Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shaky translations?

I've read that one should refrain from criticizing a translator's work unless one has read the work in the original language as well as in translation. That is snobbery and balderdash. At least with fiction, a translator's goal is, or should be, to produce a work readable on its own terms. The result is fair game for comment, as long as the critic acknowledges limits, such as not knowing the original language.

The first chapter of Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's Dog Day, translated into English by Nicholas Caistor, contains lapses that an editor should have caught. "It was a chorus that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck" should have been "The chorus made (the) hairs stand up on the back of my neck." That's basic. "It" constructions and the verb "to be" slow sentences down. If such constructions are acceptable in Spanish, too bad. Each language has its own quirks and peculiarities that may not translate well. A translator should take these into account and try to reproduce the effect of the original even if that means departing from literal, word-for-word translation. And if he or she fails to do so, an editor should step in.

Elsewhere, Caistor has a hospital patient prone, when he almost surely was supine. Was this patient really on his belly rather than on his back? Probably not, since Gimenez-Bartlett gives a description of his face. Did Caistor simply use the wrong word? Does a single word serve for prone and supine in Spanish? Too bad. Caistor is translating for an audience that reads English.

Other sentences tell when they should show. A character's tortoiseshell glasses "contrasted sharply with his juvenile appearance." Juvenile appearance? What does that mean? Or: "'Signor Garzon ... ' I declared theatrically, ' ... allow me to introduce Ignacio Lucena Pastor.'" Theatrically? Did she bow deeply, scraping the floor with an exaggerated flourish? Did she lower her voice to a stage whisper? In a workingman's bar, customers wear "different-colored overalls according to their line of work." Welders in grimy, scorched gray? Mechanics in white long since died black by accumulation of grease? Or is the intent to portray a dehumanizing regimentation of the working classes, sorted into colors by their bosses? We'll never know; all we get is "different-colored overalls."

Here, Caistor's task may be trickier. Does good Spanish writing simply not insist on the specificity of description that good English writing does? Are these simply weak passages on Gimenez-Bartlett's part? If so, what is a translator to do?

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Hamish said...

I don't know about Spain but painters in England and the colonies traditionally wear white overalls, motor mechanics grey ones, and the other trades blue.

November 22, 2006  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I noticed the difference in translation between the two Carofiglio books. I thought the translator of the second did a better job than the translator of the first, though the first was not at all bad or sloppy. Just jarred slightly on occasion.

November 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine, I think you reacted to the second Carofiglio translation the way I did to the first chapter of Dog Day. What sorts of differences did you notice between the two translations? We should get Uriah/Norm to weigh in on this, and then I should read the two books myself.

I wonder if any of the translators in this discussion are included in the excellent series of interviews
at http://www.crimetime.co.uk/make_page.php?id=526.

I suspect that authors and translators will never bring up these issues in public. I would love to hear from a translator brave to acknowledge the problem, though. If a piece of a bad writing escapes an editor's attention in the original version, is a translator obligated to reproduce the offending passage?

One thing I am sure of, even not having been a translator myself: A translator is a writer and is thus subject to the same requirements of good writing as the author he or she is translating.

November 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Hamish, I wish you'd translated Dog Day or at least looked over the translator's shoulder. Your short paragraph is a lot more vivid and informative than Bartlett/Caistor's.

November 22, 2006  
Anonymous Hamish said...

Peter:

Here's J.M. Coetzee, Nobel laureate, on translation:

"Translation seems to me a craft in a way that cabinet-making is a craft. There is no substantial theory of cabinet-making, and no philosophy of cabinet-making except the ideal of being a good cabinet-maker, plus a handful of precepts relating to tools and to types of wood..."

Here's a professional translator on a rush job translating Latvian poetry into English without being able to read Latvian:

"I took the English word-by-word translation provided by the poet, read the French for the feeling and emotion that the poet was trying to convey, and made it into the most poetic English that I could muster."

It seems to me that a translator's first duty is to the language into which he is translating. And bad English translations are usually produced by translators who write badly in English. Their qualification to translate is that they can read and write in the two languages concerned. That they write badly in both of them is not considered a disqualification.

