually came out in Germany only a few years after they were published in Hungary. But it took them for example a quarter of a century until they finally translated his first novel, Satantango, into English... I do not remember the numbers, but it is a hard fact that international literature takes a much larger fraction of the book market in France or Germany than in the US (for example). In the US it is mainly the independent or not-for-profit publishers who are brining out recent literature in translation.

    However, I have to admit that the quality of translations seem to vary quite a lot (in all of these languages). So the obvious question arises. What is better? To have everything translated but with the trade-off that some of the translations are maybe of minor quality. Or as an alternative, only a selection of works but with a higher quality of translation on average? To come back to the Krasznahorkai example, his English translator George Szirtes seems to be incredibly capable, at least judging this on basis of a comparison with the German versions of some of the books. So I tend to also buy the English translations even though I already read everything in German translation. But this might be just luck in case of Krasznahorkai, I dunno.

    English has been the major language worldwide for the last decades. So I think the people at ThreePercent rightfully complain that works in translation take only a very minor fraction of the book market there. The US may be the economic center of the world these days, but in the field of literature it definitely does not play such an important role (yet). Apart from some writers who are considered 'great' (the usual Nobel suspects) world literature is just not as widely discussed and read there by the general public (and academia) as in many of the larger European countries (for example).

    I do not think many people would expect the same from Portugal, for example. Why should they? I would not expect to find as many translations in a tiny country like Hungary as in English. But considering the economic power of the US and the importance of their language and in particular the importance of their academia and science, I have higher expectations, than from a backwater country like Hungary, don't you? I expect something more than a supermarket mentality.

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  8. There is one good example by Tim Wilkinson, which he gave in 2006:
    "If one looks specifically at works translated from Hungarian: not only did more of these appear in German during 1999 alone than in English during the entire 16 years since 1989, but on average, ten times more titles are published annually in Germany than in the UK."

    And that's just one example. It is frightening...

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    1. sorry forgot the link:
      http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2006-01-30-wilkinson-en.html

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    2. Birne, it seems here we have to wrestle with something that I did not discuss, and frankly don't know how to discuss, viz the mentality of people who don't like to read translations. It seems to be deeply rooted in the culture and book habits of Americans and the British the notion that translations aren't worth one's time, and I fear the markets respond to their prejudices.

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  9. Yes, I have the same impression. I remember a panel discussion of some smaller US publishers, where one of the guys said something to the effect that some of the big publishers explicitely prefer not to have the name of the translator printed on the cover of the book (!!!!) because it is supposedly bad for sales. That's terrible.

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    1. Yes, that is a lack of appreciation for the translators. And of course only helps demonstrate these readers are repelled by the idea of translation.

      It's a sad and terrifying truth that any reader can go through life without ever having to read translated books, one's national literature is quite enough to keep one busy. What I don't understand is why anyone would want to do that to himself, that form of cultural and intellectual self-amputation.

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  10. Yes, self-amputation, that's the perfect expression for it. I have some friends, educated and intelligent people, who refuse to read translations (not 100% strictly, but to quite some extend) with the argumentation that they want to read the books first that were written in the languages they understand. Of course, like this, they probably will keep themselves busy for the rest of their lives, but at the same time they will miss quite a signifcant part of the spectrum.

    This brings another picture to my mind. Let's say that there is this guy living in some country, I dunno, lets say Austria, and he never leaves his home country for some reason. He likes to dine at restaurants and is interested in fine food. But he is suspicious of restaurants serving foreign cuisine, because, right, you can never now if you get the 'real thing' or if it is just some altered Austrian version of the foreign food, say, not a real French 'Soupe de Poisson' but only the fake Austrian version of it. So this person only goes to Austrian restaurants serving Austrian dishes based on Austrian ingrediants. It is not that he will not find delicious food like this, but just imagine what he is going to miss. How sad.

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    1. It is a sad image, indeed, although I fear only for us; that person will go about life not knowing what he's missing because he lacks, well, not the intelligence, but the sensibility or the spirit of curiosity to realize he's missing something at all.

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  11. It's good to be reminded not to denigrate the quantity of translations in English. While often enough I find works translated from other languages into French yet cannot find the same works in English, the reverse is also sometimes true. I've despaired at times in recommending to French friends literary works only to discover that they haven't been translated into French.

    In any case - in every case, really, except for the few rare translations that seem to employ gimmickry (and even these usually have ample redeeming qualities) - I feel profoundly indebted to translators. They bring me the world, get me closer to it than I'm going to get otherwise.

    I'm almost more interested in your final question about what we read, whether in translation or not: How do we know we're making the right choices?

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