Earlier this month, I was talking to one of my colleagues at the university where I teach, and he asked me if I could recommend any good English translations for some of the books we were discussing. “I always feel nervous, picking up translations, in case I don’t get the right one,” he said. “They can be awful.” I told him I’d get back to him. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It does seem that the “right” or the “best” translation has been getting more and more attention in recent years. There was the Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote (recommended by no less than Carlos Fuentes.) All the wonderful Russian translations by the inimitable team of Pevear and Volokhonsky: The Master and Margarita, Anna Karenina, War and Peace. The new Penguin translations of Proust, including Swann’s Way translated by Lydia Davis. Margaret Jull Costa’s awards for her translations of Jose Saramago’s work.
But what does the “best” translation really mean? Last summer, I was attending an interdisciplinary conference in Toronto, and was lucky enough to grab some sushi with a woman doing a professional graduate work in translation. (That’s something I’ve always thought I’d like to do if I wasn’t doing what I actually do.) “The best translation isn’t always the smoothest one,” she said to me, jabbing with her chopsticks. “It isn’t always the one that uses the most colloquial English terms, the one where you’re not even aware you’re reading a translation.”
“It’s not?” I said. I guess I had always praised translations for being easy to read, for submerging me in their smooth English.
“What about faithfulness to the original style?” she demanded. “Tolstoy has a unique style in Russian, not smooth at all. Saramago’s long sentences are crucial to the way you read him. If you translated Dickens into French, would you use 21st-century English vocabulary to do it?”
“No,” I said, somewhat abashed. “He should sound 19th-century. Whatever that means.”
“Nabokov was a big proponent of what he called literal translation. But he didn’t mean literal, or anyone with a good dictionary and a lot of patience could do it. He meant accurate. He meant you had to have boundless cultural, historical, and personal knowledge of the text and the world it came from. The translator can’t be invisible.”
That sounded harder than I thought at first. Hmmm.
This has all come up very recently with the latest translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s epic feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex. For years there was only one translation of this work into English, done by Howard Parshley for Knopf. Parshley wasn’t familiar with philosophical terms in French, and Knopf insisted on cutting about 15% of the finished work. The final version, published in the US 1953, was riddled with errors in language and translation, and was abridged. The resulting misunderstandings affected this country’s understanding of The Second Sex, and therefore the development of feminist theory in America.
A new, unabridged translation of The Second Sex has finally appeared, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier for Cape. Is it better? Well, it’s unabridged. But according to Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi in the London Review of Books:
After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.
Moi points out that the correct (that is, accurate) translation of such terms as “femme” versus “la femme” or “une femme,” or the highly-charged term “feminin” is crucial in such a text, and that the translators consistently get it wrong. “Viril” in French doesn’t mean the same as “virile” in English; it means energetic or enterprising. Since Beauvoir’s entire work was a critique of society’s construction of gender, such mistranslations would be devastating. Interestingly, Moi also criticizes the translators for following Beauvoir’s style too slavishly:
Borde and Malovany-Chevallier decided to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements. … In other words, if French syntax is imported directly into English, sentences that work in French may come across as rambling or incoherent in English. This is precisely what happens here.
In other words, according to Moi, Beauvoir has once again been lost in translation.
I never feel quite comfortable reading works in other languages. How do I know it’s the right translation, or the best translation? How do I know it’s accurate? But, of course, short of learning Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and every other language on earth, translation is the only way I can do it. How to decide? Do you read books in translation? What are some of your favorites? Have you had any bad experiences? Do you have favorite translators?
Given that I am filling in for Teresa’s usual Sunday Salon post, I won’t give an extended Notes from a Reading Life. But I will say that I am beginning to make plans for summer reading. Last summer, I had a Summer of Really Long Classics, which included The Story of the Stone in 5 volumes and War and Peace. This summer, I think I’m tackling Proust.