The precarious book translations

2020-06-14 @Literature

I’m awfully skeptical of literary translations. More often then not, I detest them. Poetry, be it explicit or rhetorical, motives that transcend words and ideas, cultural innuendos; I generally find them untranslatable.

If I am to read such a work nevertheless, the hypocrite that I am, I rather rationalize it as an adaptation.

If only book covers were specific to the terminology: ‘loose translation’ over ‘translation’, or better yet, ‘adaptation’. Imagine that sort of honesty.

Does that not sound romantic, the idea of translational prudence? I cannot even conceive the transformation that industry would suffer, were I to even suspend the disbelief for an instant. And it reeks of conflict of interest.

Who would define the border cases? What satisfies the requisites of a literary translation, where does the looseness begin, and where cannot we aspire but to an adaptation at best?

What grade of a work would the publisher request of a translator? Would the translator merely hope the output aligns with the request, yet ultimately provide something of an honest label? How about the fiscal concerns stemming from the misalignment between the translation solicited, the adaptation delivered (or anything in-between)?

What a nauseating train of thought.

As for me, I find some languages more natural than others for specific types of translations.

For instance, I consider the Russian language plain awkward for much of the ancient Greek/Latin material, especially the verse. English or the romance languages place me in a more agreeable mood.

On the other hand - and granted, I don’t speak or have read much Italian; yet Spanish, Portuguese or French I don’t find more adequately equipped to transmit even Latin. The divergence stems far beyond the common word roots.

Likewise, I fail to reconcile the notion of romance languages for translating Kafka. I’ve tried, yet the Slavic languages I found way better suited for the major novels. English also delivers, although I’ve read but a couple of short stories in what would seem closest in Germanic roots.

I can’t amend these phenomena with further rationale.

Victor Nabokov produced an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland adaptation for the Russian language, titled Аня в Стране Чудес. Note the name Ania.

The work does not capture the mood of one of my favorite British satirical works. Nor do I consider the mood easily reproducible. Carroll is to be experienced in the original.

However, Nabokov does not aspire to the deed. He opts instead to adapt the mood for 19th-century Russia. Neither was Nabokov subtle in that aim. Beyond the very title, he undertook countless liberties to regionalize the product.

I’ve recently read Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. Whatever infamy the ‘nonsensical’ poem inspired, I love the charming lyrical nonsense. Yet I’m sure the past 150 years have evinced a translational liberty or two, at which prospect I shed tears.

I experienced Garcia Marquez’s immortal One Hundred Years of Solitude twice. The initial Russian translation felt strongly moving.

Then I ventured to read it in the original Spanish two years after. At this point my impression elevated yet another two notches. The Russian variant no longer felt adequate.

Pure prosaic poetry lends to adaptation only.

Reversing cases, let’s take another example of prosaic poetry: Bulgakov’s Мастер и Маргарита. This I found vexing in any but the original Russian. And I explored excerpts in four other candidates.

I cannot reconcile attempts to internationalize these language nuances. The sole translation of the protagonist’s pseudonym ‘Бездомный’ gives me a rash, the same kind as the case of Jorge Amado’s Brazilian antihero ‘Vadinho’.

A few words on Shakespearean so-called translations. The idea sounds almost heretic. I’ve lost appetite at the mere stabs at the comedy title Much Ado About Nothing.

Beyond the subtle texture in the word ‘Ado’, how can one aspire to capture the multiple meanings/puns behind the word ‘Nothing’ as inherent to the period?

Among these handful of translations, each case sounds more hopeless than the last: Много Шума из Ничего, Wiele hałasu o nic, Muito Barulho por Nada, Mucho ruido y pocas nueces [regionalized idiomatic saying, but still blasphemous], Molto rumore per nulla, Beaucoup de bruit pour rien, Viel Lärm um nichts (this slightly less hopeless).

Even the seemingly innocent comedy title As You Like It yields these barbaric soundings: Как Вам Это Понравится, Jak wam się podoba, Do jeito que você gosta.

Moving beyond the confounded comedy titles …

While I haven’t read short of a handful of Julio Cortazar’s short stories (in the original Spanish), I cannot fathom how one would render any but a butchering.

The same applies to Dickens romances. The rhetoric transmits such a degree of artistry and periodic motive, that I’d be dumbfounded to learn of any translation that renders due diligence.

Now let’s take the fictionalized worlds of Dune, Lord of the Rings or the sort. These types of works I find so language and culture invariant that I’d hardly discerned any but the subtlest of differences between both Russian and English readings of the two.

Concerning poetry … there is endless polarity on the matter. But I don’t believe it translatable, be it rhythmic verse or blank. Period.

Whatever the sensation of a final product you might encounter, that is the translator’s poetry. I fail to consider it anything but an adaptation.

Per this writing I’ve nearly completed Boris Pasternak’s Russian translation of Goethe’s Faust. It’s a beautiful effort, never mind the artistic liberties with some of Goethe’s convictions. Yet whatever the case, I inherently feel to have read Pasternak’s work, not Goethe’s, content strongly inspired by the latter.

Now that we’ve asserted my dire conceit, you might ask: do I offer any heuristic for choosing a translation of the untranslatable?

For certain, in the following decreasing order of preference:

  1. Learn enough of the original language to avoid a translation. Resolve the gaps as you proceed. Or at least read the original with the translation side-by-side.
  2. Avoid the work altogether. Read something equally impactful in the original language you know.
  3. Since we’re obstinate to have reached this step, at least opt for a translation best facilitating a secondary goal:
    1. A translation in the target language you most wish to develop.
    2. A quality translation closest to the original publication date. These tend to better approximate the intended mood. Avoid modernisms.
    3. For poetic narratives, if exists a choice between prosaic and verse,
      1. choose prose to better approximate the original idea
      2. choose verse if more poetically inclined, barring certain artistic liberty.

With ancient Latin works, if an English translation it be, I tend to opt for the oldest I can find, usually Elizabethan, or alternatively Victorian at the absolute least. Anything more recent and it feels plagued with modernisms.

The Elizabethan translations tend to often be labeled as Shakespearean. That includes North’s translations of Plutarch’s Lives (if you can find it), Florio for Montaigne’s essays (likewise within obscurity), or Golding for Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

And believe you me, I know: it demands certain sadistic drive to opt for Golding’s 16th-century Iambic Heptameter (fourteen syllables per line) over Dryden’s 18th-century tetrametric (eight syllables). But Latin poetry considered, I’ll take either over Russian.

Questions, comments? Connect.