November 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Hamish, I've never read J.M. Coetzee. That wise and sensitive statement makes me want to read him. Have you read Crime Time's discussion with ten translators of crime fiction at http://www.crimetime.co.uk/make_page.php?id=526 ? Some of the translators speak with insight about the philosophy and the practical problems of their craft.

I think your conclusion was substantially the same as the one I gave Maxine in a comment above: "A translator is a writer and is thus subject to the same requirements of good writing as the author he or she is translating."

The real test will come for me as I read more of Dog Day. If the lapses become too distracting, then the translator will have failed the reader and the author. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt; I'm just one chapter into the novel.

November 22, 2006  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

AWITD [Carofiglio no 2] did just seemed to move along better in a more natural way than IW. Both books are very introspective and it could be that I was more familiar with the character of Guido by the time I had got to the second book. It just seemed to flow along in a more natural way.
I have started reading The Master of Knots by Massimo Carlotto, and some of the early sentences there just seem to creak a little bit.
But once again this might just be me getting used to a different style.
I do need to get that feel
of "place" to fully enjoy a book, and I can see how difficult that is for the translator to reproduce.
Fir instance when it comes to "working class speech" I would much rather the character just "speak in the local dialect" rather than translate Italian or French, into Cockney or Brooklyn. I would much rather the translator left it to my imagination rather than act with a heavy hand.

November 24, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Hmm, Maxine had a similar comment about the two Carofiglio novels. She said the translation of Involuntary Witness jarred on occasion.

Maybe the two translators really do have different styles. Regarding your comment about attempts to capture working-class speech, you might be interested in what one of the translators, Mike Mitchell, I think, had to say in this excellent article that I've so often referred to: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/make_page.php?id=526

November 24, 2006  
Anonymous Maxine said...

I should have noted it at the time, Peter -- I recall that some of the colloquialisms seemed out of date or slightly inappropriate in context. Also perhaps some of the sentence constructions.
But, as I mentioned above, nothing too bad -- I have read worse translations of other books, but don't ask me to remember!

November 25, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm glad you didn't note it at the time. This way, I get some extra blog posts out of this discussion -- builds the old traffic up, you know.

Perhaps the translator would offer some excuse for the inappropriate or out-of-date colloquialisms. Maybe he was trying for some effect. But that's no excuse. If he can't produce a readable piece of writing, he hasn't done his job. I like what Hamish wrote in his comment: A translator must know at least two languages. Writing badly in both is not considered a disqualification.

Perhaps you and Uriah/Norm were not the only readers who were less than satisfied with the translation of Involuntary Witness. Bitter Lemon, after all, used a different translator for the second book. By contrast, Mike Mitchell has translated all four of Bitter Lemon's Friedrich Glauser novels, and I hope he'll return for the remaining two.

November 25, 2006  
Anonymous Charles Oberndorf said...

Nick Caistor is a great translator; he's done fine work brining Juan Marse and Juan Carlos Onetti into English. Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett is not a fine writer. I'm sure a third of the problem might be due to the fact that Caistor was translating to deadline, but the bulk of the problem lies with the writer herself. Caistor is her translator, not her editor.

July 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note, Charles, and for that insight into Nick Caistor. I've neither translated nor been translated, but I think about the subject from time to time. I'm an editor, and I get terribly frustrated and angry with bad writing, especially when I'm told to give it a rush job and just edit for obvious mistakes. It must be frustrating for a translator called upon to translate a piece of bad writing.

If you have not seen it already, here's a link to a rare article that lets translators speak: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/make_page.php?id=526

July 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I just found an excerpt from Onetti that I liked very much (I don't know who translated it), so thanks again. Here it is:

"I don't know, exactly, when I decided irremediably to accept human stupidity, Santa María, Lavanda, and the rest of the world that I would always be unacquainted with. To keep myself from contradicting. I don't know when I learned to savor in silence my total enmity toward males and females. But my meeting up with Quinteros-Osuna, with his powerful mindlessness, with his incredible talent for making money, brought about an inner self-abandonment, forced me to accept with enthusiasm that form of imbecility which he recognized in me, with exaggerated, almost envious paeans of praise. So I said yes to everything and added details, improvements."

-- from Let the Wind Speak

July 15, 2007  

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